Wondering about the value of individual silent reading during the school day? Meet Claudia Swisher (known as "Swish" to her students), who teaches in Oklahoma. Swisher is in her 36th year of teaching: three states, all twelve grades and nearly a dozen different assignments. She now spends her entire day teaching a class called "Reading for Pleasure."
[NF] You have what seems like the world's greatest teaching job to me: reading and more reading. How and why was your reading class created, and how did it grow?
[CS] I'm an English teacher, school librarian, and reading specialist. I was trained by professors who believed whole language was the way to best reach struggling adolescent readers, not more phonics or worksheets. Even in remedial classes, I used a lot of SSR with some kind of written response.
We were changing high school configurations and schedules, requiring kids to take eight classes a semester. We needed electives, and my "dream elective" was Reading for Pleasure. I teach the class full time. Once a student takes it, s/he is usually interested in taking it again. I fought for the right for students to repeat the class for credit, and many kids do. It's also used as an alternative for remedial reading for a small group of ninth graders who haven't yet reached the magic 8th grade reading level, which kids in OK must demonstrate in order to get a driver's permit. We find those kids, and plunk them into R4P. They are not happy--but most of them take the class again as upperclassmen as a self-chosen elective.
[NF] In this era of strict, standardized test-based "accountability," has there been pushback against the idea of high school students simply reading for an hour a day? How do you address that?
[CS] None at my school. I've done presentations around the state, and that's one of the first things principals will talk about. I have my kids regularly reflect on their own growth and test scores. Kids who take the ACT tell me they are able to sit and read the selections more quickly, staying focused as they read. Kids started taking the class in hopes of raising their ACT scores before I even thought of that as a recruiting tool.
This class has affected the literacy climate of the school-- library circulation is up, and those assigned English novels actually get read! My seniors are working on the books they'll write their senior papers over.
[NF] Because we're Goodreads partners, I know that you read a lot of young adult books. Do you genuinely enjoy reading young adult literature? Any authors or trends in YA that stand out as particularly worthy or groundbreaking--or harmful?
[CS] Great question! I've always read YA lit - Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. (laughing) My mother thought I should be reading "good" books. Her books! The library bookmobile stopped literally right in front of my house all summer. I am proof that wide, indiscriminate, "undisciplined" reading is not harmful. I read comic books, too.
So, YA books don't scare me. By nature - and some definitions - they are more intense stories about really big issues in people's lives: death, love, grief, self awareness, forgiveness, friendship, family. They are short and accessible. Some kids in my class cannot sit still at the beginning of the semester for 20 minutes, and YA books are perfect. My kids have found the best authors: Laurie Anderson writes really interesting historical fiction about pre- and post-Revolution America. Chris Crutcher is my go-to author for reluctant guys. His characters are smart boys with a strong sense of right and wrong. Walter Dean Myers is another male writer who tells the truth and writes powerful novels of young people trapped in wars. Sarah Dessen, Jay Asher, Sherman Alexie, Alex Flinn, Melissa de la Cruz...
I read with my students every day. When I ask them to read, I read. My rule is when I'm reading with students in class, I must only read books that someone recommended to me. I read it, they watch me laugh and cry (yes, I cry in class!), then someone else gets the book. I don't think there are harmful YA books, but some are better than others. I don't mind a kid reading "pulpy" YA books-- as we read more widely, we begin to see what's quality and what's not.
I see Harry Potter books as "gateway drugs" to more serious fantasy: Tolkien, Herbert, Card. If I can get a kid reading "Twilight," maybe I can move her into literary fiction and classics. There's a short YA novel called "Peak" about a boy who attempts to climb Mr. Everest. I read that with my kids, then recommended "Into Thin Air" (Jon Krakauer), about his real-life climb. YA is about storytelling, about young adults seeing themselves and their struggles reflected in print. Kids can see they're not alone in this world.
[NF] How would you describe the difference between young adult literature, quality fiction and "the classics?" What value do these genres offer to high school students? And what about the canon--the books we were all compelled to read in high school? Still relevant?
[CS] One of the strengths of my class is that students aren't forced to only read one kind of book--but they are forced to read books. Students won't really strengthen their reading skills by reading short selections like magazines. Books make them work through the initial confusion of the first chapters, live with the ambiguity of not knowing who the good guy is, not understanding every word, not stopping! If my students read on, they learn the whole is greater than the parts. The difference between genres is intended audience, plus reading levels, length and complexity. Kids will start with YA, and become interested and motivated to read serious adult work. My students read best sellers, literary fiction, nonfiction, and classics. I encourage them to read their assigned books in class and write about them. I can help them read--and respond as reader first; then their English teachers can help them analyze as student of literature.
YA is a path for alliterate teens who haven't read for pleasure since elementary school. If I can't convince them to find some kind of pleasure in reading, then they won't read anything. Literary fiction and nonfiction are the prize for working through YA and realizing you're smarter than you thought, and you want more. Sometimes it's a hard sell.
As a student, I struggled through some of the classics I was assigned. I probably only read half--I was one of those good students who could get enough context within the class discussion to look like I'd read the books. As a teacher, I despaired when kids didn't love "Animal Farm" as much as I did. I wanted them to cry with me as I read "To Kill a Mockingbird."
I've watched kids get angry, resentful and lose confidence in their ability to read when we give them these books. Kelly Gallagher wrote a magnificent book called "Readicide" that challenged teachers to think about the fact we over teach novels, giving kids 30-page packets of worksheets, or under teach by never telling them what they should be caring about. I get to respond to their ideas, to tell them how I felt as a reader about Gatsby's death, or Victor Frankenstein's abandonment of his creature. You'd be surprised at the number of times the kids will bring up symbolism or thematic connections on their own. When we give them time, and an appreciative audience for their reflections, they bloom.
One second-semester senior made it his goal to read (in R4P) all the books he'd been assigned in English classes, and hadn't actually read: "Catcher in the Rye," "All Quiet on the Western Front, " etc.. He loved them! Take away the sledge hammer of the grades, give them time to read and an audience for their reflections, and you've got an independent reader.
[NF] Given the lure of image-based media and 140-character communication, how do you get "wired" teenagers to sustain the old-fashioned narrative reading of books?
[CS] Kids who are avid readers enter middle school and get distracted by friends, social lives, technology, sports. It doesn't take long, then it's just easier NOT to read. I know they're reading online and texting, but short bursts don't allow interactions with story, with ambiguity, with suspense. Kids are surrounded by text, but it may not be helping build stronger, more responsive, discriminating readers.
If I tell them I value their reading, and then I surf the web, what's the message?? I think this is the reason some attempts at this kind of class fail: teachers see it as another planning period. We build up stamina slowly; some of my kids haven't sat still to read in a long time. And we write. I give them those sentence starter-prompts we've all seen for years. Everybody writes. Kids turn in their Reading Logs, and I read and respond to everything the kids write. I respond as a reader--the way you and I would talk about books.
I encourage students to share opinions, reflections, predictions, questions. Sometimes I have students find a quote from their book, copy it into their Log and respond. It's crucial that they know I read every word they write, and know I'll respond. They learn they're writing for an interested audience, and their logs get stronger throughout the semester.
I've read enough that I can offer suggestions at the beginning of the semester with types of books that are usually motivating- high interest plots. I know the books with teen drama, vampires, dragons, and lots of coming of age novels, sports books, gang books. My first job is to get kids reading something. They don't have to finish a book that isn't interesting, or is on the wrong "level" for them, although I don't do any formal assessment of reading levels. Finding that first book is huge. I tell kids I'll keep throwing books at them until one sticks. When I find that first book, I can find five more like it. Choice is key.
Kids aren't limited to fiction. One boy read nothing but technical computer manuals all semester...for pleasure! And he parlayed that interest into an IT job that he loves. On their end of semester evaluation, they often talk about how relaxing this class is; I think they value the opportunity to slow down and read. No distractions, no worksheets. I've watched many kids get into that flow that Csikszentmihalyi describes. That's what I'm aiming for: that moment when every student is literally in flow - lost in his or her book, unaware of time passing or anyone else in the room.
[NF] What did I miss?
[CS] In every class I'll have the entire range of abilities, ELL, LD to AP, kids who use wheelchairs and listen to books on tape. Since every student reads his or her own book, the class naturally differentiates itself. Some kids are there because they want to be--they're avid readers and love the idea of getting credit. Many used to love reading and know they need to get back into the habit. Some kids are there to strengthen their skills for the ACT or for college. Some are there because their special ed teacher put them in. It's truly the most democratic class in school--druggies next to cheerleaders next to Goths next to band nerds.
One kid wrote a note to me saying he took the class to goof off, and to disrupt. But then he looked around for who might join him in his mayhem and realized in horror...everyone was reading! I tell kids I know some of them have never used the words "reading" and "pleasure" in the same sentence before, but to give me a chance. Most do.
Goodreads and Facebook have extended my teaching back to former students who are now adults. I get book recommendations every week from former students. I'm having a ball.
[NF] Quick! List Claudia Swisher's three desert island books.
[CS] "To Kill a Mockingbird" - I read that book every year and I cry every time. "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak-- so many layers. And "The Courage to Teach"-- so I'd be ready to go back to teaching when I got off the island!