Growing pains: Switching from whole class texts to choice reading

At the start of this school year, I committed to using choice reading as the core texts for my English 2 world literature course. Rather than use data (e.g. Lexile levels), an arbitrary page number, or a teacher supplied list, I asked students to choose their books. I explained that they would use these books, reading and writing, for approximately four weeks. During this time, they would be expected to read the entire text.

How I did it

To support this switch, I increased my YA lit reading, I researched, and I modeled reading expectations. When students were stuck on what to read or seemed disinterested in reading, I recommended high interests texts, like Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give, Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down, Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Neal Shusterman’s Scythe. In order to enhance and support cultural diversity in my classroom and my reading, I read different articles (e.g. Ben Johnson’s “College Readiness: Writing to Learn”, Brian Sztabnik’s “The Simple Trick to Get Everyone Reading”), and I participated in different Twitter chats (e.g. #DistruptTexts and #THEBOOKCHAT). Finally, I modeled the reading expectations with my classes, choosing a variety of texts and posting my reading goals. For every silent, sustained reading (SSR) time, I’ve had a book to read. I designated 1hr of class time per week, normally 3 20-min chunks, for students to read, and I read along with them. I’ve asked students to respect this time by limiting bathroom breaks, working on other assignments, etc. because I want them to focus on reading.  When I forget my book at home, I pull one from my to-be-read shelf and start reading. I don’t grade during these times. I don’t conference during these times. I don’t allow headphones/music during these times. We.Just.Read.

I use a large variety mentor texts as supplemental sources for direct instruction (e.g. works in translation, excerpts from novels or plays, poetry, TEDTalks, essays, etc.). This meets our world literature requirements and exposes students to more authors and genres.

What I’ve learned so far

Although it may seem idealistic, my hope is that students remember how reading can impact their lives. Too often in education we quantify reading expectations. Reading “gotchya” quizzes, programs like Accelerated Reader, homework reading records, and the like have made reading a chore. Inspiration is no longer about the experience, the journey, or the empathy because we’ve moved to carrots and sticks. I’ve simply asked my students to be more aware of their reading habits. We have a 2-week check up where students consider how often they switch books, giving them up for lack of interest or reading difficulty. I’ve incorporated reflection on reading into our 1-to-1 conference after each benchmark test, too (approximately every 4 weeks). My goal is to help them become more metacognitive about what they’re reading and why, hoping to inspire and challenge them.

Using these 2-week and conference forms along with their reading and writing journals, I’m better able to view my students’ performance on the essential learning standards for our course. I focus their writing around our essential questions, and I use the journals as completion grades. I quickly realized how I could group students for more small group, targeted direct instruction, which students I would invite for 1-to-1 tutoring with me or our academic center, and why choice reading is so important. I’ve even created a FlipGrid topic titled “What Should I Read Next?” where students can create 2-min book talks to promote their authors, genres and texts.

The argument for whole class texts

I’ll admit it is easier to organize my class using whole class texts. Knowing I’ll have Lord of the Flies or The Tragedy of Julius Caesar for 3-4 weeks does make my life easier. I’ve taught both more than 15 times each. I’ve got the quizzes, tests, writing prompts, reading guides, etc. It’s easier to create sub plans or to be out of the classroom. It’s easier to fill gaps in learning content because I know the texts. It’s easier to adjust when fire drills, pep rallies, or inclement weather interrupt the schedule.

BUT… With whole class texts, I was working harder than the kids. They were more passive, looking for the right answer or a Google analysis or translation for the sources. I was frustrated because even with PBL projects, I was getting similar versions of the same project, paper, research. I was losing more students who were not connecting with the whole class texts, no matter what I did.

NOW… I focus only on big ideas. Our semester-long essential question focuses on how a person creates an identity. The unit essential questions ask students to consider what we value and how value changes over time, how perceptions of others shape a person’s identity, and why our actions can be more important than our speech in order to convey to others who we are. Kids are wrestling with how to generate valid arguments, including  developing and supporting their claims. I have less duplicate assignments, and students are recommending books to one another and me.

YES… I still have students who are disengaged and refusing to read. I still have students who choose to avoid assignments. Choice reading is only the beginning of approaching the problem of apathy. It’s one small part of a bigger issue within our society, but it’s very, very important. What are your adventures in choice reading? What guidance could you give to me or my students? I’m interested in hearing your input.



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