Archives For independent reading

I had four large bags full of young adult fiction, and I stood waiting for the volunteers to tally the total.

“$60.00,” one told me.

I looked at the pile. I paused, “OK, Wait here….I’ll get more!”

rooster-booksUsually I attend the Newtown CT Book Sale on one of the opening days when the books are full price. I have waited in the early morning hours on a long line for first crack at the trade paperbacks. But, this was 1/2 price Monday, and I was getting TWICE the amount of books for classroom libraries. To be honest, I had never shopped on the 1/2 price day, assuming that there would not be any books left.

I was wrong.

After the weekend crowds had had there full, there were still hundreds of young adult (YA), “tween,” and upper elementary chapter books laid out on the tables. I could keep shopping!

I had also assumed that any remaining books would piled chaotically from the book shoppers over the weekend.

I was very wrong.

Once again, the volunteers for the Cyrus H. Booth Library in Newtown, Connecticut, had kept up with the steady stream of shoppers. They had alphabetized the books by author. They had kept the genres separated on tables for easy navigation. They kept signs visible: “Chick Lit” or “Classic Fiction.”

But I was right about the amount of help I would get from volunteers. One of the volunteers noticed the titles I had selected, and the logos on the bags I filled: Scholastic, Penguin Young Readers, Lakeshore Learning, Heinemann.  I was returning home from the International Literacy Association Conference (#ILA2016) in Boston, MA, and I was already using the “swag” that had been handed out by the different education book publishers in the conference exhibition hall. I was, quite literally filling these literacy tote bags with literacy books.

“You must be a teacher,” she noted, “I used to be a teacher.” So was her fellow volunteer.

Of course, it is not surprising that several of the library book sale volunteers were former educators; they know the power of getting books-these piles of gently used books-into the hands of young readers.

They tallied my piles, and we chatted about what students read, what book covers attract readers (dark and spooky, we agreed). Then, they loaded my purchases on a cart, and one former teacher helped load my car with the four bags plus two additional boxes of books.

In total, I spent $103 dollars. Shopping on 1/2 price day yielded 184 book titles, some of which included student favorite titles by Sarah Dessen, Rick Riordan, Sarah Weeks, Gary Paulsen, and Andrew Clement. These books will be going into classrooms, grades 5-9, for independent reading.

The School Library Journal published (2000) study Independent Reading and School Achievement by Bernice E. Cullinan, New York University. The study explained that “Independent reading is the kind students choose to do on their own; it is not assigned or assessed, but it has a positive effect on learning and school achievement.”

Thank you, again, CH Booth Library volunteers. Your book sale will help to have a positive effect on student learning and school achievement!

The Southport Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, hosts a summer book sale every July under large tents that cover most of the lawn and in the library’s auditorium. Browsing for books under this acreage, one can only imagine “Where did all these books come from?”

The most logical conclusion I can come to is that Southport residents must do nothing all day but read.

They must read a book a day…maybe more.

I tried as hard as I could to lessen the load of titles on the young adult tables, but the six boxes (approximately 250 books) I hauled out from the sale barely made a dent. These books will go into classroom libraries for independent reading (silent sustained reading -SSR), literature circles, book clubs, etc. The premise of bringing these books to the classroom is to make sure that students at all grade levels have access to books at any given moment during the school day.

In under two hours, I filled six boxes with plenty of favorites (grades 5-10) from authors Gary Paulson, Meg Cabot, Ann Brashares, Jerry Spinelli, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Rick Riordan. I also grabbed selections of book series that fall into the “popular culture categories” such Goosebumps (RL Stine) , Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey), Ranger’s Apprentice (John Flanagan), and Alex Rider (Alex Horowitz).

These are not the books that teachers will “teach” but they are the books students will read; the difference is described in an earlier post.

There was a box of a dozen copies of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. I picked up 10 clean copies of this best seller as a reading choice for students groups who prefer non-fiction. This is the story of a young boy in Malawi (Africa) who developed a contraption that would provide his village with electricity and running water:

With a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks; some scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves; and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to forget an unlikely contraption and small miracle that would change the lives around him. (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind)

There is increased attention to incorporate informational texts such as this book because of the design of the  Common Core State Standards in Literacy which suggest that by 12th grade, 70% of a reader’s diet should be non-fiction. The copies I have are enough for a small group(s) to read in literature circles or book clubs.

I also collected copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for the American Literature classes (grade 10). This apocalyptic novel is worth including in a curriculum because of McCarthy’s style and message. In an earlier post I describe how The Road was the first book I collected for use in the classroom; its integration into curriculum was very successful. Copies of the book with its distinctive black cover and bold lettering were easily found among the 10 or 12 tables of donated fiction….as if there had been a massive book club after-party.

Screenshot 2015-07-26 14.16.55There were large crowds attending the Southport Pequot Library’s annual sale on Saturday, and the long lines of patrons waiting patiently to check out at the volunteer cashier tables might cause one to wonder if the sale has become a victim of its own success?

On the other hand, as they slowly snaked past the tables of nature books and cookbooks, patrons continued to browse and added even more purchases to the piles in their arms or bags. No one complained as there was always something to read.

Overflow of books or marketing geniuses??…those long lines on a Saturday afternoon could just be another successful marketing technique by the Friends of the Pequot Library.

While they are not wrapped in shiny paper with frills and bows, the piles of donated used books on the tables of the local area library book sales this summer are presents.

It does not matter that these presents are “re-purposed” or “re-gifted”…these books will be presents to students to encourage reading. It’s Christmas in July for filling the classroom libraries!

red boxFor this special kind of “Christmas shopping”, I have been to three Connecticut library books sales: the New Milford Public Library, the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown, and the Westport Public Library. These large book sales have the titles that students want to read, because the books have been donated by students who have already read them. These gently used donated books have already been field-tested.

Choosing books that student want to read is different than selecting books that students should read. Educators believe that students should read selections from the literary canon, for example, those written by Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and the Brontë sisters. Students should read titles such as The Crucible, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Odyssey. These selections from the literary canon are often assigned in middle or high school classes.

But many students do not want to read these pieces of classic literature for pleasure. They want to read a title from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or The Hunger Games series. The key difference between reading for pleasure and assigned reading is recognizing that students have similar guilty pleasures as adults in reading popular culture,

Students want to read titles such as the Dork Diaries;  Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging; I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You; Hatchet; or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These are the titles they look for in their independent reading choices. So, I looked for these titles at the three book sales, and I found copies of all of them.

The titles students want to read can build vocabulary and fluency for the classic literature they are assigned in school. Reading books by John Green (Looking for Alaska, The Fault in our Stars), Anthony Horowitz (Point Blank, Scorpio) or Sarah Dessen (Dreamland, This Lullaby, The Truth About Forever) gives students the chance to practice reading for pleasure. I looked for these titles, and I found copies of all of them as well.

Reading for pleasure for today’s teen reader means wandering in some very dark worlds as students are particularly drawn bleak futures as depicted in the Divergent series (dystopian world) or Delirium series (dystopian world) or the Chaos Walking series (finding yourself in a dystopian world).  Again, I found copies of all of these titles.

Student readers of fantasy, a genre sadly overlooked in most school offerings, cannot get enough of Rick Riordan’s retelling of Greek Mythology (The Lightning Thief, The Last Olympian) or his newer Egyptian series (The Red Pyramid). I found multiple copies from both series.

When students are offered the titles they want to read, they can practice reading the way marathoners train for races or musicians rehearse for performances. Practicing reading in school with Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) or for homework improves their reading pace, their reading accuracy, and helps students develop a reading routine.

It does not matter if reading practice for pleasure includes some titles from the often maligned series from Captain Underpants (intermediate grades) or Twilight (high school grade). The elements of story (protagonist, antagonist, conflict, rising action, and resolution) are in each. Not to mention Stephanie Meyer’s borrowing passages from Wuthering Heights to accessorize her vampire-filled trilogy.

There is good reading practice in the R.L. Stine collections from Goosebumps to Fear Street, and there is good reading practice in Fruit Baskets (Manga) or Calvin and Hobbs comic books or in the  Darwin Awards series. And, yes, I purchased many copies of each.

Titles with movie tie-in such as the Star Wars series, World War Z, or the original Jurassic Park are always popular, and students check to see how accurately the film matches the text. YA Chick lit from Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) orAnn Brashares (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) appeal to a particular female demographic while novels written by Nicholas Evans and Jodi Picoult can take that same group well into adulthood. I found copies of all of these.

What I did not find were those popular Minecraft books, but those will come in book sales next summer as more and more students engage in the game platform. Note: In 2016 expect a Minecraft wave near you!

All together, shopping at the three book sales yielded book as “presents” that will be spread out over 50 classroom libraries. These popular books will encourage students to practice reading in and out of school  to build up their reading stamina, for school and for life.

The Friends of the Library website lists all the book sales in Connecticut, and there are plenty of opportunities year-round to increase libraries that are geared for reading pleasure. Our students will be life-long readers if they develop the solid reading habits.green box

So far, this has been A Very Merry Book Sale season! Happy Holidays!

“What’s the last ‘best’ book you read on your own?” I would ask students when I taught middle and high school.

When I asked them this question, the boys almost always answered “Hatchet“.

“That’s the last book I read, too,” many would admit.

The number of Hatchet fans was 100% among the vocational agriculture students I taught for seven years in a rural school in Northwest Connecticut. Their love of this novel resonated with their desire for independence, adventure, and the outdoors.

The author Gary Paulsen shares many of these interests according to his biography:

Running away from home at the age of 14 and traveling with a carnival, Paulsen acquired a taste for adventure. A youthful summer of rigorous chores on a farm; jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver, and sailor; and two rounds of the 1,180-mile Alaskan dog sled race, the Iditarod; have provided ample material from which he creates his powerful stories.

In Hatchet, Paulsen’s protagonist, Brian Robeson, is a thirteen-year-old boy from New York City. From the onset, Brian is ill-prepared to meet the hardships of the wilderness when the single engine plane he is riding in from New York to Canada crashes because the pilot had a heart attack. Thus begins a compelling survival story, and my students loved survival stories; many of them were experienced hunters or fishermen.

The opening chapters of Hatchet also cover Brian’s personal background, his knowledge of his mother’s affair and his parent’s subsequent divorce, and the events leading up to the plane crash. Since the pilot had offered Brian a few minutes of flight lessons, he is able to control the descent of the plane until it crashes into a lake. He swims to safety with his only asset, a small hatchet he has taken from the crash.

Brian’s wilderness education alternates between emotions of loneliness and his physical needs. He learns to respect the natural world through a series of unexpected encounters with a bear, a porcupine, and a wolf. A turtle’s eggs give him a food source until he learns how to fish.  He learns how to build a fire and how to store food properly after a serious spraying by a skunk. Initially devastated about his inability to signal a passing plane for help, Brian works to improve his skills by constructing a studier lean-to.  These incidents mark a change in the “new” Brian, one who is far more self-reliant than the “city boy” who left on the plane to Canada. My students enjoyed the notion that “city boy” values must change to include skills they valued as well.

In recounting Brian’s emotional turmoil caused by his parent’s recent divorce, Paulsen uses simple and effective word choice and syntax; Brian is monosyllabic with memories, “The words. Always the words. Divorce. The Secret. Fights. Split. The big split.” Many of my male students spoke monosyllabically as well. These simple statements capture Brian’s stream of consciousness effectively without sentimentality.

There is just the right amount of the “yuck” factor in the novel to satisfy a young male reader. When the plane resurfaces, Brian decides to retrieve the plane’s flight location transmitter. While diving in the plane, he comes upon the decomposing body of the pilot:

“The fish. He’d never really thought of it, but the fish—the fish he had been eating all this time had to eat, too. They had been at the pilot all this time, almost two months, nibbling and chewing and all that remained was the not quite cleaned skull and when he looked up it wobbled loosely.”

Paulsen illustrates Brian’s growth as he learns how to adapt to increasingly dangerous situations; he survives a tornado and a terrifying moose attack. The reader is increasing aware of the self-confidence that Brian develops towards the end of the novel:

“Come on, he thought, baring his teeth in the darkness—come on. Is that the best you can do—is that all you can hit me with—a moose and a tornado? Well, he thought, holding his ribs and smiling, then spitting mosquitoes out of his mouth. Well, that won’t get the job done. That was the difference now. He had changed, and he was tough. I’m tough where it counts—tough in the head.”

54 days after the plane accident, Brian is rescued. Like all characters in a coming-of-age novel, he is not the same; he is more introspective and thoughtful. Paulsen’s narrative convinces students that Brian’s transformation is real, and that maybe such transformations are possible for themselves.

The novel’s grade level equivalent is 6.3; the Lexile® measure is 1020, but labeling the interest level as grades 6-8 is a mistake. My students’ interest in Hatchet was the standard for all other reading choices as in, “This book is not like Hatchet” (*sigh*) or “This book is almost as good as Hatchet.”

Hatchet was the 1988 Newbery Honor book and, fortunately for teachers wishing to offer books like Hatchet, it is the first in a trilogy + one. After Hatchet came The River,(1991); Brian’s Winter, (1996); and then Brian’s Return, (1999).

Paulsen also has two non-fiction offerings: the book Guts, a set of true short stories of survival, and Winterdance, a story of running the Iditarod. Both titles were also popular with my students.

Paulsen’s wilderness experiences set a high standard for adventure stories for my students, and the experience of reading this book was often so powerful that I had to (figuratively) drag them “out of the woods” in the book to notice other compelling stories on our classroom’s bookshelves.

Hatchet was my “go to” for the reluctant reader, and I always had several copies on hand to lend out. There were copies for the first time reader and for the re-reader, but I did have to draw the line on occasion. While Hatchet can still be the best book some of my students have ever read, it cannot be their last.

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.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 22.19.16

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.

I’m moving.moving_van

This blog is moving with me.

This Used Books in Class blog will now be headquartered in West Haven, Connecticut, as I have taken a position as the Language Arts, Social Studies, Library Media and Testing Coordinator for their public school system. West Haven is a shoreline community with six elementary schools, one intermediate school, one middle school, and a high school that houses a student population four times my previous school.

I am very excited about this opportunity.

One of my first responsibilities will be helping teachers at the middle school (grades 7 & 8)  develop an independent reading program for their extended English/Language Arts period. To make the reading program a success, the teachers plan to offer student choice in reading and that means the classroom libraries need to be expanded.

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Six bags full for $180 !

Building or expanding a classroom library can be expensive, but by seeking out gently used books, the expense can be minimized to as little as $.50/book. One simply needs to know where to look….and the best place to look for gently used quality books for any age is at the Grandmother of all Connecticut Book Sales, the Labor Day Book Sale that benefits the Mark Twain Public Library in Redding, Connecticut.

photo 1Some library book sales in Connecticut have a few tables or sections of a room devoted to books for children or teen readers. In contrast, the Mark Twain Library Book Fair has an entire room with literary treasures galore for young readers. I had hardly scanned the first tables when the neatly arranged copies of Rick Riordan books caught my eye. All three copies of the Red Pyramid filled the bottom of my bag, followed by novels from his Percy Jackson series, including the elusive The Last Olympian. I turned around to find a variety of titles from John A. Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, selections from Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, selections from Margaret Peterson’s Haddix series as well as copies from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.

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Boxes of Young Adult (YA) novels & non-fiction from the Mark Twain Library Book Sale; $.50-3.50 each!

Once I collected books from YA series, I looked for individual titles by writers who are always popular: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Brian’s Winter, Mike Lupica’s Heat and Travel Team; Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Mcgee, Milkweed, Stargirl; and a plethora of princess stories from Meg Cabot. If there was a book that was a hit with middle school readers, this book sale had it…in triplicate. Finding multiple copies was helpful, since multiple classrooms will be accessing these books during the same independent reading periods. For this reason, I had no problem justifying the purchase of seven copies of Louis Sacher’s Holes or Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped.

There were several student volunteers tabulating my haul, and I would ask them every now and then, “Did you ever read that book?” or “Do you think a student would like to read this book?” They would nod enthusiastically. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul got a soulful look from one of the tabulators, who explained, “Some stories in this are just so…sad. I felt better reading them.” They approved of my selections.

I was soon packed up with six bags full of young adult novels and non-fiction for $180, and I was helped to my car by a boy scout (literally…he was in uniform!).

Tomorrow, I plan deliver this first load of books to the teachers, creating the “book flood” in their classrooms. The Mark Twain Library Book volunteers who so capably load the tables, organize the donations, and make the whole experience a “destination” for readers of all ages must be credited with helping more than their own library. Their hard work has made an expansion of classroom libraries possible. A wonderful effort from a library named for the American writer who once said that, “out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.”

Now, let us see how these expanded classroom libraries help grow the students of West Haven!

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.

Yesterday, there was one paperback copy of The Hunger Games squeezed in-between other trade fiction. Two hardcover copies of Mockingjay were together on an opposite shelf. These books from The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins had been donated to a local Goodwill store. When I found them tucked away on the store’s shelves, I knew that the series had met a tipping point: still popular but not popular enough to treasure and keep.photo (19)

The Hunger Games series (2008-2010) has been to today’s graduating seniors what the Harry Potter series (1997-2007) was to today’s 28 year olds…a collective reading experience. The series developed a dedicated young adult following, and the most obvious signs of their dedication was the carting of hardcover editions because each reader could not wait for the book to go to paperback.

Once The Hunger Games series caught fire (literally), book conversations centered on Katniss. There were speculations on her choice of Gale or Peeta. Predictions on the fate District 13 were rampant. The publication of each new book in the series was a major event; students shared copies from period to period. When the first film, The Hunger Games, came out students critiqued every detail that was present and noticed every detail that was missing.

Our Reading/English/Language Arts teachers loved having students read these books as well. The series laid the connections to more traditional texts such as the Greek myths or Romeo and Juliet. There were plenty of connections on current events in the economy and media that could be made as well.

Finding three copies in the used book shelves now, however, signals a sputtering of interest. Students will still pick up the used copies from the book carts in the classroom, but the rabid fans have moved on.  Collins has helped this year’s graduating seniors develop their independent reading skills, the kind of skills that will serve them well in the future.

There are benefits to the recycling of books. I spent $7.98 on the three copies that would have been $27.66 if purchased new. The consequences of reaching a tipping point in popularity is a benefit for classroom libraries, which means finding used books from this series will be easier now that …. “the odds be ever in our favor.”

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.

The release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Progress Report for 2012  (“Nation’s Report Card”) provides an overview on the progress made by specific age groups in public and private schools in reading and in mathematics since the early 1970s. The gain in reading scores after spending billions of dollars, countless hours and effort was a measly 2% rise in scores for 17-year-olds. After 41 years of testing, the data on the graphs show a minimal 2% growth. After 41 years, Einstein’s statement, “Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results,” is a confirmation that efforts in developing effective reading programs have left the education system insane.

The rather depressing news from NAEP in reading scores (detailed in a previous blog) could be offset, however, by information included in additional statistics in the report. These statistics measure the impact of “reading for fun” on student test scores. Not surprisingly, the students who read more independently, scored higher. NAEP states:

Results from previous NAEP reading assessments show students who read for fun more frequently had higher average scores. Results from the 2012 long-term trend assessment also reflect this pattern. At all three ages, students who reported reading for fun almost daily or once or twice a week scored higher than did students who reported reading for fun a few times a year or less

The irony is that reading for fun is not measured in levels or for specific standards as they are in the standardized tests. For example, the responses in standardized tests are measured accordingly:

High Level readers:

  • Extend the information in a short historical passage to provide comparisons (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Provide a text-based description of the key steps in a process (CR)
  • Make an inference to recognize a non-explicit cause in an expository passage (MC – age 13)
  • Provide a description that includes the key aspects of a passage topic (CR – ages 9 and 13)

Mid Range Readers:

  • Read a highly detailed schedule to locate specific information (MC – age 13)
  • Provide a description that reflects the main idea of a science passage (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Infer the meaning of a supporting idea in a biographical sketch (MC – ages 9 and 13)
  • Use understanding of a poem to recognize the best description of the poem’s speaker (MC)

Low Level Readers:

  • Summarize the main ideas in an expository passage to provide a description (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Support an opinion about a story using details (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Recognize an explicitly stated reason in a highly detailed description (MC)
  • Recognize a character’s feeling in a short narrative passage (MC – age 13)

(CR Constructed-response question /MC Multiple-choice question)

Independent reading, in contrast, is deliberately void of any assessment. Students may choose to participate in a discussion or keep a log on their own, but that is their choice.  The only measurement is a student’s willingness to volunteer the frequency of their reading, a form of anecdotal data.

According to the graph below (age 17 only), students who volunteered that they read less frequently were in the low to mid-level ranges in reading. Students who volunteered that they read everyday met the standards at the top of the reading scale.

Graph showing that 17-year-olds who read for fun score higher on standardized tests

#1 Graph showing that 17-year-olds who read for fun score higher on standardized tests

Sadly, this NAEP data recorded a decline in reading for fun over the last 17 years-exactly the age of those students who have demonstrated only a 2% increase in reading ability. The high number of independent readers (“reading for fun”) was in 1994 at 30%.

Steady decline  in the number of 17- year-old students who say that they  "read for fun."

#2 Steady decline in the number of 17- year-old students who say that they “read for fun.”

So what happened the following years, in 1995 and 1996, to cause the drop in students who read voluntarily? What has happened to facilitate the steady decline?

In 1995 there were many voices advocating independent reading: Richard Allington, Stephen Krashen, and Robert Marzano. The value of independent reading had been researched and was being recommended to all districts.

Profit for testing companies or publishing companies, however, is not the motive in independent reading programs.There are no “scripted” or packaged or leveled programs to offer when students choose to “read for fun”, and there is no test that can be developed in order to report a score on an independent read. The numerical correlation of reading independently and higher test scores (ex: read 150 pages=3 points) is not individually measurable; and districts, parents, and even students are conditioned to receiving a score. Could the increase of reading programs from educational publishers with leveled reading box sets or reading software, all implemented in the early 1990s, be a factor?

Or perhaps the controversy on whole language vs. phonics, a controversy that raged during the 1990s, was a factor? Whole language was increasingly controversial, and reading instructional strategies were being revised to either remove whole language entirely or blend instruction with the more traditional phonics approach.

The sad truth is that there was plenty of research by 1995 to support a focus on independent “reading for fun” in a balanced literacy program, for example:

Yet seventeen years later, as detailed in the NAEP report of 2012, the scores for 17-year-old students who read independently for fun dropped to the lowest level of 19%. (chart #2)

While the scores from standardized testing over 41 years according to the NAEP report show only 2% growth in reading, the no cost independent “reading for fun” factor has proven to have a benefit on improving reading scores. Chart #1 shows a difference of 30 points out of a standardized test score of 500 or a 6% difference in scores between students who do not read to those who read daily. Based on the data in NAEP’s report, reading programs have been costly and yielded abysmal results, but letting students choose to “read for fun” has been far less costly and reflects a gain in reading scores.

The solution to breaking this cycle is given by the authors of The Nation’s Report Card. Ironically, these authors are assessment experts, data collectors, who have INCLUDED a strategy that is largely anecdotal, a strategy that can only be measured by students volunteering information about how often they read.

The choice to include the solution of “reading for fun” is up to all stakeholders-districts, educators, parents, students. If “reading for fun” has yielded the positive outcomes, then this solution should take priority in all reading programs. If not, then we are as insane as Einstein said; in trying to raise reading scores through the continued use of reading programs that have proven to be unsuccessful, we are “doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.”