After reading the article Students get a New Assignment: Pick Books You Like, by Motoko Rich, I started thinking about my teaching practices and previous experience with reading and discussing literature in the classroom and decided to post a few thoughts.
I grew up in Puerto Rico and attended a small K-12 Catholic school where reading was very structured and students had no choice in what they wanted to read for a class; much like many schools in today’s educational system. When I was in elementary school, I knew once I hit a certain grade I would be expected to read the classics: Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós, La dama del alba and La barca sin pescador by Alejandro Casona, María by Jorge Isaacs, La charca by Manuel Zeno Gandía, Doña Bárbara by Rómulo Gallegos, Yuyo by Miguel Meléndez Muñoz, La llamarada by Enrique Laguerre, La carreta by René Marqués and Don Quijote de la mancha by Miguel de Cervantes.
Was I looking forward to it? About as much as a trip through the desert without water. Think of it this way, I worried about it so much, I still remember all of the titles. Don’t ask me what they were about, though, I have no idea! I was scared silly and rebellious about reading the classics. When I began to read them, I felt no differently and, I’m sorry to say, I never finished most of them.
The only ones that caught my attention and did not make me squirm were La dama del alba, La barca sin pescador and Doña Bárbara. The first two were short and interesting, while the last one is the only book my mother has ever raged about, so I really paid attention and ended up agreeing with her. Mind you, she does not like to read and no matter how hard she tried, she would fall asleep! The saddest part about all of this is that I was a voracious reader, but none of my teachers had a clue about the titles I wanted to share with them. Unless it had won an award or was a classic, they would just shake their heads at me and recommend another title. There was no one to discuss my love of books with. It was especially difficult in Puerto Rico, where the books that had characters my age were all in English and most of my classmates were not interested unless it was in Spanish.
While I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I started teaching my teddy bears at the age of 5, I also knew I didn’t want to be a teacher that forced her students to read something just because “it’s classic, so it must be good”, or because “I know what you should be reading”. I loved reading and I wanted my students to realize that there is so much more out there than what they are given in the classroom, which is just as good. I firmly believe that if students begin by choosing and reading something they enjoy, something they can engage with on different levels, eventually they are more open to reading classic/award winning works and discussing them in class.
However, the sad reality is that if teachers want to keep their jobs, they must follow the curriculum by reading a certain novel for a certain grade and forcing all students to read and discuss the same thing. While a few students might really get into it, chances are the majority are being left behind.
I was one of those teachers. I wanted to impress and I wanted to keep my job. But after a few years, my rebelliousness came back and I brainstormed ways to get around this issue of reading the same books. The key word here is “compromise”. A roomful of ESOL (English as a second language) students need to read a Shakespeare play AND learn English? Fine, let’s get the manga version. Add to that a trip to the ballet interpretation of one of his plays and the students learn more than they would had they only read the original. Even though we all had to read the same thing, since they read and saw different and more relevant interpretations, more of them actually enjoyed it!
The only activity I was able to add to include choice was “library Fridays”, where I would take the students to the media center and they would pick any book they wanted from the shelf and read. I also allowed magazines, manga, comic books; basically anything with words. I wasn’t too popular with the librarians who wanted me to provide further instructions, but it gave the kids the opportunity to explore and not feel pushed to read something they couldn’t care less for. It made a big difference in their approach to reading.
Here are some other strategies that have worked for me when I wanted to encourage my students to read:
1. READ: sounds silly? There are too many teachers out there who push reading but don’t actually read YA or children’s literature. Of course the kids catch on to this quickly. If they see the teacher as a hypocrite, they will refuse to do what you tell them. Think about it, you would, too!
2. Make sure your students catch you reading: I would sit out in the hallway in my “free” time for at least 10 minutes to read a YA book every chance I got. There were many students that pointed and whispered and there were many that came up to me to ask what I was reading. “Is that for a class?” “Nope” “Then why are you reading it?” “Because it’s an awesome book, that’s why! You see, it’s about…”
3. Refer students to other readers in the school: My door was always open, so when kids learned I loved to read and that I was reading books they also enjoyed, they would come to me and share. Then, when other kids asked me for recommendations, I could easily say: “Talk to X, s/he read that book, too!”
4. If you can, let students choose their own books: In the end, the less you recommend, the better. If you can get students talking to each other about books, you’ll see how reluctant readers are more willing to pick up a book.
5. Keep an open mind: So what if they’re reading a magazine, comic book or something other than a novel. Everyone has to start somewhere. Plus, many magazine articles suggest other resources, which will eventually lead students to look for more literature on what interests them. As for comic books and manga, many extra or “exclusive” stories are written in book form, so they will eventually have to gravitate towards books if they really want to know what happened to their favorite hero/heroine.
If you have other strategies that have worked for you, please feel free to share.
Also, how do you feel about giving students a choice in reading material for class? Do you believe we should continue reading the same books and discussing them in the classroom, or are you in favor of reading workshops, or something else?
As always, comments and feedback are encouraged and appreciated! 😉
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