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Jane Eyre audio offered by SYNC YA

This summer I have been visiting the family estate at Gateshead, the harsh boarding school Lowood, and the Gothic mansion called Thornfield Hall through the audio download of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre courtesy of SYNC YA. This free audiobook uses Overdrive software which is on both my computer and my mobile phone. As the recording of Jane Eyre is about eight hours long, the ability to move from device to device has proved most helpful in finishing the book.

This is not my first experience with this novel. I read the book when I was a teenager, and, like Jane, I fell in love with Mr. Rochester. Years later, I taught the book later to Advanced Placement students and marveled at Jane’s independence, her morality, and her ability to emphatically say “No” to the persistently persuasive Rochester.  Now, I am struck by Jane’s role as a governess and how Bronte characterizes attitudes towards that profession in Victorian England.

At one of Rochester’s soirees, Bronte has the spoiled but beautiful Blanche Ingram recount how she and her brother and sister, tormented their governesses and tutors as as they grew up. The incident begins when Blanche’s mother, Mrs. Ingram, calls the guests’ attention to Jane, isolated in a corner of the room. “I have just one word to say of the whole tribe,” whispers Blanche’s mother loud enough for Jane to hear, “they are a nuisance.”

Blanche cheerfully counters:

Not that I ever suffered much from them; I took care to turn the tables. What tricks Theodore and I used to play on our Miss Wilsons, and Mrs. Greys, and Madame Jouberts! Mary was always too sleepy to join in a plot with spirit. The best fun was with Madame Joubert: Miss Wilson was a poor sickly thing, lachrymose and low-spirited, not worth the trouble of vanquishing, in short; and Mrs. Grey was coarse and insensible; no blow took effect on her.

Not satisfied with those affronts to those poor teachers, Bronte has Blanche continue the list the indignities inflicted on one particular governess who was subjected to especially bad behavior from the Ingram children:

But poor Madame Joubert! I see her yet in her raging passions, when we had driven her to extremities–spilt our tea, crumbled our bread and butter, tossed our books up to the ceiling, and played a charivari with the ruler and desk, the fender and fire-irons. Theodore, do you remember those merry days?”

Blanche’s condemnation of those who tried to educate her backfires; Bronte’s desire to have the reader dislike this rival for Rochester’s affection is deliberate. Jane’s quiet moral intelligence wins out in the end.

Listening to the story, I considered that Bronte was making a case for the importance of education as a means to rise out of poverty. Jane’s education at the Lowood Institute, a boarding school, was hazardous and purchased at a terrible price. Her classmate, Helen, dies because of the stark conditions at Lowood, mirroring the real-life death of Bronte’s sister, Maria, who died from tuberculosis contracted because of hunger, cold, and privation at Cowan Bridge School. Despite the treacherous conditions, however, Bronte revisits the theme of education’s importance as it provided the character Jane with an independent profession. She is hired to teach Rochester’s ward Adele, and she proves to be a successful governess.

The conflict between Bronte’s belief that education was one way for a young woman to earn a small income, to have a marketable profession, clashes with the upper classes’s view of the teaching profession in 1847. Therefore, how disappointing to read polls (2009-2012) about contemporary economics of the teaching profession that demonstrate that a century and a half later, not much has changed. According to The Economix blog on the NYTimes, “Does it Pay to Become a Teacher?”, salary  may reduce attracting high quality graduates to the teaching profession:

The average primary-school teacher in the United States earns about 67 percent of the salary of a average college-educated worker in the United States. The comparable figure is 82 percent across the overall Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.). For teachers in lower secondary school (roughly the years Americans would call middle school), the ratio in the United States is 69 percent, compared to 85 percent across the O.E.C.D. The average upper secondary teacher earns 72 percent of the salary for the average college-educated worker in the United States, compared to 90 percent for the overall O.E.C.D.

The findings also point out that teachers in the USA teach over 1000 hours annually, an amount well over the hours of their international peers. That number does not include time for preparation, training, or assessing. The article concludes:

Given the opportunity costs of becoming a teacher instead of using your college degree to enter another, more remunerative field, are the psychic rewards of teaching great enough to convince America’s best and brightest to become educators?

Bronte was one of England’s best and brightest who advocated education, but Bronte knew that teaching was not an economically successful profession. Jane Eyre only becomes financially independent when a relative leaves her a fortune; she only becomes wealthy when she confesses, “Reader, I married him.”

Over 150 years after Charlotte Bronte’s novel, the teaching profession still has its critics; there are real life Mrs. Ingrams and Blanches who hold the profession in contempt. There are also economic drawbacks to choosing the profession, as demonstrated in the O.E.C.D poll.

In the 21st Century, the teaching profession should be desirable to those who aspire to teach, but who, like Jane, want to be financially independent. Teachers should not have to wait for a Mr. Rochester in order to prosper.

Be vewy, vewy quiet….we’re reading!

Our new block schedule at Wamogo High School has made the school much quieter. We have alternating days, four periods of 85 minute classes; the traffic in the hallway is less, and, thankfully, so are the announcements. This quiet provides an excellent environment for us to continue our practice of silent sustained reading (SSR) at all grade levels, 7-12. We embarked on our SSR program two years ago, and we have noted both the anecdotal success with the program through participant surveys and the reading scores on the CMT/CAPT (State of CT mandated tests).

There are a number of texts on the incorporation of an SSR program in a language arts classrooms. Janice Pilgreen’s book (2000) The SSR HandbookHow to Organize and Manage a Sustained Silent Reading Program has an eight point checklist for successfully implementing SSR.

Using Pilgreen’s checklist (her suggestions in red), here is an explanation of how Wamogo is implementing the SSR program this year:

  • “Students need to be flooded with reading materials.”Our classroom libraries of whole class reads and independent reads are full. We have several carts that we can roll into classrooms of independent reading materials. Some carts are dedicated to specific grade levels or classes. For example, our Memoir class have a cart full of memoirs of all reading levels that students can select. Our school library is one of the few in the state to offer Overdrive® to all of its schools. Region 6 students and staff can easily download ebooks to a variety of devices from our Overdrive® catalog with over 15,000 titles. Students and staff can borrow free ebooks and read them on their iPod, iPad, laptop, Kindle or Nook. Creating a flood of reading materials is discussed also in Kelly Gallagher’s book Readicide. 
  • Appeal: The reading materials should be geared toward the interests of the students who are reading them.” We are sensitive to the wide variety of interests in our school. Many of our students are vocational agriculture students who are interested in non-fiction selections. We include all genres: manuals, graphic novels, historical non-fiction, fiction (YA titles) in trying to find books that interest our students.
  • Conducive Environment: The physical setting should be quiet and comfortable.” The new block schedule has benefitted the SSR program in an welcomed level of quiet in the school day. We do have the students read at their desks; we do not have “comfy chairs”.
  • Encouragement: Students need supportive adult role models who can offer assistance in locating reading material.” Our English Department teachers read with the students. We read the books during SSR so that we can make recommendations and discuss books with our students. Our amazing library media specialist comes in and gives book talks. She has also successfully incorporated popular author booktalks, in person or on SKYPE, with popular writers such as Neil Schusterman, Gordan Korman,and  Laurie Halse Anderson. (I am hoping for a Jon Szeiska interview one day *hint-hint*)
  • Staff Training: SSR doesn’t just happen; the staff of a school should be well versed in the goals and procedures used at the school.” Our department has seen the benefits of the SSR program, and we support each other with strategies to make the program work for us. There are teachers who use SSR time to confer with students, however, we found conferencing  distracted other readers. We also discuss the best times to implement an SSR activity in a block period, and how to measure results. 
  • Non-accountability: This is perhaps the most controversial factor. Pilgreen found that students read more, and had more positive attitudes toward reading, when book reports and such were not required.” In today’s data driven classrooms, this is a difficult, even risky, decision. In 9th grade, we do require one book review per quarter to be placed on a shared class blog, and we do require students to read more than one book per quarter. I also record the start page and the end page (students provide this number) as a way of keeping track of their progress. But, there are no other assessments of their independent reading.
  • “Follow-up Activities: Pilgreen found that follow-up activities such as conversations about books read by students or the teacher encouraged other to try them out.” We do spontaneous book talks. “Anyone reading a good book?” I will ask, “Any recommendations?” Students will share their reactions to a book when asked.
  •  “Distributed Time to Read: A common error made by schools new to SSR is that they have one long SSR period a week, rather than shorter periods that occur daily. Pilgreen found that successful programs have students read for fifteen to twenty minutes daily.” We have found that 15-20 minutes of reading time is ideal. On an alternating block schedule, this gives our students 30-60 minutes a week of quality reading time.

A classroom book cart in Grade 9 with high interest titles

Robert Marzano’s book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, ASCD, (2004) references Pilgreen’s eight steps; he  suggests a 5-Step Process for implementing SSR:

Step 1: Students identify topics of interest to them.
Step 2: Students identify reading material.
Step 3: Students are provided with uninterrupted time to read.
Step 4: Students write about or represent the information in their notebooks.
Step 5: Students interact with the information.

The major difference between Pilgreen and Marzano is the use of a notebook (step 4) for recording which we may incorporate this year in having students respond to prompt. These prompts are centered on story elements (“What similarities do you notice between your character and the archetypal character we study who is on a journey?”) . Our students are using writing notebooks for free-writes (front to back) and notes/vocabulary/grammar (back to front). Their first assignment was to “decorate” the notebooks, and already there are some enthusiastic participants for both decorating and free-writes!Finally Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey make a case for including SSR as a means to acquire content vocabulary in their book  Word Wise and Content Rich, Grades 7-12: Five Essential Steps to Teaching Academic Vocabulary, Fisher and Frey consider SSR as a means to contribute to gains in both background knowledge and vocabulary.

One more reason to implement SSR? The world is noisy. Students have their individual soundtracks plugged into their ears wherever they go; all venues from public transportation to shopping to sporting events have soundtracks; phone ring tones abound. There is a cacophony of sound in a student’s brain during the waking, perhaps even the sleeping, hours.The daily 15-20 minutes we offer students to read may be the only 15-20 minutes in a day where they are forced to be quiet. SSR allows them to absorb information without distraction. Ultimately, SSR at every grade level provides the opportunity for students to shut out the noise of school; SSR teaches our students to be vewy, vewy quiet. They’re reading.

Teenagers today read for pleasure just as much their parents-or grandparents- read when they were teens. This means that after all the time and effort dedicated by schools and publishers to increase student reading, the statistics show no increase in the number of teenagers who read for pleasure?

I find this a proposition just a little depressing.

65 years and no improvement in teens reading for pleasure? Why not?

An article in the January 2012 Language Magazine: The Journal of Education and Communication by Stephen Krashen titled “Reading for Pleasure” looks at data about the reading habits of high school students gathered from 1946 to the present in order to explain “why we should stop scolding teenagers and their schools.”  Krashen is a linguist and researcher in second language acquisition who promotes the use of free voluntary reading  which he says “is the most powerful tool we have in language education, first and second.”

Krashen looks at questionnaires given to 17 year olds by  National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)  that asked if they read in their spare time.  Using this data, he determines that despite some improvement between 1946 and 1984, there has been a decline in teenage reading from 1984-2008, resulting in no net gain in reading for the past 65 years. He concludes that, “Contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence that teenagers are less engaged in literacy activities today than teenagers of the past. Teenagers today do just as much book reading as teenagers did 65 years ago, and it appears that they are more involved in reading and writing in general when we include computer use in the analysis.”

That conclusion is really depressing. There have been considerable efforts to increase student reading on several fronts beginning in earnest with Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It  published in 1955. While this book dealt primarily with the methodology of teaching reading (phonics), the book’s message about the importance of literacy spike a nation’s interest in improving reading skills-an important step in student reading for pleasure. On the education front, the inclusion of   SSR (silent sustained reading) during the school day began over 30 years ago. One of the tenets of SSR is that students have the opportunity to choose materials to read. The practice of SSR has travelled from elementary to many middle and high schools in order to respond to student demands for choice. Finally, on the publishing front, there has been an explosion of  children and young adult literature in the past fifteen years: 3,000 young adult novels were published in 1997;  30,000 titles in 2009. In 2009, total sales exceeded 3 billion.

So, these quick examples suggest there is evidence there is heightened awareness about student reading for over 50 years, there is time provided in school, and there are materials published. Yet, there has been no increase in teenagers reading for pleasure?

Well, Krashen looks at the combined reading and writing habits of teenagers and notes that teenagers in the 2005 and 2010 NAEP reports spent more time on written interaction than on entertainment. Written interaction referred to social networking sites, and these figures are probably on the increase as access to the Internet on mobile devices increases. He writes that, “Communication with their peers is clearly important to them. In terms of total ‘voluntary reading and writing,’ teenagers in the 2005 report and the 2010 report are nearly even.” He concludes that, “’Kids these days’ appear to be reading and writing on their own an average of about an hour and a half a day.”

But student communication with their peers can be limited in vocabulary and scope. A recent student in Britain by Lancaster University’s Professor Tony McEnery who conducted research creating analysis of a database of teenage speech that suggested British teenagers had a vocabulary of just over 12,600 words compared with the nearly 21,400 words that the average person aged 25 to 34 uses. In other words, communication with peers does not increase vocabulary, and this study did not include texting adaptations of vocabulary with acronyms or shortened spelling. Yes, this study was conducted in Britain, but it is unlikely there is much difference in the vocabulary of American teens, other than that lovely accent.

Krashen is very clear to point out that students “are reading peer writing, not Hamlet or the Federalist Papers. And they are writing to each other, not composing essays comparing and contrasting Edgar Allen Poe with Longfellow.” But, I am not comforted that Krashen offers social communication as voluntary reading despite his claim that students experience cognitive development when they write on topics of deep personal concern.

I do agree, however, with Krashen’s claim  that “the true problem in literacy is not related to convincing reluctant teenagers to read: It is providing access to books for those living in poverty.”  I would go further to suggest that all schools, economically privileged or not, need to create reading material rich environments for students.

A classroom book cart in Grade 9 with high interest titles

Our 9th grade students are provided SSR time twice weekly (20-25 minutes/day) to read for pleasure. They may choose what they want to read. Often, a student will arrive in class without materials or, having just completed a book, looking for a recommendation. Our classroom libraries (book carts) are filled with high interest used books purchased for exactly this moment, and our school library is now connected to Overdrive which allows students to check out an ebook on a mobile device. This ability to capitalize on this moment of student’s interest with reading materials is critical to a successful reading program. The hope is that this will lead to continued reading for pleasure outside the classroom.

Krashen’s review of the data is depressing; I would have expected that given the amount of attention given to increasing teen reading for pleasure that there should have been a steady increase in reading habits from generation to generation.He cautions that negative attention given to this topic, including “dissing high school students”, is not the way to increase reading for pleasure. Teenagers by nature, regardless of their generation, should come to reading for pleasure through availability AND  choice. Just ask your mom, or grandma, can we do better?