A Community of Excited Readers - Steve Barkley

A Community of Excited Readers

I recently met Jennifer Kelly and Chelsea Collins who are ELA teachers/team leaders at Woodstown Middle School in rural South Jersey, a public school serving approximately 300 students in grades 6-8. Many students enter school with reading deficiencies and after being identified as a school with achievement gaps, WMS has been identified as a progressive school working to increase student awareness of educational opportunities.

As I heard about the changes they made to their reading program which began a movement to shift the entire culture of Woodstown Middle School, I asked them to provide a guest blog. I noted the backwards planning process in their work. I’m sure you’ll find they generate some insights for you.

Reading Then…
Year after year, we faced the same frustrating dilemma in our English classrooms: “Why won’t our students read?” Most students refused to read outside of class, so our answer was to use class time to read to our students. Why?  Because they have to read the books we chose and we have to teach them all about those books.  Even with us reading to the students, how much reading were they really doing?  A quick glance around the room would show a sea of students looking around, dozing off, or staring at the pages.  Students had no passion, no interest, and no motivation.  We were dictating too much to our students.

Hope for Motivation…
A former colleague opened our hearts to Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide and Penny Kittle’s Book Love,  and we soon realized that our traditional strategies for teaching reading just were not working for students.  According to Kittle’s research, college students are required to read an average of 200-600 pages a week. Furthermore, according to the Common Core Standards, students need to “read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.” How are teachers preparing students for the rigor of CCSS and college if we are reading to them and just hoping for the best with reading independently?  Our students needed to find motivation by gaining a passion for reading.

We knew that it would take a village to change our students’ reading habits, and in this case, our initial village was a meager four-person ELA department.

Action Plan…
Build Stamina:  Most of our reluctant readers were not going home to devour books, though the research shows that they desperately needed to.  We knew that voluminous reading would need to begin right inside the walls of our school.A daily 19-minute independent reading period was built into our master schedule.  Once our school had established this period, some chose to read alone, while others met with book groups to discuss the books that they were reading and to set goals for their next meeting.  All staff members were able to read with their students.  Students also received 10-15 minutes to read at the beginning of each ELA class period, a time that, when the students were surveyed, they most looked forward to.

Creation of classroom libraries: Kittle emphasizes the need for choice. How can stamina possibly be built upon books we are not motivated to read? With the help of our PTO, we made high-interest books more accessible to our students. Over the summer, we began building our classroom libraries with high-interest books of varying reading levels, and we categorized these books by themes, knowing that this would to be the surest way for students to explore topics that they enjoy. By September, walking into our classrooms looked like walking into a mini-library.  We knew students would get the message: this is a room where they would read. A lot.

New Assessment Strategies: Reading conferences and notebook responses were used to provide guidance in helping students to develop the habits of lifelong readers, while checking on their reading in areas such as comprehension, volume, and stamina. This feedback, rather than mindless quizzes, was used to help students build and strengthen their reading habits and stamina.

Daily Book Talks: We began each ELA class with a Book Talk, which is basically a short book advertisement. When students saw our excitement over books, they wanted to talk about books too. We will never forget the first day a student’s hand shot up and said, “Can I give the book talk today?” It was one of those teaching moments when you step back, beaming inside from ear to ear, and coolly reply, “Sure. I guess that would be okay” (wink, wink). From then on, Book Talks caught on like wildfire, and students were begging to give them on a daily basis.  This is when we knew we had a community of readers!

Author Connections: Many authors are happy to spend a half hour meeting with students via Skype.  Students not only get excited to talk to the authors, but they want to read their books.  They are like rock stars in our classrooms!

Reading Now…
Our village has grown into a community of excited readers.  Non-ELA teachers are reading and holding book chats with students.  Students are blogging through the summer about their books and holding rich, meaningful discussions with each other. As of this writing, our 188 students have written over 1,000 blog posts this summer about the summer books THEY chose to read.  They persevere through difficulties and willingly challenge themselves.  Classrooms once filled with lifeless students groaning about books have been transformed into classrooms filled with rich literary discussions. That is motivation. Let go of the reins.  Build a classroom of students on the path to being lifelong readers filled with passion, motivation, and perseverance.

You can contact Jennifer kelly.jd@woodstown.org and Chelsea Collins.C@woodstown.org for more information.

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