I just received my first-semester class evaluations from my students. After reviewing them I came to the conclusion that my class would be much more enjoyable for my students if we did not spend so much time reading or writing. They would prefer to interact in more group activities or spend their time working on artistic projects. Unfortunately, I do not teach physical education or art. Although I can appreciate that group activities and artistic projects have a place in my classroom, they can not and will not be the central focus of my class.
As a high school English teacher, I feel that I am fighting a battle to preserve what is left of the dying art of reading. I want my students to get excited about words and the possibilities that literature offers them. Most of my students do not recognize the magic of books or the beauty of words. They are so absorbed in our high tech, fast-paced world that they are unable to appreciate the beautiful simplicity of literature. Students today seem to need high levels of stimuli to be entertained, which is probably a byproduct of advancing technology. I see kids of every age walking around campus playing hand -held video games and/or listening to their CD-players. When students discuss their lives outside of school, most of them admit without hesitation that they spend a majority of time at home watching TV, talking on the phone, playing video games or using their computers to download music or chat via email and instant messenger. Reading and writing seem to be activities that are only associated with school, which is a scary reality.
How do I get students excited about reading when I only have them for 90 minutes every other day? I have tried several strategies in my classes in an attempt to kindle a small flame of interest in reading, which I hope will one day grow into a passion for literature. I know it is unrealistic to think every student will learn to appreciate and enjoy reading, but my goal is to give each one a positive reading experience before they leave my classroom.
My first attempt to get students interested in reading is through my SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) program. I require students to choose a book from home, our school library or my personal classroom library.1 They must bring their SSR book to every single class. The book can be on any topic that interests them, which leads to some interesting selections, but I stress that the book must be age-level appropriate. Students must read their book for the first 15 minutes of each class and then complete a variety of projects throughout the year using their SSR books. There is always a great deal of resistance to SSR the first month of school. I have been pleased, however, that students generally pick books on topics that interest them, and as a result most end up enjoying their 15-minute reading period. I want students to realize that there are books on every subject from “how to” books on skateboarding to biographies about famous people and general fiction. Most students tell me they don’t enjoy the books that teachers choose to teach, which is a legitimate complaint. I have worked in districts that require me to teach books that I would rather not include in my curriculum. It is important that students be exposed to the plethora of book styles, genres, and topics that are available. I think SSR is successful because it encourages students to search for a book that might interest them. Many students have never done it before because it takes time and energy.
At the beginning of last year, I had a student proclaim proudly that he hated (abhorred, might be a more accurate word) reading because it was so boring. I suggested he choose a book in an area that interested him because that would add excitement to his reading. We had a long conversation about different authors and book styles. He finally decided to read Steven King’s novel, The Green Mile, because he had heard the movie was good. One day, after about four months of SSR, the kitchen timer rang to signal the end of SSR. He let out an exasperated sigh and said in an irritated tone, “SSR is too short. It should be at least 20 minutes because 15 minutes is not enough time to really get into my book.” I was thrilled! He was actually disappointed that he could not continue reading because he was so caught up in his book. That moment was a tiny victory in my battle against student apathy towards reading. It is also the inspiration that keeps me doing SSR despite the instructional time I lose.
The second thing I enjoy doing in my classroom to provide students with a positive reading experience is “story time.” My classroom is large enough that I am able to organize the students’ desks into two U-shaped rows. This leaves a substantial amount of space in the center of the room, which I use for story time once every week. The first time I announced to my high school students that I wanted them to sit on the floor for story time, I was met with gasps, dropping jaws and rolling eyes. They could not believe I was serious. Many of my students informed me that “only kids read children’s books, Ms. Rice!” I also heard comments like, “this is so lame” and “she is so weird.” Despite their protests and disbelief, I read them story after story. I wanted to give students the opportunity to just relax and enjoy a story without being “held accountable.”
One week in November I forgot to schedule a story time and at least one student from each of my classes pointed out my mistake. I explained (to every class) that we had a lot to do before Thanksgiving break and we did not have time for a story that week. My students were outraged! All I could do was smile at their disappointment. They had begun to look forward to story time. It was a break in the curriculum that gave them a chance to relax and enjoy a fun story. My second language learners were especially entranced by story time, because the language was simple and easy to follow. I think story time has been my most successful strategy in terms of providing my students with a stress-free, positive reading experience.
I think the apathy most students show toward reading is a result of their lack of exposure to reading different types of books. Most students view reading as a chore. It is my job as an English teacher to show students that although reading is an educational tool, it is also a form of entertainment. I hope that SSR and story time (among other reading activities) will help me to break down some of the barriers that keep students from reading for pleasure.
Most IOBA members have low-value or unsaleable books lying around book club editions, copies missing their dust jackets or others with cosmetic flaws that are still eminently readable. Have any of you tried contacting local English teachers or school principles about donating some of these volumes for classroom use? If not, you might consider it. After all, our livelihood depends on having people out there who want to read books. What better way to do so than to encourage the younger generation to read?