Archives For SSR

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 box

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

Forgive the boasting, but the survey results for our a silent sustained reading program for 7th and 8th grade students in our school district are in..,and the teachers are feeling very proud.

573 students answered a 12 question survey about their experience this year for SSR, but let’s start with the most important response:

71.4% responded that SSR “made me a better reader this year.”Screenshot 2015-06-18 21.32.12

A better reader! That admission from students ages 11-14 is an achievement that can leave the faculty smiling proudly over the summer. And speaking about summer, the same students answered positively that they believe that they would read over the summer: 69% responded that they plan to read  (28% definitely; 41% sometimes).

Our SSR program was embraced by several teachers and up and running well by November. The classroom libraries were stocked with a combination of traditional and high interest materials. That meant 20 minutes a day of the block schedule (92 minutes) was dedicated to reading independently. By January even more classrooms were on board, and by April, all classrooms were practicing reading for pleasure, teachers included.

Those teachers who hesitated at first were slowly converted, and more than one commented, “I think I am a better reader as well!”

These same 573 students took many standardized tests this year generating scores that determine each student’s reading ability against a standard. But those test scores do not measure a student’s self-assessment of their reading.

Our June 2015 survey does.

Our June survey asked 12 questions about reading, and every response showed growth in attitudes that we recorded from our September 2014  survey. That beginning of the year survey was used as a benchmark to measure student attitudes towards reading.

Compare the responses from September to June when asked student if they thought reading was “fun”:

7th & 8th grade students Usually Sometimes Rarely
September  22% 48% 25%
June 32% 54% 14%

In one school year, 10% of the student population changed their attitudes towards reading…all in a positive direction.

The survey also recorded what students look for in selecting their own reading materials:

length of the book 26.9%
cover of the book 46.2%
the book is part of a series I like 61.8%
a friend recommended the book 48.2%
a teacher recommended the book 31.1%
a parent or another adult recommended the book 22.2%
a movie is connected to this book 24.4%

The survey also asked how many books students were reading a month:

at least 1 32.1%
1-2 books 14.8%
3-4 books 17.1%
4 or more books 12%

Do the math. 184 students (32%) read at least one book a month. That means students who read one book a month for eight months (8) of the school year collectively read 1472 books…and that just the total of books read by 1/3 of the class.

Combine our findings with those of the Scholastic Publishing company in their survey 2014  “Kids and Family Reading Report”

Scholastic is one of the publishers that has a presence in schools through book fair sales, and they released three key findings 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.

#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.

#3: Sixty-one percent of children ages 6–17 who live in the lowest-income households say they read books for fun mostly in school, or the same amount in school and at home, while only 32% of children ages 6–17 who live the highest-income homes say the same.

The most interesting statistics for our teachers  in our survey was that students believe their parents are connected to their independent reading. Along with the information that 22% of students look for suggestions from parents in selecting reading materials, they also indicated how critical the role of parents and family is (over 50%) when they share what they read by checking all that applied:

I share what I read with:

Friends 56.9%
Family (parents, relatives) 53.1%
Teacher 33%
Other 13.4%
 Next year’s plan? Focus on this parent connection, flood the classrooms with more books, and read, read, read.
Beyond the survey, there is one more piece of evidence. These final images display the lists of the favorite books the students read this year from Mr. Robert’s class. He was one of the early embracers of SSR, and his results speak for themselves:

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“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.

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.

Screenshot 2014-06-11 20.37.34

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.

Screenshot 2014-06-12 07.18.45

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.


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 (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:’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.

As the first semester begins to draw to a close, I need to check in and see what progress the 9th grade students are making with Silent Sustained Reading (SSR). Our school’s move to a block schedule (A/B) days of 83 minute classes has given us the opportunity to provide students with 10-20 minutes of SSR every English class period. I try very hard not to put any restriction on what students read, although I still urge them to try and “read up” to more complicated texts. I wrote about the rationale for this program in a previous post, “Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet…We’re Reading”.

To facilitate the SSR program, there are two carts in the room with books I have purchased through the secondary market, mostly thrift stores and public library book sales (hence the title of the blog “Used Books in Class”). Each cart holds about 150 books; at $1-$2 a book, I have spent about $500 on the 300 books available for SSR.

A wide selection

A wide selection

The most popular titles in circulation these past few months have been:

Lauren Myracle’s TTFN and TTYL
John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice (any one in the series)
Catherine Gilbert Murdock ‘s Dairy Queen
Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones
Patricia McCormack’s Cut
Carl Deuker’s Gym Candy
S. A. Bodeen’s The Compound
Sarah Dressen’s  Dreamland
Nicholas Sparks’s Dear John
Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Trilogy (pick any one of these; they are on EVERYONE’S shelf)

The students are keeping their responses to the books they read on the Shelfari website this year. This is a commercial site tied to the retail giant Amazon, but there are ways to lock down the private groups we have established for each class. Last year, we used Blogger, but there were some glitches with Internet Explorer and Blogger; unless we used a browser like Firefox, the pages kept jumping and commenting was impossible. When students are on the Shelfari site, they can see what other students in the class are reading, and posting titles they have read or plan on reading is really easy. In addition, there are already reviews of the books, so students are forced to add something original to a review of the book. They can read recommendations (for and against the text) and they can participate in a discussion.

This morning I posted the following discussion prompt on Shelfari:

You have had 16 weeks of SSR in class-most of the time with your choice of reading materials.
Tell me how you are progressing as a reader. Are you finding enough materials to read? Have you read at least ONE good book? Are you a better reader now that you were in September? Why or why not?

Some of the responses made my teacher’s heart pound proudly:

Over the past 16 weeks of SSR, I’ve probably read 5 or 6 books. Some of them were short, but some were a reasonable length. I’ve really been enjoying the SSR time we’ve been getting because the quiet period of time we get is really beneficial to my reading skills.

I am progressing in my reading. So far I have read three books this year. I am finding plenty to read. I have found many good books, including “Prom & Prejudice” and “Awkward”. I feel I am a better reader than I was in September because I am reading more difficult books than I was before and in September.

Yes I am better reader because last year I read even slower than I do now and I understand more because of the vocabulary words. I am finding enough materials to read. A good book I read this year was Miracle on 49th Street, this was good because it was a very suspenseful book.

But then, there are the honest appraisals that make me concerned about how students select books and a student’s ability to stay focused in a class for 10-20 minutes:

I’m an average speed reader, but I tend to get distracted. I’ve read a lot of good books, but they were in a lot of different genres. It’s hard for me to find books that interest me lately. I feel that my reading skills have changed a little, I’ve been able to understand things a little more.

During the past 16 weeks of SSR I haven’t really improved very much with my reading. I have only finished one book and I am working on another the first was a pretty good length and didn’t take long to read and the other is pretty long. I am a slow reader and I also just never find the time to sit down and read my book. Also, I get distracted while reading my book sometimes, so I haven’t progressed very much in the weeks of SSR.

And then, there are the even more painfully honest appraisals:

I’m a really really slow reader, and tend to get very distracted while reading, so I have a hard time making lots of progress in books. Books that are available to me don’t interest me. There was only one book that I’ve read and liked in my whole life; but there are no sequels. No I’m not a better reader, my reading skills never change, I’m always a slow and easily distracted reader.

The quiet time in SSR may not be “quiet” enough for some students, so I need to think about the physical space being more reader friendly. Apparently, I also need to have some students develop an understanding of what they like to read, and see how I can get those books onto my book carts.

Success with SSR is monitored through student self-appraisal, so I will be checking back in a few months to see if students note any changes in how they are reading. If nothing else, I know that there is power in the shared quiet reading experience we have twice or three times a week. When their heads are bent down in a book, I can feel them read.

The cover is not at all frightening, but the contents are. I had found two copies of Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars at summer book sales ($1.00 each) and placed them on the 9th grade independent reading book carts.  There was not much interest; the paperback measures a hefty 342 pages. But lately, the book is gaining some tractions with some of the freshmen boys.

“It’s about these interviews with survivors of the Zombie apocalypse ” explained Paul to the class yesterday when he volunteered to share what he was reading, “and it is really realistic. You hear how the zombie plague started and how the governments are corrupt.”

When a classmate endorses a book, the other students listen; first person testimonials are very powerful in our independent reading program. I had touted the book early in September to students when they were first perusing the book carts  The storyline was compelling enough for me, a squeamish reader, to appreciate how Brooks made a zombie war a study in political science. How would governments react to an epidemiological disaster? What would our military do to contain a potent virus? What rules would govern the survivors? I found the book to be a heart pounding read, and I read a few paragraphs to the class who listened with interest.

World War Z is told through a series of eye-witness accounts that occasionally connect characters and events. For example, there is the testimony of the fictional Dr. Kwang Jingshu, Greater Chongqing, United Federation of China:

“I found ‘Patient Zero’ behind the locked door of an abandoned apartment across town. . . . His wrists and feet were bound with plastic packing twine. Although he’d rubbed off the skin around his bonds, there was no blood. There was also no blood on his other wounds. . . . He was writhing like an animal; a gag muffled his growls. At first the villagers tried to hold me back. They warned me not to touch him, that he was ‘cursed.’ I shrugged them off and reached for my mask and gloves. The boy’s skin was . . . cold and gray . . . I could find neither his heartbeat nor his pulse.”

There is also very realistic testimony from the fictional General Travis D’Ambrosia, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe:

“Two hundred million zombies. Who can even visualize that type of number, let alone combat it? . . . For the first time in history, we faced an enemy that was actively waging total war. They had no limits of endurance. They would never negotiate, never surrender. They would fight until the very end because, unlike us, every single one of them, every second of every day, was devoted to consuming all life on Earth.”

What was most frightening as I read was my increasing doubt that the hundreds of characters interviewed in this story were fictional at all. Brooks has written post-zombie war interviews of doctors, generals, mayors, and newspaper reporters with remarkable authenticity.

But World War Z is not the only post-apocolyptic zombie book making the rounds in class. Another popular book making the rounds is Jonathan Mayberry’s Rot and Ruin (Benny Imura) the first novel in a series. I often see the rather grotesque cover art sitting on a desk, one eyeball staring up at the ceiling.

A review of Rot and Ruin on Amazon states:
In the zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic America where Benny Imura lives, every teenager must find a job by the time they turn fifteen or get their rations cut in half. Benny doesn’t want to apprentice as a zombie hunter with his boring older brother Tom, but he has no choice. He expects a tedious job whacking zoms for cash, but what he gets is a vocation that will teach him what it means to be human.
Zombie literature seems to cross our class’s gender lines, although Rot and Ruin seems to be more popular with the girls in the class. At present, there are only a few copies available through our school library, so I will be looking out for it at book sales. In addition to these titles, we also have several copies of James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, a series also loosely connected to the zombie phenomenon.
I am not entirely sure what my students’ fascination with zombies means. There are always trends or fads in literature; several years ago handsome vampires were all the rage, and several year before that, wizards ruled the reading lists. So I am aware that this infatuation with all things zombie will eventually fade, but maybe I can convince them to use their own brains as “food” for thought.
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.