Creating an Egalitarian Classroom Reading Culture
Let's admit it. When it comes to reading, students are often dishonest. They lie about completing their assigned reading. They lie about their independent reading. We teachers anticipate the lying and we go to great lengths to try and prevent it, assigning written reflections and creating reading logs (some even require a parent signature). But the truth is, those strategies rarely create passionate readers, nor do they address the fundamental issue: Why do students lie about reading?
Of course there are many reasons students are dishonest about reading, but too often it is related to struggle. When I talk to my students about why they lie, most of them admit that it is usually about keeping up or saving face in front of their classmates or teacher. They read books that are too difficult for them because "they don't want to read baby books while their classmates read Young Adult" or they fake reading assignments because they didn't have time to read all the pages.
Several years ago, I had an "eureka" moment when I realized that many of my struggling readers were probably never finishing books (never, ever). Instead, they were spending their precious reading time posturing with difficult books that their friends were reading. The intellectual energy that should have been directed at constructing a reading life was being siphoned towards efforts aimed at faking one. It made sense; how can anyone appreciate books if they never finish them? After all, books are made to be read from beginning to end. Pretending to read lengthy, complex books which they never finished deprived them of that story magic.
I realized my challenge was to convince my struggling readers to try easier books that were compelling enough to engage the most sophisticated readers in my room, but easy enough for everyone in the class to finish. I spent an entire summer plotting a fall reading launch predicated on this goal. After spending hours and hours curating and collecting a collection of my favorite graphic and illustrated novels, books written in poetic verse, short-story collections, and crowd pleaser short novels, I felt ready to introduce our newly reorganized classroom library, featuring these easy-to-finish books.
The plan worked.
Obviously, I never referred to the books as "easy." I simply saved my enthusiastic recommendations for well-written, accessible books. Merely suggesting that reading these books would not diminish anyone's academic stock immediately increased the energy for reading in the room. My students' appetite for more accessible books was stunning. Even strong readers became more playful with their reading choices, unapologetically laughing along with their peers about Greg's antics in the Diary of A WImpy Kid series or diving into graphic novels about Greek Mythology.
Most importantly, when my struggling readers finished books, they asked for more. Questions such as "Is that a Young Adult book?" or "How many pages is that?" were replaced by questions like "Is that book any good? Do you think I would like it?" My struggling readers even started to request more quiet reading time. In fact, everyone asked for more reading time.
Furthermore, it turns out that struggling readers were not the only ones craving a book they could finish quickly. Somehow, having their teacher champion easier books gave everyone in the class permission to focus on the pleasure of reading rather than framing it as a competitive sport or something that is doomed to be difficult but worthy.
Rest assured, Room 22 has not become a class of underachievers or slackers. Nor has a mixed difficulty book diet slowed anyone's reading progress. I regularly recommend and provide more difficult titles, but only after I've destigmatized what adult readers would unapologetically refer to as "beach reads".
After several years of launching the school year in this way, I can confidently attest to it's magic. It creates an immediate sense of calm and assures every kind of reader that there are piles of books to enjoy without shame. Most importantly, it invites all readers into our classroom reading conversation.
Creating An Egalitarian Reading Culture (Part Two) will focus on the most recent shift that has dramatically evened the playing field when it comes to reading in Room 22.