Friday, August 24, 2018

The Classroom Reading Project: End of Week Two

Every single student is reading!
I sat at my desk after all the students left on this Friday afternoon and wanted to weep.  I was overwhelmed.  But it's probably not what you think.

I started Donalynn Miller's Forty Book Challenge this year after reading (devouring) her book, The Book Whisperer, this past summer.  Here at the end of Week Two, I am simply astounded.  I did not think that after twenty-three years in the classroom that my students could or would surprise me, but boy was I wrong.

I wrote about Week One here - you should read that before you go any further if you haven't already.

Briefly, I have dedicated at least twenty minutes, and perhaps more, of class time every single day for my students to read books of their choice.  I spent the summer collecting books through donations (thank you!!!!) and through my own thrift store excursions.  We now have almost three hundred unique titles and duplicates of about twenty-five more.

As our new school year started, discussions of books was part of the very first day and by the end of week one (which was only three days), I had ten books checked out already from our classroom library.

The next Monday, the first full week, we started reading.  We started at fifteen minutes every single day no matter what.  I don't want to signal that anything else is more important than reading.

I have one Creative Writing class, one regular English II class, and one Pre-AP English II class.  Last week I reported that perhaps five were not really on board with this reading thing.  In the meantime I picked up one new student who was not with us from day one and that changes the dynamic just a little.  He was not there for the Readers Interest Survey or the initial book frenzy that happened the first week.  He's a little reluctant.  Very polite, but for the past four days has had a book on his desk with the cover closed, sitting quietly until we are through reading.

This won't do.

So Wednesday I conferred with him before class and explained, this is what we do here in this class; we are readers.  We read.  "I promise, we can find a book here that you will enjoy reading."  He looked at me skeptically, nodded his head, and kept the same dystopian novel on his desk, unopened.

Thursday I stopped him as he entered the class and asked him if instead of reading today, would he mind filling out this Reader's Interest Survey and this Student Interest Survey that everyone else filled out on the first day?  He happily agreed.  So at this point, he was not just doing his own thing,  he was doing what I asked of him.

From his survey I learned that he does like sports and he is in fact not a fan of reading.  He has few books in his home.  He has not read a book since middle school.  But, somewhere in that process he became more open to what everyone else in the room was doing and today, Friday, he read a chapter in his book.  Not only that, he wrote about it in his Reader's Notebook which we turn in every Friday.  He's with us!

When I took up Reader's Notebooks last week, the response letters the students wrote to me were perfectly adequate and covered their bases, but nothing stood out much.  As I said last week, the responses were not superficial - I could tell they were reading, but it was obvious that the relationships weren't all in place yet.

This week?

Oh my goodness.

I stayed late (again) to read and respond to every single one.  The responses made me want to weep!

These kids are really reading.  Several have finished books already and are on their second or third books.  Some are relishing the books they have and said they don't want them to end.  Many of them asked for recommendations about what to read next:

"Mrs. Becker, I'm reading this book, and it's good and all, but I really don't know what I want to read next.  Suggestions appreciated.  And welcome!"

The beginning of a trusting relationship.  BOOM!  (I suggested five different titles for her.)

In these early weeks, I am reading with them: in her book, Donalynn Miller makes the point that kids need reading role models and she says she read along with her students for the first few weeks before she then began to move among them having little conferences with each one about what they were reading, making suggestions, and sharing thoughts.  I am currently reading What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World by Cat Warren.  (I love the irony of a book about dogs written by a woman named Cat.)

I'm going to make an analogy here - it might be a stretch, but stay with me on this.  In this Dog book, Cat Warren is discussing training dogs; she has a German Shepherd she has trained to be a cadaver dog.  In discussing this training, she compares the energy level and curiosity of working dogs to the "notion of human expertise":

"We watch playful children start out banging incoherently on the piano.  That's a start but it's the structured, guided practice and play with constant feedback over an extended period of time that can turn random notes on a keyboard first into 'Doe, a deer, a female deer' and ultimately into Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight'.  That is, if a parental figure doesn't ruin the sound of music by haranguing the child to practice.  Along the way, a number of the motor behaviors for playing the piano become automatic, so the child doesn't have to think about them. The fingers start to fly by themselves up and down the ivories as body memory pulls them along."

Why would reading be any different?  I don't believe that it is.

Warren goes on to explain that in training dogs, it takes time to develop the necessary skills and that they "need a chance to learn before their capabilities are dismissed."  It takes time.

And this is why we do not, and will not, skip our designated reading time every single day.  It's that important.  Students need to see that it is priority.  Their learning, their time, is priority.

Warren later explains about training her dog, Solo, to specific scents.  She describes hiding the cadaver scent in a series of buckets and to the dog it all seems like play, but of course it is through conditioning that the dog is rewarded when he finds the right bucket with the right scent.  Praised and rewarded, "he is hooked."

One of the trainers Warren worked with explained it to her:

"When people get interested, they can get hooked hard-core.  They don't like not being successful." 

He was talking about gamblers and comparing that drive to training dogs, but the analogy seems clear.

Students don't like not being successful either, and I believe that when they have choice about what they read the odds of success go up exponentially.

So, we read.  And we will read, every single day.

Watching this all unfold in my classroom over these past thirteen days has been the most remarkable thing.  I know it's early.  This could all still go crazy wrong.  I sure hope not.

This afternoon when I stayed until four o'clock on a Friday to read and respond to these weekly letters in their notebooks, as I said before, I wanted to cry.  Remember my boy I wrote about last week who told me he did not like to read, did not want to read, and he just looked miserable?  Last week I put Chasing Space on his desk with a sticky note that said, "Try this one!"

This week, this is what he wrote:

He is enjoying the book!  He's making connections to his own experience.  He's learning new vocabulary, background knowledge, syntax, and comprehension skills.

And you know what else?  The relationship is there.  Trust.  We have had several conversations this week about books, about what he is reading, and about school.  It's the most rewarding thing in the world.

It's why I teach.

And y'all - I think I'm going to need more books!  Here's the wish list if you want to send us something!  ;)

I am so excited about what this year will bring and about how much my students are going to grow! 

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