now what?

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 27 2011

I can read independently for 30+ minutes.

As a middle school teacher of reading, writing, speaking, and listening (a deliberate reference to the former NYC English Language Arts standards for those in the know, and don’t worry, I’m not defending them) I often find myself defending the practice of consistent, purposeful independent reading. A conversation typically goes like this:

Other Educator: Well, you have an hour on Friday, so you can complete x and y.

Me: Actually, I have independent reading at the beginning of class, and we debrief that after. So I have about 35 minutes. I can comfortably teach and assign all the tasks for x, but y will have to wait.

Other Educator: Well, x and y are important to z, and we have to z by NEXT WEEK, so why not just drop reading for the day.

Me: Independent reading is an essential component of our week.

Other Educator: It’s just reading. You can make it up AFTER z.

Me: … [head explodes]

This exchange inevitably floors me. I am the first to admit that I am not aware of the exact routines, structures, protocols, etcetera that might drive a math classroom or a science classroom, but two months into my third year of teaching, I am sure that independent reading works for my kids in English class. I teach in a whole district school, serving kids from some of the least – and most – affluent neighborhoods in my entire borough. I teach students who have been to Europe multiple times and students who have to take a bus an hour and a half to our campus in a pretty suburb. Some of my students can discuss high school level texts with ease, while for some of my students, Captain Underpants is in the zone of proximal development. Providing kids with time in school to read on their own allows them to be in reading-level appropriate books at least part of the time (I also teach whole class novels and literature circles, but that’s a different story), and helps kids build the routines of reading. I aim to begin class with this quiet reading time three times per week, in order to supplement the half hour Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) my entire school settles down to on Tuesdays and Thursdays after lunch. This is not wasted time; kids generate work (in the form of sticky notes that I frequently assess on a rubric) as they read, and I either assess the class as a whole through observation and record-making, or use this time to conference with individual kids. Very occasionally, I sit down and model the practices of good readers with kids, choosing a seat near a group of strugglers, taking out my own independent book, and completing the exact same tasks I ask of them (sticky note making, recording new words, etcetera).

Sorry, no, I cannot put off reading until next week. My kids need to read today. They also need to read tomorrow, and the day after, and so on. Until they can all read and discuss grade-level texts in a sophisticated way, z probably does not matter as much.

Do you allow time for independent reading in your classroom? Why or why not? What structures do you use?

2 Responses

  1. simplewords

    I love seeing this post. As a struggling first-year, I’m TRYING to emphasize the importance of independent reading. My management isn’t great and investment is crawling somewhere underneath the floorboards (I can’t tell you how many kids have looked at a test and said “I’m not doing it. I don’t care. You can rip it up right now. I don’t feel like it.”) but more than anything I desperately want them to READ! We have a library day every two weeks where all we do is read, and they have a specific project to work on as they read (ex-make up ten test questions someone could answer by reading what you read during this period, etc) but a lot just don’t do it–they stare at their books and “pretend.” They’re failing and don’t care. At the beginning of the year I had them read at home 20 minutes a night and had a similar problem, though many parents just signed for the week and once again, kids made stuff up. My good students were reading and simply not turning in their work, so I changed to having students write me a letter about their reading once a week. I also tried to have students read at the end of class at the beginning, but it ends up getting bumped off when we run out of time, which definitely sends the wrong message. Often students don’t bring their books, and many aren’t allowed to check out books from the library anymore because they’ve lost too many books. While I try to have a classroom library, we waste a lot of time getting out those books when I do have independent reading time, and it’s hard to have all the right levels. Needless to say, I’m excited to see what other people’s responses are…

  2. msmteachesreading

    @simplewords: Independent reading during my first year was a mess too. I will say that what I’ve learned about IR (and I think I’ve learned a lot, but it’s mostly taught me that there is EVEN MORE to learn), is that routine is super important. It seems obvious, but the more my kids do it, the better they become at it. I try to keep the IR expectations really stable (we always do it at the beginning of class on specific days of the week, unless something really crazy comes up). I don’t let kids choose random books if they forget their book, I keep photocopies of short stories around for them to read instead, and since these are more my taste than theirs, I rarely have kids forget a book! Another thing that has actually helped me make more of this time is to ask them to do LESS. Since many kids don’t have the executive functioning skills to manage their time really well without a checklist or schedule, I usually assign one small output task that is related ONLY to their reading and thinking from the day. Otherwise, they get super distracting trying to complete the assignment while reading, and both activities suffer.

    Good luck with your classroom!

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an NYC third-year teaches reading, writing, and everything in between


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