Changing My Classroom Culture One Book At A Time…

People say hindsight is 20/20 and while I usually scoff at the sentiment, I couldn’t agree more after this fall semester.

For the first time in 11 years, I devoted reading time in my classroom for myself and my students EVERY CLASS PERIOD.  I wish I had done this in my very first year of teaching, but then I was still figuring out classroom management issues and trying not to take everything my students did and said so personally.  I’m not saying I didn’t have classroom management issues this semester, but I certainly didn’t let them stop me from providing reading time.

See, when I tried “SSR” or “Silent Reading” or “Reading Time” (whatever teacher term you want to give it, feel free) last school year, I allowed some minor student issues to influence my determination.  I only had a handful of students that seemed genuinely interested in participating and the rest were very vocal about NOT wanting to participate.  And I hate to admit this, but I let the nays have it.  They won.  I stopped scheduling reading time and spent our time doing online lessons, class discussions, etc.  And while I believe we still had worthy learning moments throughout the year, looking back a year later I truly feel like my students (of last year) did not win; they lost.  I allowed them to lose the opportunity to build a relationship with reading, and I sincerely regret that mistake.

I can only say I regret my past decision because of the progress I have witnessed recently.  This year’s students were no different from last year’s students.  Actually, I take that back.  They are WORSE.  I had heard from many different 9th grade teachers how bad this group of students were but I shrugged it off to 9th grade growing pains.  And oh man, were they right!!  But that’s a different blog post entirely…so back to reading time this year.  When my students said “NO!  We don’t want to read!  Reading SUCKS!!” this year, I didn’t give in or tell them to be quiet.  Instead, I changed the game.  I said, “Okay, you say reading sucks.  Now tell me WHY”.

The answers, as you may have guessed, were pretty superficial:  “Reading sucks because it’s boring.”  “I hate reading because it takes too long.”  “Reading puts me to sleep.”

So we began to discuss the problems and come up with solutions about how to get around their issues.  The boredom issue is usually solved by allowing students to choose their reading material, and finding something that actually interests them.  I also remind students if they don’t like what they’re reading, it’s perfectly acceptable to find a different book.  The timing issue of was solved by deciding we would start with 8 minutes of devoted reading time, then 10, then 12, then end at 15 minutes.  In reality, I think my kids are reading for about 10 minutes total, but for many of them, that’s 10 more minutes than they usually read.  The sleep issue was solved by allowing students to move around, play music quietly, stand while reading, or anything that might help them stay awake.  I think I’ve only had one or two kids doze off (and I must admit, in my quiet, comfortable room, it’s hard not to do).

After 16 weeks of consistent reading time, I am happy to report that at least 90% of my students are now actively reading when given the time.  Sure there is one, maybe 2, students in each class that grabs a book and stares into space for the duration of reading time, but at least they know better than to distract other students that are choosing to read.  Also, on more than one occasion, I have had to tell students to STOP READING (cringe!!).  Many students have said they would like MORE than 15 minutes to read in class and that they would like to have more discussions about the books they have chosen to read.  I have watched the classroom culture in each period change from “Reading is for nerds/reading is boring” to “What are you reading/I like my book!”.  I’ve been looking at lesson plans for the spring semester and I’ve come up with a few ways to incorporate group games with silent reading.  I just hope the students enjoy them.  We even have our own “What are YOU reading wall” outside for students to post short book reviews and recommendations.  Sometimes when a kid can’t decide what to read, I’ll tell them to check the wall out.

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I know one of the biggest reasons my students have said reading isn’t so bad and is actually getting easier is because I am reading with them.  As a teacher, I have always had the same philosophy I used to have when I was a manager at a theme park restaurant:  I will never ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself if I was in their position.  Now, for restaurants, this meant not telling someone  to clean the disgusting dishes at the end of the night and just watch them do it, although I knew many managers that did this.  They would claim they had “paper work” to do, when our paper work was rare if not non-existent in the restaurants.  My philosophy meant me telling them to wash and I’ll dry or that we would wash together.  I still have vivid memories of washing pots full of mushy beans and rice and watching the sink fill up with rank water.  I always wanted to be viewed as an equal in the work we were doing, and I feel the same way in my classroom.  I want my students to know I am still growing as a reader, that I do not like every book I pick up, and that sometimes I get fidgety when I’m told to sit quietly and focus for 15 minutes.

Bringing in my own books for my classroom library has also tremendously helped the process of reading in class.  And I’m not just talking about the classics like Lord of the Flies or Catcher in the Rye.  I’ve brought in my own “guilty pleasure” series by Lauren Conrad, that’s loosely based on the hit reality TV series “The Hills”.  My girls LOVE her books.  And I’ve brought in World War Z (that’s incredibly different from the movie!!), Haunted Austin, and some other supernatural stories that my more reluctant readers have admitted to enjoying.  Of course I have the Twilight and the Divergent trilogies as well.

I also told my students I would be open to suggestions, and a good percentage of them strongly recommended The Hunger Games series since I had not read them yet.  And I have to admit, they’re good!!  I’m in the middle of book two and can’t wait to bring it to class to let other students borrow it.  I have become a book scavenger at Goodwill and other local thrift shops.  Half Price Books is a solid go to, but Goodwill usually has better prices.

I do not assign outside reading for grading purposes, but strongly encourage it.  My teacher heart skips a beat when a kid stays after class to ask if he/she can borrow one of my books “JUST FOR TONIGHT!” or even over the weekend.  We do have daily reading logs that I’d be happy to share if you’re interested.  It involves a short summary and a lot of choice for a short reader’s response.  The things my students write let me know they’re not just bs-ing when they read; they’re actually taking in the characters, setting, conflict and so on.

Ultimately, my goal this year is to reinvigorate my student’s relationship with reading.  It doesn’t mean they have to love it; I just don’t want them to hate it.

To close, I will share a list of the books I have read this year (starting in March) and that are in my classroom to borrow (with the exception of Gone Girl; I lost that copy to a friend).  I’m going to keep a reading journal for 2015, and I hope to continue reading time in my classroom…

  • Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  • Of Mice and Men  by John Steinbeck
  • “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry
  • Divergent  by Veronica Roth
  • The Fault in Our Stars  by John Greene
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • What is the What  by Dave Eggers
  • Infamous by Lauren Conrad
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Positive  by Paige Rawl
  • Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
  • Dress Your Family in Corduroy & Denim by David Sedaris
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest G. Gaines
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (almost finished!)
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