Restriction or Release

I cringe every time I see the “joke” what three things do teachers love best about teaching? June, July, August.

In reality, at least for teachers in the Northeast, June is a nightmare. It’s rush, rush, rush to finish up: cram in one more lesson, complete the unit, administer the final, get everything graded, pack up the classroom, sign yearbooks, and by the last week in June, we look like we’ve been run over by a school bus.

Most of my colleagues spend July either working, recharging, or both. As August roles around, we’re getting back into school mode–thinking about lesson plans, classroom arrangements, and curriculum. Of course, the majority of us attend some type of professional development over the summer as well. For me, I find summer PD far more beneficial than PD during the school year because in the summer I have a chance to let all the ideas gel. I’m not thinking about the myriad of things on my desk; I’m simply focusing on what I’m reading about or doing. Also my summer PD offers something PD during the school year doesn’t: choice. I mean real choice–not choose between these three things that you were actually trained in back in the 90s but they’re now back in fashion. No, real choice. I get to decide what articles, blogs, and books I want to read. I get to decide what professional discussions I get to be involved in. And most importantly any discussion of STEM is truly for enhancing ELA not something that’s going to miraculously improve our students’ learning. Not that I’m anti-STEM. Believe me, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have to write my dissertation without access to computer. Hats off to those who came before me–not just because it had to be typed (I do remember those days), but because you actually had to go to the library. I had access to UPenn’s library from my home 40 miles away. I had every journal article I could ever want. If I needed a book, I could see if it was in the library, put a hold on it, and then go get it, saving me lots of time. STEM has its place. It’s just not a substitute for reading and writing. The only way to get better at reading and writing is to…(you guessed it) read and write.

Of course literacy is a social activity. Reading and writing in isolation without an audience or anyone to discuss text with is probably not going to do much to push the average person’s thinking forward. Which brings me to a few thoughts that have been marinating this week.

First, I spent the weekend finalizing my syllabus for a secondary literacy methods course I’m teaching. The only reason it’s finalized is because I had a due date, or I’d still be tinkering with it. (Full disclosure, I’ll probably be tinkering with it until class starts.) Of course I want to teach ALL THE THINGS! It’s impossible to impart 25 years of professional knowledge into a 14 week course. So I thought about what was important for a beginning teacher to know. I thought about how I was taught to teach (from undergrad to in-service to grad school). And then I started, as Julie Andrews sings, At the beginning. I started with standards and theory and approaches. For me it was more important to know why something worked that what to do. So even though my undergrad program prepared me for my first days of teaching, I only became a better teacher after I started thinking about the theory behind the pedagogy.

I realized a lot of my syllabus reflects my values as a teacher and as a reader and writer. I spend two weeks talking about selecting books for classroom libraries and engaging in the lexile level debate. Some of this comes from the fact that we are focusing on diverse books and diverse authors in our classrooms. Our students need to see themselves reflected back at them when they read. Finding something to connect with in a book is one way to make sure that students continue reading.

My search for readings about diversity in YA lit started at We Need Diverse Books. Their resource section lead me to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), which is part of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I found a treasure trove of information there and ended up traveling down the rabbit hole that is the Web. I was startled by the statistics they listed for the 2016 publishing year:

Of the approximately 3,400 books we received at the CCBC in 2016, most from U.S. publishers, here’s the breakdown:

  • 278 books had significant African or African American content
  • 71 of these were by Black authors and/or illustrators
  • 55 books had American Indian/First Nations themes, topics, or characters
  • 21 of these were by American Indian/First Nations authors and/or illustrators
  • 237 books had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
  • 75 of these were by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
  • 166 books had significant Latino content
  • 58 of these were by Latino authors and/or illustrators (Horning, Lindgren,& Schliesman)

Additionally, reading builds empathy. What happens to students who live in an area consists of mostly white, middle class families when they read books that portray diverse characters? Simply put, they become more accepting of differences. They become genuinely interested in the differences among people and embrace those differences. Fear and suspicion that are the underlying foundation of racism and hate crimes cannot be fostered in readers of diverse books.

If it were up to me, the entire world would be readers. We’d all take a reading break at some point in the day. There’d be reading nooks in offices, classrooms, and public spaces. Print deserts would cease to exist. Libraries would all be fully funded. Spontaneous book discussions would happen on a regular basis. And books being turned into (bad) movies would be a thing of the past. And the world would be a happier place.

But of course, it’s not up to me. I do what I can in my classroom. I’m going to do what I can with my graduate students (and yes, they are going to have to read diverse YA lit). But what about other classrooms?

I think what distresses me the most are when I hear about schools adopting reading programs (you know who you are) that force kids to read because reading improves test scores. I’m not going to argue that reading improves test scores. The research is there. But does forcing a kid to choose an independent book from a set list of books and then take a quiz when they finish reading it really build readers? Probably not.

Do you know what I do when I have to read a book I don’t want to read? I either don’t read it and look for an executive summary somewhere, and this is where STEM is most useful for ELA. It was significantly harder to do this pre-internet. Or I read it, but my mind is elsewhere. I’m thinking about dinner or what I really want to read or what’s on tv or how many more pages I have to read. Since my brain is not engaged in the reading, I’m not engaged in the reading. I never get to sink into the book and get into that flow state. So have I really done anything to improve my test scores? Have I done anything to be a better human being?

Sitting around the dinner table a week or so ago, my best friend’s daughters, who are all HUGE readers, were talking about independent reading in their schools. One of the girls shared with us that she was reading a thick book, and by midterm, she hadn’t completed the requisite number of independent books. By the end of the term, she had met the page requirement, but since she didn’t meet the book goal at midterm, she couldn’t get higher than a B for that part of the course. Suffice it say, I think my head lifted off my shoulders, spun around a few times, and then settled back down. Luckily, a love of reading was already instilled in this young lady, she was annoyed by the policy, but she moved on. This same daughter also shared that another English teacher required that they take a quiz after they completed the book. The quizzes were only given on Mondays, and they were only given before or after class. If too many students were there for quizzes, then you’d have to wait another week. If you finished the book on Tuesday, you’d have to wait another week. We had a lengthy discussion about how that impacted reading pace. Who wants to be penalized for not remembering minutiae after finishing a book a week prior and then completing one (or two) more book(s)? They shared that they were forced to read specific genres or specific books they didn’t want to read. They plowed through them to get back to reading what they wanted to read. The complained bitterly about reading logs. And ultimately, there was a clear divide between independent reading at school and reading outside of school.

I think of the myriad of ways this could be justified. But really what does it do to the majority of kids? If they weren’t already readers, it is not helping them to become a reader. Daniel Willingham writes, “People often overlook the fact that leisure reading is a choice. A child is not deciding to read or not read. The child is choosing among competing activities: Should I read, or have a snack, or see what my friend’s doing, or play a video game? When we’re talking about leisure reading, it’s not enough that the child like reading, and that she have a positive attitude; if she’s to choose reading, it must be the most appealing activity available.” Do schools’ actions around independent reading make it the most appealing activity available?

I consider it a win when a student says to me, “I went home from practice and just sat down and read because this book is so good.” If a book takes priority to YouTube, that says something. How did the student find that book? Perhaps it was from a book talk. Perhaps it was from another student. Perhaps the cover just looked good when they were browsing the library. The point is my students walk into a book culture on day 1. My library is clearly displayed. I booktalk every class. I talk about what I’m reading, how I read, and what I like to read. I talk to them about their reading. I help them find a book they truly like. Reading time is sacred in my classroom. I’ll most likely do the same to my graduate students (probably without the minilesson and reading time). They will have to visit book stores and look at YA sections. They will have to do a booktalk. They will have to read Book Love. If they’re in a school with an independent reading program, they may have to figure out how to live within the constraints of that system, and perhaps, they may be the voice of change.

As for me–I have one more month and a stack of books I still want to read before school starts.

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