As much as the end of the year is a time of celebration (insert chorus of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out “ here), it is also a time when I do some serious reflection on my practices, failures, and successes over the past ten months.
This was my first full year implementing Independent Reading. In the Spring of 2015, I felt like I was Dorothy looking out the window of my classroom as it spun through a tornado of change. I was trying to figure out how to adjust my daily lessons, get through the core texts of the curriculum, and preserve the fidelity of Independent Reading as Book Love outlines while watching the debris that was once my sanity fly by. Implementing this program challenged a lot of what I thought was “good teaching” and “best practices” (which you can read about in previous blog posts on this site) and I am better for it.
This fall, I was able to start off the year knowing what worked and we hit the ground running. For the 2015-2016 school year, we read in class every day for 10 minutes and sometimes more (especially on Fridays with my Senior Honors World Literature class who pretty much demanded 5-10 more minutes since they believed that reading centered and relaxed them, which it did). I felt much more in control of where each of my classes were headed since I knew where I wanted students to be at the end of the year both with the curriculum and in their own Independent Reading journeys. I had found a way to align them all and there was no longer a threat of tornadoes or flying monkeys.
At the end of each quarter, I had students complete a reading ladder where they reflect on their progress. For the last quarter, I asked them to also reflect upon the whole year and I got a ton of overwhelmingly honest and very interesting responses. First, being able to self-select texts either kindled or reinforced a true love of reading in my students. They wrote about how excited they were to read, their favorite authors, forming a positive attitude towards reading, and were hopeful that their future English teachers also implement this program.
Yes – you heard that right – students are asking to read.
Now, for some nitty-gritty numbers: I also asked them to calculate the number of books and pages they read over the course of the year. This yielded some astonishing data. I knew they were reading more than they had in the past, but I didn’t realize just how much more they were reading. Once I put all of the data on a spreadsheet, I found that, on average:
- my 9th grade honors students read 22 books and 7,000 pages and
- my Advanced College Prep 11th graders read 17 books and 4,800 pages.
I did have a few readers who went above and beyond the call of duty. They read:
- 40 books – 13, 362 pages
- 59 books – 22,762 pages
- 62 books – 18,016 pages
- 80 books – 22,185 pages
Take a minute to let that sink in and then compare those numbers with these requirements: without Independent Reading, the current curriculum asks 9th grade honors students to read 5 books and roughly 1,100 pages, and for the 11th graders to read 6 books and roughly 1,300 pages. What an enormous and embarrassing difference! Students are burning through books and not in a Fahrenheit 451 kind of way. They are are reading because they want to and devouring an incredible number of texts over the course of the year. We cannot let current curriculum hold them back. The data is shouting for Independent Reading in each and every classroom.
On the day of the final exam, I ask students to complete a questionnaire about the class. Their answers inform instruction, especially if they are all telling me that they want more or less of something. In years past, students have usually complained about a tough core text or, like typical teenagers, stated that they want to write less essays. What surprised me this year were the number of references to Independent Reading for questions #2 and #4 that asked students what they wanted more of or wouldn’t mind doing again.
Regardless of level or ability, students appreciate and crave that time to read self-selected texts and to write and engaged in other activities that focused on their independent books. I say we give them what they want – class time to read, good books at their fingertips, and activities that engage them in reflecting about what they read. How else would we get kids to read thousands (or tens of thousands) of pages on top of the required material?
Part of any good reflection asks for next steps. So, where do I go from here after a year and half of Independent Reading? The only logical sequence leads to curricular readjustment. The data shows that this is good for the 125 students in my classes, and the students in the other classes that piloted this program. It’s time to let the all of the students reap the benefits of Independent Reading. That’s a mountain we will start to tackle this summer.