From the Top – A Fresh Start

It is a temptation of many teachers to take to social media during the middle of the first week of school to post thoughts about how long and tiring the first week of school is. Now, I’m not claiming I am not tired. My wife has started her night classes for her Fellowship at Fairfield University where she is researching the literacy gap that already exists as students enter Pre-K and Kindergarten, Mia has started Kindergarten at Jane Ryan, James is running around awaiting his return to Day Care and Pre-K, coaching has begun, and I have been up late planning, drafting, and implementing the first week curriculum I have been working hard on… BUT I am not ready to post… “Is it Friday yet?” on this Wednesday night.

The beginning of this year has been like no other beginning in my 12 years of instruction. I am not new to the Book Love model but (if you have followed this blog) it is the first time I have done it from the beginning of the year. So why am I not burned out already hoping for the long weekend? Welp… it is because I have been working all week to create a culture for my students that centers on their own choices with reading. So what has it looked like?

Day One

I did a lot of discussion on theory. Now, I felt it was important to tell them right away that I wasn’t condemning the approaches of my other colleagues who were perusing their own missions in implementing English instruction. I began with a story and a realization and I told them that I believed in what I was doing.

I think this is the key to implementing change, particularly Rigorous Independent Reading. I have spoken to colleagues who want to incorporate RIR in their classes, and I told them from the start they have to own it… they have to be themselves within the model… but I think I want to amend that a bit. To really be successful you must authentically believe in the benefits and approaches contained within the model. I believe RIR makes students more excited readers, it makes them more passionate learners, in connects them more deeply with their own voice, and it begets better writing, because when focusing on the acquisition of skills, a student must be able to have reticent and familiar knowledge to write about. What I mean about this is that my students struggle with analysis because frequently they haven’t done the reading, they haven’t formed their own opinion.

So what was the story I told them?

I told them about December last year, after I returned from NCTE having heard Mamaroneck High School present about RIR and its benefits. How I sat there and thought about statistics. How there were students in my class who were passing, had B’s and in many cases A’s and were not reading. How I as a teacher who wanted to create lovers of literature was merely creating lovers of problem solving. Now I know I had students reading, but I’d estimate it was only about 20-30% overall in my classes. How could I live with this? How could I look at myself and call myself a good teacher? As I stood in front of the class and admitted this to my brand-spanking new students, I saw something… their attention. They were listening to me be vulnerable and real and they were already starting to buy in.

I then explained how they would be held accountable for RIR and what it would look like. This year, students will have a 3 ring binder that never leaves the classroom. It will have four tabs. The first: the Next List (or the To Be Read – TBR), the second, the Books Completed List. the third will be their current reading log, and the fourth will be an archive of past reading logs. I explained reading rates, how the formula for determining your reading rate worked and that it would help them communicate as readers better not just in English, but in all their classes. I explained how it would help them in history to plan out how long it would take to read a chapter, and so on.

As I continued on, I could see curiosity.

Next, I introduced them to the approaches that would be used in my classroom. I asked them to imagine writing a paper about a topic they feel they came up with on their own. That when they wrote their essay they needed to be aware that the individual editing or even grading the paper may not know as much as they do. These are the type of skills that I can still teach. I don’t need to assess every book, I don’t need to quiz and have discussions about every text. I will read fresh and diverse essays. We will be able to compare and contrast writing strategies, not necessarily knowledge of the text.

I explained to them that fundamentally there are three ways to read a book:

  • As a whole class or large group – where we annotate it, rip it apart, devour as much as possible, think, wonder, analyze, discuss, write, edit, and publish. When reading a whole class text the teacher structures formative and summative assessment to evaluate skill and knowledge. This is valuable and still present in my class. When we read like this, knowing we have to share and prove our knowledge, typically we will slow down and work harder as we read to be ready to be put to the test.
  • As a small group – this form of reading comes when friends or students are grouped or they group themselves together. For this type of reading the reader still has something they need to prove during discussion. They must bring things to the table, analyze moments with their group, form opinions that they must voice, etc.
  • As an individual – this is the form of reading that is neglected and not authenticated in many classrooms. I have read many books and never once discussed a moment of them with anyone, short of “Read it, you’ll love it and thank me…” The value of validating this type of reading in your classroom is the buy in that many kids need. It is easy to call them a reader when they know you will validate them for simply finishing a book, without an assignment linked to it. Moreover, my reaction is frequently, “I haven’t read it, will I like it?” or “Sweet… what’s next, how do you move on from here?”

It is important to acknowledge now that all these forms of reading must be present in the classroom. What is different for me is that I am transparent in my explanation of this. As I told them about the course many students nodded along. I told them that choice was the center. You choose what you read and what you write about when asked to write. I told them that there would be moments of structure related to text and topic, but really only 20-30% of the time.

At that moment in Day One, I stopped talking. I asked them to take out a sheet of paper and told them to pair up. Their task was to use their critical thinking skills to make inferences about who I was as a person and a teacher. What they thought I would demand of them and how they felt the class would go.

The responses were exactly what I was looking for.

  • You seem really passionate
  • You want us to be readers
  • You are excited to know us
  • You want us to succeed.

And in all truth and honesty… I do… I want all of these things and I believe in the recipe I have right now.


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