Reading in the Classroom: A Success Story

As a high school English teacher, I struggle to get my students interested in books. The demographic of students at the high school where I teach were even more difficult because many of my 10th graders read on a 2nd or 3rd grade level. Couple that with the typical public school canon not being relatable to my primarily minority students, and I was beaten before the battle began.

Not only was I fighting the students, but I was fighting the state’s standardized writing test expectations as well. Writing test. Not literature test, not reading test, not literacy test. Writing test. With that comes pressure for data from administration. There are assessments and pretests and testing skills and prompt practice, multiple choice practice. It felt more like I was teaching how to take a test on English, rather than teaching how to comprehend English.

The result? No one wanted reading to happen in the classroom. The expectation from the higher-ups was that the students should be reading on their own. Classroom time is for instruction. The students’ expectations were that they hadn’t read a book this far, so why start now? Reading is boring.

This made me think about what made me fall in love with reading in the first place. It certainly was boring, sometimes. The textbook in chemistry class bored me, as did dissecting Ulysses in college. Don’t get me started on my college class on Realism and Naturalism. Henry James, keep on walking. I took some time to reflect on all these times I hated reading; I needed to find a common denominator. What I discovered was that in these experiences, I felt out of my element. I wasn’t strong in chemistry and had defeated myself before the class started because of the amount of math involved. I didn’t understand the basic chemistry jargon needed to grasp the concepts. James Joyce and Henry James used language I wasn’t familiar with and discussed situations I had trouble relating to.

No wonder my students fought me so hard on reading. I kept asking them to do the same thing they had been failing at for the previous 6 to 8 years. Not only was I asking them to try again, but I was also admonishing them and docking their grade when they didn’t perform to my preconceived standards. I was reinforcing the stereotype my students believed about themselves.

This had to stop.

I started going to trainings in the area about silent sustained reading time. Reading is proven to increase vocabulary, reduce stress, improve analytical thinking, improve memory, and improve writing skills. I was sold and started frequenting thrift stores and Goodwill, scouring for 45 cent YA. I got donations of books from non-fiction to romance to thriller. I bought books online. Then, during teacher work week, it happened. The county agreed to fund classroom libraries with high interest reads: books by Walter Dean Myers, Ni-Ni Simone, Paul Volponi, John Green, Simone Elkeles, and Kwame Alexander.

On the first day I explained the new system. Read the first 30 minutes of every class period, but here’s the catch: pick whatever you want. A student doesn’t like the book she picked? Try another one. Inevitably, they started reading.

“It’s like a movie, but better because there’s more to all the stories,” one student told me.

And for my reluctant readers, the mob mentality took over. They saw everyone else reading silently in class and started reading themselves. Albeit slowly. Reading nonetheless. Now, weeks in, I have students fighting over books, discussing books, recommending books to each other, and putting their name on the waitlist for high demand books. They are reading, and they are liking it.

Lately, I’ve even had students tell me they finished a book at home. Some of them follow it with, “there was nothing else to do at home” or “I was bored.” I know the truth. They love it. All because they had access to time and choice. Start in the classroom and they finish at home. Got ’em.

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