Thursday, September 5, 2013

If You Let Them

In Penny Kittle's Book Love, she says that adolescents want to read, if we will only let them. By letting them, she means allowing the students to choose their own books and giving them time to read in class (at least that's the gist in a very tiny nutshell). I read Book Love twice over the summer, after having read it during the school year last year, and I believe so wholeheartedly in Kittle's style of teaching English/Language Arts that I have centered my classroom around it from day one.

My students choose their own books, we read every single day in class, and they get to watch their own growth toward a goal by keeping track of their reading with a simple class log that goes around at the beginning of class each day. I've had a few resisters, a few kids who have dared me to find them a book they will even be able to tolerate. I've mostly had success - still a few hold outs, but I am scouring for the right book for them and put a title into their hands every day, either because I think this book will be "the one" or just to show I will persist.

Yesterday, during my third block, we didn't just have independent reading time, we transcended. My students came in and dutifully retrieved their journals, took their seats, and began their Quick Writes. After we wrote and shared, we had 10 minutes of independent reading time before we began an assessment of Theme. When the 10 minutes was over, I announced that it was time to begin the assessment, explained that the rubric was posted on the SmartBoard, and began passing out the papers. A vast majority of the class barely looked up.

Some might take that as disrespectful, as students not paying attention, but when I saw what was happening, my stomach flipped - they were reading. Not just "let's get through this 10 minutes by staring at a page for turn" type reading. I mean "I can't even register what's happening around me because I am so engrossed in this book" type reading. Nancie Atwell calls this the Reading Zone. I hated to interrupt them, but the assessment was calling, and afterward they were allowed to return to reading, working in their journals, or peer conferencing. One by one, they finished (they rocked the assessment, by the way) and returned to their books. I had a few who decided to write, but mostly everyone made a beeline back for that Zone that they had been forced to abandon. I walked the room and conferenced and I walked the room in awe.

This may seem heavy-handed, but I need to explain. If you have ever been in a classroom with 28 or so 8th graders who are being forced to read, you can feel it. The tension, the struggle, and sometimes even the anger is palpable. This classroom felt like meditation; just complete peace. Finally, at 3:10 - five minutes before the first bell rang to go home - I called everyone back together to tell them how amazing they are and to ask if they realized that they had been in a SELF sustained state of reading or writing for over an hour? They were audible gasps; I saw several students look at each other in disbelief. A couple of girls pointed to the clock and laughed, then one said "The last time I looked, it was 2:15." She had been lost in Hound Dog True. This was really one of the most magical moments I've ever had as a teacher.

It was a moment that made me understand the power of reading and how our assertions that it can change lives is entirely correct. Was anyone's life changed yesterday as they read and wrote this way? Maybe not for my students - not yet - but mine was. Professionally, they validated everything I believe in and practice. This is not to say that every day is like this, or every day will be like this, or that I am some kind of super teacher - I just let them read. And Kittle wasn't kidding when she asserted that they want to.