Archives For Independent Student Reads

March 2 was Dr. Seuss’s birthday, celebrated as Read Across America Day. In West Haven, Connecticut, planning for the event began in January when the Reading Department discussed how teachers were the model readers in every building. In a previous post, I added a sideshow of photos of classroom doors that teachers and staff designed to help students recognize the importance of reading and pay tribute to Dr. Seuss.

Many of the designs were remarkable. There were doors decorated as “Readboxes,” a playful twist on the movie-dispensing Redboxes. There were doors decorated with book choices displayed in Twitter tweets, or pie charts, or hot air balloons taking students “to the places they will go.” There was even a Type 40 TARDIS door where Dr. Who can meet Dr. Seuss!

Even more remarkable was the amount of time and effort that these West Haven educators put into the communal sharing of texts. Back in January, the hope of the Reading Department was that conversations about books would happen between students; between teachers and staff; and between teachers and students and staff.  Too often in education, there is an expectation that reading a book will end in an assessment or grade. Too often, reading a book means analyzing theme, discussing character change, or identifying setting.  Too often, there is no celebration in reading.

The hope of asking teachers to share their favorite titles on classroom doors was that these displays would spark new conversations about books that were far more informal, something akin to a student saying,  “Hey, I like that book, too!”

Two other West Haven elementary schools participated in the Read Across America, and their classroom doors and bulletin boards will hopefully continue their school community’s conversations about books. At minimum, their door decorations have definitely sparked conversations about  the impact of Pinterest on education!

Some of Mackrille Elementary  School’s offerings are seen here:

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The numerous weather delays and cancellations resulted in a delay of festivities for Forest Elementary School, but their enthusiasm for engaging in conversations about favorite books and reading is clearly evident:

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These posts wrap up the 2015 West Haven edition of Read Across America where educators contributed time and effort to celebrate reading. Now, we can listen for students to say, “Hey, that’s my favorite book, too!”

A Seussian-thanks to all those who participated:

The doors, the books, a wonderful sight
Seeing everyone share was such a delight!

I have seen how the monthly Scholastic Publishing Company book flyer can set student readers’ hearts aflutter. scholastic-flyersScholastic’s marketing through classroom book clubs gives them direct access to all levels of student readers, and when a school hosts a Scholastic book fair, students can browse books or products with book title tie-ins. Moreover, Scholastic offers resources to teachers including lesson plans, discussion guides, and leveled reading programs.

So when Scholastic releases a report titled Kids and Family Reading Report, they speak with authority.

The Fall 2014 report was based on a survey given in conjunction with the UK international marketing firm YouGov. The objective was to “explore family attitudes and behaviors around reading books for fun.”

The key findings of this research, were based on a nationally representative sample of 2,558 parents and children including 1,026 parents of children ages 6–17.

In this survey, there were questions about parental reading habits, ages for reading aloud, and the use of e-readers.

Given my interest in providing time in school for reading, I was particularly interested in what the survey had to say about dedicated time and developing readers.

There were three key finding about reading in school:

#1: One third of children ages 6–17 (33%) say their class has a designated time during the school day to read a book of choice independently, but only 17% do this every or almost every school day.

Scheduling time for independent reading is important, but making sure that time is sacrosanct conveys to students the critical importance of reading.  Making sure independent reading time is respected also demonstrates that schools value the ninety-one percent of children ages 6–17 in the survey who stated that “my favorite books are the ones that I have picked out myself.”

#2: Half of children ages 6–17 who read independently as a class or school (52%) say it’s one of their favorite parts of the day or wish it would happen more often.

The 52% is a combined percentage of boys and girls, with 61% of girls agreeing in contrast to the lower percentage of 41% of boys agreeing (see data below). However, it is distressing to see a drop of 9% in reading for fun since 2010.

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#3 School plays a bigger role in reading books for fun among children in lower-income homes. 61% percent of children ages 6–17 from the lowest-income homes say they read for fun mostly in school or equally at school and at home, while 32% of kids ages 6–17 from the highest-income homes say the same.

There was no one reason for the difference why twice as many low-income students read for fun during dedicated time in school, however, time and access to books are the most obvious possibilities.  How students have access to independent books was factored into this survey with libraries as being the most important resource. Although Scholastic was not directly named, school book fairs, book clubs, and bookstores were judged to be among the leading sources for children ages 6–17 to find books to read for fun.

Finally, the survey suggests the most important allies schools have in promoting reading are parents who want their children to choose books:

  • Three-quarters of parents with children ages 6–17 (75%) agree “I wish my child would read more books for fun.”

So while this Scholastic survey could be considered self-serving, (after all, they are interested in selling more books) the data does support the importance of time for independent choice reading in schools. The survey highlights the power of enlisting parents in putting independent reading programs in place in school. Ultimately, the results of Scholastic’s survey supports those classroom teachers who recognize the value of independent choice and inviolable time to read.

So, pass out those book flyers, browse the book sale, get those students to the library, and put up the sign:

“We Have Time to Read for Fun!”

The advertisement on Book Sale Finder for the Wilton Public Library Book Sale  in Wilton, CT, read,All books on sale for this sale… not just Children and Teens.”

The reason for the clarification? This annual end of summer book sale usually offers the best selections of donated books for children and teens in the area.

This past weekend’s sale  (9/19-21) did not disappoint.

In the space of an hour, I collected over 200 books suited for students in grades 5-10. High interest titles such as Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging for the older students, selections from the Lunch Lady graphic novel series (“serving justice, and serving…..lunch!”) for the younger students. My shopping spree was fueled by the knowledge that Sunday was the 1/2 price day. Hardcovers were $1.50; paperbacks were as little as $.25. At these prices, who could resist picking up multiple copies of Chicken Soup for the Teenaged Soul or duplicate selections from Margaret Peterson’s Haddix series?

All books are headed to the independent reading classroom libraries in the intermediate, middle, and high schools in West Haven. In particular, the SSR (silent sustained reading) in grades 7 & 8 is a reading initiative that is now possible because of the new 90 minute block schedule. Teachers explained the SSR program to parents during the Open House last week and encouraged attending parents to discuss reading for fun with their children.

My industrious selecting caught the attention of several of the volunteers who provided the extra bags and boxes I needed. These Friends of the Wilton Library were genuinely delighted that I was removing a large portion of their inventory.
“These books will be enjoyed again,” from one.
“You are exactly who we want to come to these sales,” from another, “these will be books for classrooms!”
“You got so many of the better titles,” from a third who seemed to know YA literature as she perused my selections.

Like good professional salespeople, they continued to affirm the choices I made as they counted….and counted, and counted. The sum total? $150.00!

This event was advertised as an “Awesome Autumn Book Sale” and yes, it was awesome! This is the first day of autumn, and this autumn I can confidently predict there will be a multiple floods…multiple classroom book floods!

Thank you, Friends of the Wilton Public Library!

The 7th and 8th grade teachers who administered our own  “How I Feel about Reading Survey” to teams of students have collected some contradictory data. The survey is based on questions suggested by Kelly Gallagher in his book Readicide. In this book, Gallagher uses the term “readicide” to define “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.”

The student body is divided into four teams at each grade level, and each team has taken the survey these first few days of school. Each team’s survey provides a snapshot for  a group of students and their attitude towards reading.

The results are contradictory. Take for example the results on 8th grade team in student responses to two prompts: I think being a good reader is important for success in life juxtaposed with the results from I read everyday and look forward to my reading time.

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Yes, students agree that reading is important, but the data shows they do not feel that the practice is important enough to do every day. Moreover, most students do not think reading if pleasurable with over 50% voting they “rarely” look forward to reading. This results from these questions were repeated throughout the grades 7 & 8, team by team.

This data suggests Gallagher’s diagnosis that students could be suffering from “readicide”, an unfortunate consequence of education’s current culture of assessment. The requirements to assess student learning often means employing reading practices that include worksheets, quizzes, or tests; none of these are “fun.”

To counter this, teachers at the middle school are implementing an ambitious independent reading program- 20 minutes a day in a block period- where students are encouraged to read whatever they want from classroom libraries. There are no quizzes. There are no tests. There are no worksheets.  The students will have time built into their day to read, but most important, the students get to choose what they want to read. They can choose from the school book collections or bring in their own book. They will talk about their books with each other, and teachers will visit and conference with them to listen about the books they choose.

In fighting the toxic effects of “readicide”, teachers already have the data that gives them an ace up their collective sleeves…most students have admitted that reading is important for success in life. Guaranteeing that success will be the goal of the 7th and 8th grade teachers who will be working this year to change that high percentage of students who are “rarely” looking forward to reading to a higher percentage of students who “usually” looking forward to reading. Hopefully, teachers can add an “always looking forward to reading” survey choice as well.

This morning I had to slow down in the children’s books section of the Friends of the Westport Library Summer Book Sale. I slowed to sort through the extensive offerings of books on tables in the big tent. I also slowed to keep an eye on three-year-old Pearl, my niece’s daughter, in the smaller tent. That slowing down resulted in a great payoff in picture books.

I shopped on the first day of the sale, Saturday, (7/19/14), prepared to haul away several bags of books for the classroom libraries. A check of the travel section did not disappoint. I quickly located seven copies of The Places in Between, a memoir by Rory Stewart who walked his way across Afghanistan in 2002. This memoir recounts how he survived:

 “…by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindness of strangers…Along the way Stewart met heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers. He was also adopted by an unexpected companion-a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan’s first Mughal emperor, in whose footsteps the pair was following.”

This memoir is an assigned text for the Honors Grade 10 summer reading, a non-fiction selection to meet the World Literature focus. The seven copies would retail for $74.90; I got all of these copies for $13.00. There were other trade fiction paperbacks that I added: Little Bee; Cry, the Beloved Country; and The Things They Carried. There were also multiple copies of different episodes in the Bone series for students who enjoy graphic novels.

After shopping for the classroom libraries, the browsing through the children’s books tent felt like a bonus sale. Here was an opportunity to get books into Pearl’s hands, and the Westport donators did not disappoint. The tables were piled high, and the aisle wide enough for patrons with small children in tow.
The books were in excellent condition, so much so that my niece commented, “Look, these pop-up books can still pop-up!”
I located copies of books from the classic picture book canon, and we ended up with a small pile including:

  • Make Way for Ducklings  by Robert McCloskey.
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.
  • Shrek by William Steig
  • Linnea at Monet’s Garden By Christina Bjork
  • Miss Rumphius  by Barbara Cooney
  • The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese.

We had to stop and read some of the books to Pearl to keep her engaged and were particularly grateful for the large areas roped off outside the children’s book tent. This space lets patrons check their selections before heading to the check-out tent. This space is critical for some of the patrons who stock up like I do with multiple bags and boxes.

Pearl and her mom enjoy "Make Way for Ducklings"

Pearl and her mom enjoy “Make Way for Ducklings”

In total, we spent an hour collecting books at the sale and fifteen minutes at the organized check-out tables. As they are every year, the volunteer who counted my five bags full was pleasant and well-trained. She was curious about where I taught, however.

“You are putting these into classrooms…where?” she asked.
I explained these were going to a middle/high school in Northwest Connecticut.
“Oh, I don’t know that area well…I guess I lean more to the New York area,” she offered.
“When possible, so do I,” was my response.

Totals spent? $96.00 for the classrooms, and $13.00 for Pearl who left the sale toting her “summer reading” picture books. From emerging to life-long readers, the Westport Book Sale offers a chance to stock up on picture books and memoirs and all the other genres in-between.

Bags ready? Set to find great bargains? Go to Newtown, Connecticut, for the Friends of the C.H.Booth Library where over 100,000 books, records, DVDs go on sale annually. Their book sale always marks for me the beginning of the book sale season. This year’s starting date was July 12, 2014.

For the first time, I went on the admission day ($5) and used extra help (husband & son) to follow me with bags. Even then, I was too late to get the 20 or so copies of The Great Gatsby I saw someone packing up at the check out counter. My son noted that I also missed out on copies of of The Hunger Games Trilogy selections.
“The woman was only four feet away from you when I saw her stuffing them in her bag,” he claimed, “but I wasn’t going to tackle her.”

Fortunately, thanks to the diligent efforts of what looked like a small army of volunteer Friends of the Library, the tables were well organized by genre and author. I was able to get multiple copies of the 12th grade summer reading book, A Walk in the Woods.. In addition, I filled bags with the required summer reading for Advanced Placement English Literature including:
Little Bee, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and
Bel Canto. I also found copies for the grade 10 world literature library including The Places in Between, The Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and A Long Way Gone.
There were also books to add to classroom libraries for independent reading including Dairy Queen, Elsewhere, and a pile of books from the Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

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Counting Books at the check-out with the friendly volunteer

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Five bags of books for classroom libraries for $229.00; a bargain!

The book sale at Newtown is a model of efficiency. There is room to move between tables, the books are properly sorted by genre ( for the most part) and the volunteer help is cheerful and efficient.

“You must be using these in a school?” suggested the woman checking us out as she counted out 20 copies of The Help.
“Actually,” my son replied feigning seriousness, “we really like this book….we’re going to read every single copy.”
“Oh,” she started, and then smiled,”you’re terrible…”

What is not terrible is that I spent $229 for over 80 books; some of them core texts and some for independent reading.
The summer book sale season helps me put books in the hands of readers. The Newtown Friends of the Library book sale does that extremely well.

12 graders during SSR

Our 12 graders during independent reading- SSR

How challenging is it for a teacher to run an independent reading program? Very challenging. That is the only thing thing that Newsweek reporter Alexander Nazaryan got right in his NYTimes op-ed piece The Fallacy of ‘Balanced Literacy’ (7/6/14).

His lack of success in having students choose their own reading for pleasure over the course of one school year, should not grant him the opportunity to decry the practice. His own failure to encourage students to engage in reading for pleasure should not dissuade other teachers from encouraging students to develop life-long reading habits. Had he the proper training and resources in balanced literacy, he would have witnessed how the challenge of implementing independent reading in a classroom can be met at any grade level and is a critical step to making students life-long readers.

If he had the training, he would recognize that teachers who are familiar with books for specific age groups and levels of interest can make reading recommendations to students or help facilitate highly successful peer to peer book recommendations. If he had the resources of high interest, low-level texts in jam packed classroom libraries for his students, he would have increased the level of engagement. If he had utilized the time for reading to individually confer briefly with students about their reading while other students read quietly, he would have established a classroom routine that would allow him to informally measure student growth as they read. Finally, if he had impressed upon students the importance of reading for pleasure, he would have helped their academic success in all other classes.

Research studies (compiled by the American Library Association) have determined that reading outside of the classroom is the best predictor for student success:

The amount of free reading done outside of school has consistently been found to relate to achievement in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and general information. Students’ reading achievement correlates with success in school and the amount of independent reading they do (Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding 1988; Guthrie and Greaney 1991; Krashen 1993; Cunningham and Stanovich 1991; Stanovich and Cunningham 1993).

This research from the ALA is borne out by testing through The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, which has monitored the academic performance of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students  since the 1970s. Long-term trend assessments in reading are measured on a scale of 500 points. In taking the NAEP, students volunteered information on their reading habits. The results from this data in 2012 demonstrated that the average score for the 22% of those students aged 13 who never (or hardly ever) read independently was 25 points lower than students who read every day. By age 17, the difference had increased to 30 points.

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NAEP scores for 13 year olds who read for pleasure and the increase in standardized test scores

This data confirms what we have witnessed in our own classrooms. Our students are given SSR (silent sustained reading) time in class for independent reading in grades 7-12. Independent reading for our school means that students get to choose what they would like to read without having to take a quiz or a test on the book. The only “requirements” are that students keep a running record (we are using Shelfari) of their independent reading books. We ask them to share their recommendations with their peers. We talk to them about what they read.

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Holding up cards with the numbers of book read independently (included one world lit choice book)

Sometimes students are offered a choice from a length list of thematically connected books, and sometimes the choice must be in a particular genre (non-fiction, memoir, world literature). Other times, the choice is entirely open and students can read whatever books they want. Our block schedule allows us the luxury of offering students 15-20 minutes each period. A quick estimate means that over the course of the school year (40 weeks), meeting twice weekly (roughly 30 minutes minimum a week), students will be offered a minimum of 20 hours of reading time in class. They make very good use of that time.

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Holding up the number of books read in grade 9

The main goal of our independent reading program is to encourage students to read beyond the walls of the classroom; our 15 minutes spent in class is intended as a “hook” to connect students with books that they might want to read or as a “refresher” to reconnect a book already being read.

Seniors holding up the number of books read independently in a semester

Seniors holding up the number of books read independently in a semester

Encouraging students to read independently means practice, and the time we provide in class contributes to that reading practice. At the end of this year, we are celebrating the number of books read over the course of the year by taking group photos of students proudly holding up the number of books they have read independently over the past school year. So, rather than read a confessed failure in an op-ed piece that incorrectly characterizes independent reading written by someone who has left education, take a look at how the challenge of independent reading is being successfully met in our classrooms. The proof is in the pictures.

“I find people confusing.” 

That particular quote is spoken by Christopher John Francis Boone, the 15-year-old narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, who describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties.” Christopher lives in Swindon, England, and his behavioral difficulties are more along the lines of Asberger’s or high functioning autism or savant syndrome. This diagnosis explains his attitude towards his peers, 

“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are.” 

Or his obsession with truth:

“Metaphors are lies.” 

Or his appreciation for math:

“Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.”

Christopher’s observations are also what make him interesting to our students who read the novel in literature circles in grade 10. Students at this age connect with the author, Mark Haddon, and his belief that the novel is not about a character with Asperger’s Syndrome, but rather,

“…a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. It’s as much a novel about us as it is about Christopher.”

CIDNT coverWe have well over 100 copies of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime in our book room. They are a collection of books purchased at book sales ($1-$3 a copy) throughout the state of Connecticut for the past five years. These copies are most likely the discards from book club members who, 10 years after its original publication date (2003), donated their used copies. The only problem in locating  copies of the text at a book sale is determining on which genre table the copies will be shelved. The novel is classified as a mystery, but it is also considered a young adult novel or trade fiction, and was published in England simultaneously in separate editions for adults and children.

Fortunately, I can see that iconic bright red cover from a distance, the same one with the dog cut-out onto the shiny black cover underneath. When I distribute the texts, no matter how I threaten to make sure the book comes back in pristine condition, there are students who will trace and retrace that cutout until the die-cut shape of the dog becomes the shape of a blob.

The students read the novel independently first, usually during a unit on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, before coming together in literature circles. I would like to think that the character of Christopher would enjoy being paired with Shakespeare’s murder and intrigue since he is uncovering a sinister killing of a neighborhood dog. Students are given time in class to read the novel as SSR, and the literature circles begin once the play is concluded. The students are organized into smaller groups, where they work together to choose a “big idea” that can be found in the novel. The “big idea” can center on large concept words such as bravery, fear, change, determination, trust, or belief. Once a big idea is selected for the day, each group has several tasks to complete, with each member of the group completing one task. The students receive one grade for the completion of these assignments, and disputes are resolved through peer review feedback sheets. The roles for the literature circles are fairly traditional:

  • Group leader/discussion director/writer: leads the discussion and writes the response that answers the question with contributions from the other members.
  • Notes taker/quote maker: keeps notes during the discussion, finds, and writes the passages that support the group’s conclusions about the big idea.
  • Artist: draws a series of cartoons or a particularly important scene that represents the big idea.
  • Poet: creates a found poem of at least 20 lines that supports the group’s conclusions.
  • OrganizerGets the paper, plans the poster, keeping everyone on task and contributing to the overall success of the assignment!

Because we are a BYOD school, we have on occasion also included some “digital” tasks where group members can use a software platform to create an Animoto or a Voice Thread as a way to illustrate the big idea.

The literature circles usually meet four or five times covering different sections of the book depending on the big idea selected. At the end of each meeting, students their findings to the class with each member explaining the contributions from his or her role.  The rubric is centered on Common Core State Standards that require the inclusion of evidence to support a position. For an exemplary rating, a group will produce the following:

POSITION: clearly addressed task, purpose, and audience

  • One page that answers question about the big idea
  • Found quotes in novel to support a group’s position; wrote them on the chart paper
  •  a cartoon or illustrated scene that supports big idea
  • Creation of a “found” poem of at least 20 lines, using words from the novel.

COMPOSITION:

  • Response answers the question; it has a thesis, and at least two quotations for support.
  • Poster displays the quotations you have found; they are written carefully & cited.
  • Art work is neat and colorful and expresses the big idea
  • The poem is of required length and is expressive and creative.

STANDARDS of the DISCIPLINE

  • Response has no more than two errors in mechanics, spelling, capitalization.
  • Quotations are blended.
  • Quotes have no misspellings, etc.

As they read, many students become curious about Aspergers and autism, so we have incorporated video supplemental materials including a speech on the inspiration for the novel by Mark Haddon; a film on autism activist Temple Gradin; and a quick 6 minute video on another savant Stephen Wiltshire: The Human Camera.

Sometimes, if time allows, we have included mysteries from Christopher’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For the honors students, we have added the text of the Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Hound of the Baskervilles” for independent reading (audio text) . On other occasions we have used adaptations of Sherlock Holmes mysteries in short audio texts (Story Nory site).

While the addition of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has richly enhanced our curriculum of World Literature, the price was not expensive, roughly $250 for the entire set of books. This contemporary novel by a British writer allows us to connect the reading to other fiction (mysteries) and informational texts including speeches and documentaries. In the beginning of the novel, Christopher explains,

“In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them. It is a puzzle. If it is a good puzzle you can sometimes work out the answer before the end of the book.”

By the end of the novel Christopher comments on the mystery as a “good puzzle” saying, “I solved the mystery…and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” That assessment is a powerful reason to share Haddon’s novel with students…if they can draw from a character like Christopher the inspiration that they too can do anything.

Book Choice Questions

March 1, 2014 — 1 Comment

book loveIndependent reading in our school grades 7-12 means students read books of their own choosing, make recommendations, and keep records of what they read. Recently, however, one of the English teachers in my department suffered a concussion and while the substitutes delivered the curriculum (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak), student independent reading had fallen out of regular practice.

Our latest substitute (Natalie) is an enthusiastic graduate of our high school school who has a BS degree in Creative Writing. She has been serious in tackling her lack of experience in the classroom through her best characteristic…she asks questions. She asks a lot of questions.

One of the latest questions she asked was about independent reading. When I expressed my concerns about having the practice reestablished, she seemed doubtful. I suggested that she have students use books they read independently to make connections with the most recent whole class novels.

“You can ask them if they can make a generic ‘coming of age’ connection between Speak and a book of their choosing,” I suggested.

“But what if they choose a book that doesn’t have that connection? What if they choose a book that is too young for them?” she continued, “or a book that they already read? How do I know what they should be reading?”

I recognized her questions; I had those same questions myself several years ago.

So, I sat her down and showed her the following Penny Kittle video that is available through Heinemann Publishers on YouTube under the title “Why Students Don’t Read What is Assigned in Class”:

She had the same reaction I did when I first saw that video.

“Wow,” she said, “I get it. They should read what they want.”

Question answered.

My department is just noticing the benefits after a few years of implementing book choice. We are lucky to have an 80 minute block schedule with the luxury of offering 15-30 minutes a class for Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) independent choice books. We have large classroom libraries with high interest titles and a wonderful school library (with Overdrive e-books available)  to offer students choice in what they read. When we tell students to pull out their SSR book, they are prepared and settle in to read.

Some classes suggest that a book be in a particular genre. Our English IV-Memoir class reads memoirs or biographies. The English II class is based on World Literature, and students read at least one book during the year by an author who is not American. The critical requirement is that each student chooses a book. There is no leveled reading; students can choose a book below their reading ability or they can attempt a book above their lexile level. They learn what to choose to read because they have control of what they want to read.

Penny Kittle, an English teacher and literacy coach at Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire, wrote a guide to helping students read independently titled Book Love. In this text, Kittle offers strategies to help teachers increase the volume of what students read and to deepen student thinking about what they read.

One of the strategies several of our teachers use is to have students respond to reading through the software Shelfairi (Amazon) where they record what they are reading and make connections to other books. I can organize each class in virtual groups and pose general questions for responses. These short responses prepare me for conferences or allow me to respond directly on the software with links or information or suggestions. For example, the English IV Mythology/Fantasy class reads mythologies or fantasies, and I posed a simple question last week and left quick responses for a conference:

How are you doing with your book? What are the connections to myth/fantasy that can you make?

STUDENT: Eragon: So far I am doing well with this book. My book connects with mythology because it is about Eragon who finds a stone which ends up being a dragon egg, and he bonds with the dragon over time. He and Saphira (the dragon) learn to communicate with one another and have a good connection. Saphira and Eragon create a good relationship with one another.

My response: This is a great fantasy…and a series. This novel has elements of the hero’s journey: http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero’s_journey.htm

STUDENT: Ranger’s Apprentice-The Royal Ranger: Good. I have 10 pages left until its over. Its the final book in the series. There is a giant myth that rangers have special and mystical powers. But that is just false. They are just super stealthy which gives them the appearance of just appearing out of no where.

My response: Now what will you read? Another series?

STUDENT: The Alchemist: The Alchemist is a good book. It has to do more with fantasy than mythology, but there is a myth about a treasure in the pyramids.

My response: And the “stones” have a story behind them as well. Did you know this book is on the NY Times Bestseller list for 291 weeks?

While there are multiple software platforms for sharing book choices, I also find that the features on Shelfari are helpful in having students “shop” for books (without purchasing) and/or write responses using evidence. There are tabs for a book’s Description, a Ridiculously Simplified Synopsis, Characters/People, Quotes, and First sentence. There are recommendations and reviews by other readers for each title as well. The student responses can agree or refute other reviews; they can add information to a book’s page as well.

Regardless of platform, sharing what students choose to read is critical to helping them develop a love of reading. The advertisement for Kittle’s Book Love states,

“Books matter.  Stories heal.  The right book in the hands of a kid can change a life forever.  We can’t wait for anyone else to teach our students a love of books—it’s up to us and the time is now.  If not you, who?”

And that is a very good question.

red tentMany of my students do not know Old Testament stories other than “Noah’s Ark” and “Adam and Eve”. There is the occasional biblical teen scholar who may be able to recount the origin a pillar of salt (Lot’s wife) or maybe there will be a student who saw the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and make a patriarchal connection. For the most part, students are not up to date on Methuselah or even which of the brothers killed the other (Cain or Abel). They are far more likely to ask, “So, where did all the other people come from if Eve was the only woman?”

Fortunately, The Red Tent, a novel by Anita Diamant (1997) does address other women of the Old Testament. Her fictionalized version of the story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, is based on in a brief but particularly violent and gruesome incident in the Book of Genesis. In the King James Version of the Bible, Dinah is known as the daughter who is “defiled” by Shechem, a prince, who then wanted to marry her (Genesis 34: 1-3):

1 And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.

2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.

3 And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel.

Dinah’s brothers, sought vengeance for the attack on their sister. They tricked Shechem and his family, claiming to come in peace, and exacted their punishment by killing the royal family and all males in the city:

26 And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went out.

27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister.

This horrific incident is explained very differently in the Diamant’s fictional retelling, as are many other familial incidents, from Dinah’s point of view. The rivalry between Rachel and Leah, the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and the rivalry between the sons of Joseph, Dinah’s younger brother, are rich with detail and dialogue. The sparse accounts given in the Old Testament are fleshed out in this compelling narrative, with the women center stage, a striking contrast to the male-dominated biblical text.

Several of my female students in Advanced Placement English Literature choose to read The Red Tent as an independent choice, and their response is not unlike other female student responses chronicled in the article “The Wandering Womb at Home in The Red Tent: An Adolescent Bildungsroman in a Different Voice” by Holly Blackford. In this review, Blackford writes about the female students’ enthusiasm for the book:

So emotional about the story of The Red Tent that they can barely speak, and indeed continually interrupt one another, they cite the way in which the contemporary novel revises the patriarchal story of Jacob; represents the concerns of girls in terms of emotion and relationship; and details the entire lifecycle of girl-to-woman through engaging first-person narration:
  Carol: There are certain books I just can’t put down.
      Laticia: Seriously, I’ll read until like three in the morning . . .
      Interviewer: Like what?
      Carol: Like The Red Tent!

Blackford also points out that this revision of an ancient text  comes at a time when girls are, “hungering for an exploration of female-centered myths, deities, worlds, and power-structures.” Her claim in The Alan Review (March, 2005) is that books like The Red Tent:

“… appeal to adolescent women and grow their appreciation for contemporary women’s literature that speaks “in a different voice” (Gilligan) from the more masculine canon they expect in their school curriculum.”

There are about 20 copies of The Red Tent on the class independent book cart, all purchased at book sales for $1.00 each. Picador USA publishers produced an oversized text, about 2″ taller than a standard trade paperback; on the AP English Lit book cart’s top shelf, these copies stick out. The cover art, designed and illustrated by Honi Werner, is also eye-catching. Students always pick up the book with interest.

“What’s this about?” one asks.
“Read the back,” I reply.
“‘...told in Dinah’s voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoil of ancient womanhood-the world of the red tent,’ (*pause suspiciously*)…is this a ‘chick book’?”
“Yes,” I chuckle, “this is most definitely a chick book….probably the ultimate chick book, of ALL chick books.”

How else to describe a story that centers on celebrating the onset of womanhood?

After they read any independent book, the AP students are required to write an essay. The essay prompt this quarter for any book they choose is taken from the AP released exam list of questions:

In retrospect, the reader often discovers that the first chapter of a novel or the opening scene of a drama introduces some of the major themes of the work. Write an essay about the opening of the first chapter of a novel in which you explain how it functions in this way. *hint: the lens you use is the lens from the conclusion of the novel*

Students who choose to read Diamant’s The Red Tent will certainly want to return to the beginning to explain how Dinah’s life story begins and ends with the women who loved and supported her.  They will also have had a “crash course” on the Book of Genesis, which is the source of many other literary allusions. While The Red Tent is not great literature, this novel sets many female students looking for equally compelling contemporary novels about women, with or without that “chick book” label.