Success in the classroom. What does it look like? Is it everyone in class testing ‘above average?’ Or is it more nuanced?
I teach an elective called Reading for Pleasure in a large high school in Oklahoma. Students who haven’t taken the class sometimes think it’s a blow-off class, a semester to sit around and do homework, talk to friends, and escape any academic work. Unfortunately for the future of my class, at least one decision-maker at the state level thinks the same thing and will not recognize the class as a college-preparatory elective. Students who take the class understand this class can change their academic lives, increase their test scores, and turn them into readers and writers. I watch it happen every semester.
Last year, as always, I asked student to reflect on their learning in my class. They reported how many books and pages they read, their reflections about personal growth, and their perceptions of whether the class helped them in their classes or on standardized testing. They measured their own success in their own terms, and reading their remarks reminded me that success is often quiet, nearly invisible, and hard to measure, even though we try so hard to measure everything.
One girl, Marcy, read 21,234 pages in our 18 weeks together. Another young man, Jay, read 935 pages. Which is my success? Jay, for sure. Let me explain.
I quickly learned he entered high school mired in academic failure…bad grades at the middle school, frustration and low confidence in any reading task. Meetings with Mom and lots of surveys and letters to me revealed his concerns and fears of failure. So, why was he in a class called ‘Reading for Pleasure’ when he struggles so? Because his mother loves him and he loves his mother. She saw the class in the course catalog and hoped reading more often would help his reading. He agreed to stay in the class because he trusted his mom. I tell my students I know some of them hate (read ‘are afraid to fail again’) reading. I tell them I’d be frightened to be enrolled in a class called ‘Swimming for Pleasure” and I appreciate their willingness to stay in the class and give me a try. Jay, like other poor readers, was afraid I’d reveal his weaknesses in reading and writing and ridicule him.
I have my students set their own goals for the semester, but I have mine as well. For Jay, I wanted him to find a book he enjoyed, to read it for pleasure, and be able to talk to someone about it. We started small: Schooled by Gordon Korman. I knew he would need tiny successes to build his confidence. I expected him to read and write every day like the other students, but my expectations were realistic for him…a few more pages every day, a few more words written every day. He read painfully slow, and his daily Reading Logs reflected his struggles.
He learned to trust me not to reveal his difficulties to the class. He trusted the other students to be so interested in their own books that they didn’t look at what he was reading. He learned that other students loved the same books he did, and he learned I would read the books he recommended. He learned the power of a community of readers, and saw he belonged there. The number of pages he could read in a class period increased…the number of words he wrote on his Logs increased. He began to evaluate, find humor, put himself in the place of the main character. My goals and his were being reached day by day.
At the midterm, he’d only read Schooled and a bit of My Side of the Mountain by Jean George. On his midterm he wrote: “I have learned that I may be a slow reader but I enjoy reading.” That’s a huge success and one we both celebrated. He also admitted to me that Schooled was the first book he ever finished. At the midterm he had read 208 pages, not a lot. But that was 208 pages more than he’d ever read before. We continued to work together to challenge his views of himself as a reader and a writer. Every book, every Reading Log stood as a measure of his achievement. Each made him a stronger student and a better reader. I evaluated every Log, I asked more and more of him. What was acceptable as response at the beginning of the semester no longer got him the same grade. He’d showed me he could read and reflect, and I continued to hold him accountable for deeper and deeper insights.
So what about now, at the end of the semester? Jay read a total of 935 pages – all of My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, one other book, and part of Stetson, by S.L. Rottman. I got to meet Paulsen at a conference, and told him about the impact his book made on my student. Jay told me in his final that “I read faster, [and] can understand more about a book now.” When asked if he thought our class helped him with testing outside of class, he told me, “Yes…I can actually read it.”
Reading every day, reading books he chose, books that reflected his interests and abilities helped Jay grow. Writing every day about his books helped him become a better reader; talking to me in his Logs gave him an interested supportive audience. He practiced every day, practiced skills he knew were weaknesses. He came to class with a great attitude. His 935 pages is a monumental success, and he knows it.
Marcy? She breezed through books that were too easy for her, fantasy and vampire series, mostly. She didn’t write every day…she ‘forgot’ to write when I asked the class to stop reading and do their Logs. My goals for her included a broadening of her reading choices, choosing more challenging books, deepening her thinking about her books, reaching insights. She resisted my attempts to draw her out, to discuss her books, to deepen her thinking, to try a different genre, more adult novels. She saw reading as a race and she had to finish first, read the most number of books. She didn’t grow as a reader and a writer; I was unable to help her develop her abilities…my attempts to get her to think deeply, to be reflective, to evaluate her responses to her books…they all failed. Every time I attempted to show her how important the thinking and writing were, she pretended to agree, but did not follow up. On her final, she admits she really avoided the Reading Logs and that didn’t help her grade or her growth.
If I tell someone I had two students, one who read 21,234 pages and another who read 935 pages, most will mistakenly identify my success and my failure. I was able to help Jay grow; I failed to help Marcy. Jay, with his five books read in 18 weeks, is my shining success. When he left my room for the last time, I was doing the “happy teacher dance” behind him. He grew so much as a reader and writer…and I got to be there and watch it happen.