In the Classroom: Reading Together and Alone

Donalyn Miller’s post “Let My People Read,” is about the sad reality of assigned summer reading that so many kids get. I’m with her 100% on the need to leave kids alone to read whatever they want over the summer. In fact, I’m happy to see more media attention given to the research indicating that the best way to keep kids reading over the summer is to give them books. Next week is our last of the year and I’ve got a book handpicked for each of my students to read (or not as they chose) over the summer.  Where Donalyn and I appear to differ is on the idea of  reading a book together as a class during the school year.

Don and I expressed dismay that another slew of great works will be slowly destroyed for our daughter during months-long novel studies next year.

Sigh. Now I understand the hatred many have for this approach to books and literature in school because it is often done badly. Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” makes me wince every time I read it. For I think that exploring a piece of great literature together can be wonderful, that it can be as fabulous a way to enjoy a poem as any other, that it is celebrating the work, not torturing it. Certainly I had my share of boring novel studies throughout my schooling, but I also had some amazing ones. I remember the excitement of reading The Iliad and Odyssey together with my 8th grade English teacher and an incredible college class where we delved into Goethe’s Faust. And so I feel strongly that we teachers should do the occasional novel unit — one where the class becomes a community, helping each other in an exploration of a particular work of literature.  

Turn the class into a book club like the ones we participate in as adults. The kids can then experience the book together, responding to it in real time, exclaiming, becoming choked up, being surprised when someone he/she doesn’t know has the same response to a particular moment, gaining insight from another peer, and so forth. Reading the same book for school is, to my mind, a social experience not one done in solitude. I do this with the books I read aloud, but I also do it with books the kids read. This year we started the year reading Charlotte’s Web together and ended in literature circles with The One and Only Ivan. Loving each book by itself, finding wonderful images and pieces of writing, seeing connections between the two — all of this and more made both experiences exhilarating ones.  

I believe in giving kids ample choice in what they read, but I also believe in the power of shared literary explorations.  To me close reading, whole class book study, and so forth can be a joy not a horror.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “In the Classroom: Reading Together and Alone

  1. I think having one assigned reading would be fine for the summer. I love how my son’s school did it. They assigned a whole list of books with different genres: realistic fiction, sci-fi, non-fiction, thrillers. The kids had to read one or two books from each genre. My son who had a slow beginning as a reader (but thanks to the Ranger’s Apprentice finally took off as a reader) had me going to the library to see what we could find. He ended up getting a certificate and a gift card to BArnes anD Noble for reading the most books in his English class (33), the record for the year was in the 70′s I think. But I was very proud of my son who in the beginning did not want to read anything but Tintin. Which, by the way, is a wonderful series of books that I have read started several writers on their way to more serious reading.

    I liked the idea of letting the kids choose from a list within a genre. It made them branch out from the sci-fi that my son was stuck on and got him to read other things. Now he is stuck in the thriller section, but this too will pass.

    As for sharing books and read alouds, my son enjoyed his reading of Treasure Island with his class, a book he would have never read on his own but very much enjoyed. He also enjoyed reading Sherlock Holmes short stories with his class. He was then assigned to write a mystery of his own which he did a great job of.

    It think you are right, read-alouds and evaluation of books is really dependent on the teacher, but isn’t every subject that way?

  2. Pingback: Summer Reading – required reading vs free choice | referencing: katy

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