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Who Reads Deeply Anymore? These Students!

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This post is by Shannon Jin-a Yi-Lamborn, English and Drama teacher at City Arts & Tech High School in San Francisco.

Recently on this blog, Rafael Heller, co-editor of Rethinking Readiness, asked a great question: Who Reads Deeply Anymore? He explored important questions around literacy, the digital age, and the shrinking of our collective attention span. He also highlighted a goal: teaching young people to read, write, and think slowly, to balance the other ways they are taking in and synthesizing information.

There are many ways to reach that important goal, and this past year, a teacher from the Envision Education network devoted a significant chunk of instructional time to doing just that. Below, Shannon reflects on her strategy for helping students read more deeply: Sustained Silent Reading, or SSR. Three times a week In Shannon's classroom, students spent an extended period of time reading a book of their choice. Here's how it worked for her and her students:

While Sustained Silent Reading is now one of my most valued curriculum components, it wasn't something that I have always felt strongly about. I initially implemented SSR because my instructional coach recommended I do so. I was hesitant to dedicate so much time to what I feared would amount to wasted hours of fake reading.

And as I feared, in the beginning SSR was one of the most annoying routines to facilitate. Students would pick a book at random off a shelf, open it, and stare blankly at the pages in an attempt to skirt any consequences of being off task or disruptive. They groaned every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and relished any opportunity to voice their discontent with me -- and with reading. Commonplace student feedback on SSR included remarks such as:

  • "This book is trash."
  • "When is this over?"
  • "Can I go to the bathroom?"

By spring semester, everything had changed. My students and I had transformed SSR into an oasis of comfort, calm, and joy. It would take less than a minute for the classroom to fall silent as students quickly became enveloped in their respective worlds of choice. I would often have to coax students out of their books and back into the world of the classroom.  

SSR works because it provides both a mirror and a window for our young people. As a mirror, reading allows young people to learn more about themselves; as a window, it provides young people with access to cultures, lifestyles, norms, and communities outside their own. In addition to building mindfulness and empathy, SSR builds skills: regular reading increases knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. (And there's loads of assessment data to back that up!)

How did we make the shift? How can others implement SSR? To make SSR successful you need to do five things:

1 -  Genuinely believe in the power of SSR.

Joy and excitement are contagious and so is a love of reading. Communicate why and how you got into reading. Model how seriously you take SSR by making it the norm that everyone who enters your class during SSR should be reading, adults included.

2 - Name your purpose.

What do you want your students to get out of reading? Explicitly identify, name, and share your purpose with your students. Then create structures that allow you to work together towards that aim.

3 - Build a robust library.

Have you ever read something you weren't into? Yes? Me too and it's no fun! I like to tell my young people that there are too many books in the world to be wasting time choosing SSR books they don't enjoy. Yes, it's important to be able to read things you don't like but SSR is about choice. Do research by talking to peers and students, and by checking out recommended reading lists from websites such as Buzzfeed, Goodreads, NPR, and the Young Adult Library Association. Post on social media asking people to share the most influential books from their teenage years. Then, if you haven't already done so, make a DonorsChoose account and start raking in those donations!

4 - Nurture student relationships.

When students aren't reading, make a point to them what they've read and enjoyed and what they've hated. Ask them to consider if there are any patterns there. If they've never read a book they've enjoyed, ask them about their interests or favorite TV shows. Once you know your students as readers, you can more easily recommend books or connect students with similar reading interests to recommend books to each other!

5 - Have a plan to get your books back.

At the end of the year I got over 80 books back--yes, 80! I did this by creating a public project to "Rescue Ms. L's Library!" and publicly tracking the number of books returned. Personal incentives included extra credit points and a raffle towards new books. Classes were also in competition with each other to return the most books in exchange for snacks.

Today, I am a convert to SSR: I really, truly believe in its power. I've seen students' relationships to reading and books transform in my classroom. In the last weeks of the school year, I witnessed a magical moment. Three boys who used to hate reading were talking about the books they were reading and how cool they were. One was reading Sherman Alexie's Flight, another Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang's In Real Life, and the third was reading Vera Brosgol's Anya's Ghost. They were so excited to share their knowledge of the plot and characters in these books that I actually cried tears of joy!

Who is reading deeply these days? My students, and yours can too!



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