How Reading Is Like Running
This post is by Alec Patton, Humanities Teacher at High Tech High Chula Vista.
This post is going to be about reading and deeper learning, I promise. But it starts by being about running.
I have two prosthetic heart valves. They don't affect me much, but they affect my ability to run. I've been thinking about this recently, because I've started jogging. This is something I've done off-and-on ever since I was a teenager, and I've developed some hitherto-unspoken personal rules:
1. I never run with a group.
I'm too hyper-aware of my limitations, and I'm afraid of a well-meaning running companion shouting "C'mon, you got this, one more hill!" when I know I won't be able to draw the air I need to do it.
2. However much I run is better than staying at home.
When I run, I always set myself an extremely modest goal, and give myself permission not to meet it. The idea of setting a standard that I need to hit and exceed alarms me.
3. I don't really want to get better at running.
What I mean by this is that being able to run for longer stretches at a time seems like a terrible prize for improving my fitness. Seriously, why would I want to spend more of my time doing this?
So here's why I'm writing about running: some of my students feel the same way about reading as I do about running.
Here's what my "personal rules" might look like to a high schooler for whom reading is as tough as running is for me:
1. Never read with a group.
This is difficult in high school, because you usually read texts as a group. So if you're trying to avoid constantly being reminded that you read more slowly than the rest of the group, the most obvious course of action is not to read at all.
2. Whatever book you read is better than no book at all.
When you have an opportunity to choose what to read, try to find the shortest, simplest thing you can read without losing face. Then, focus on looking at the words and turning the pages. Don't worry about understanding or remembering what you're reading.
3. Don't try to get better at reading.
Any time you spend reading is time when you'd rather be doing almost anything else, so don't expect that this is going to change. Keep doing the minimum amount, and wait for graduation.
I don't endorse these "unspoken rules", and I don't think they are helpful to students. But I know that some students follow them when we read in my class. When I think about my own unspoken rules of running, I understand why.
When a student feels about reading as I do about running, I work with them to develop strategies for monitoring their comprehension and remembering what they've read. But just as important as providing strategies is recognizing how it feels to be doing something you know you're not great at, in a context where your deficiency is unmistakable. I choose not to run in groups, but I make my students read in groups, because I think the benefits of looking at a text together outweigh the discomfort.
This brings me to the one stretch of my life when I ran in a group. It was the summer after my junior year of high school, at the arts camp at Goucher College (I played in the jazz band). For two weeks, I woke up earlier than was required, to run a mile and a half with my almost literally indefatigable friend Kyle (who was a star on the track team at his school) and a few other campers and counsellors. I was by far the slowest in the group, but I could run most the route, and I felt great the rest of the day.
So what was different at Goucher? It wasn't the running. That was the same as ever. Nobody gave me a running strategy that made it easier for me to breathe. What was special was what happened the rest of the time. I spent most of the day playing saxophone, which I was good at, and enjoyed. When I wasn't playing music, I was hanging out with my peers: artists, dancers, and musicians who supported me in everything I was pursuing. Finally, Kyle (who was the instigator of our morning runs) never said anything critical about how I ran, or how far, or how fast, but he would have given me hell if I hadn't got out of bed to run.
What does this have to do with deeper learning? The Hewlett Foundation's definition of Deeper Learning lists "an Academic Mindset" as one of the goals of deeper learning, explaining that "Students with an academic mindset [...] trust their own abilities and believe their hard work will pay off, so they persist to overcome obstacles." For all students to develop an Academic Mindset, my classroom needs to be a place where the Kyles of reading can take off and disappear over the horizon, while people like me can take their time, and where everyone feels safe going at their own pace.
In my classroom, I begin this process by explicitly teaching note-taking strategies that make the components of comprehension visible (the techniques I teach are drawn mostly from those of Cris Tovani and Kelly Gallagher). This is intended to demystify the skills of comprehension. I also tend to make reading assignments relatively short, and let students choose the books they want to read (since differences in students' reading speeds are magnified by the length of a text). Then, I set aside twenty minutes a day for independent reading, and I serve tea. I do this so that students can read at their own pace, and talk to me one-on-one about the problems they are having. I follow Kyle's lead on this. I don't judge students based on how well they read. What matters is THAT they read. Challenge can come later, but safety comes first.