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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What the Heck is Reading for Pleasure??

My school district changed configurations nearly 15 years ago, from a mid-high, high school configuration to a four-year high school one. We changed from two mid-highs serving 9th and 10th graders and a high school for our 11th and 12th graders to two four-year high schools. Both high schools would work on an A-B Block schedule, meaning in a two day span students would take eight-90 minute classes, and teachers taught six in the same span. We knew we would need more elective choices for kids, and we needed to balance the demands of those electives while offering valuable content.

I 'invented' a dream class: Reading for Pleasure, except we couldn't call it THAT. We called it 'Appreciating Literature.' Well, it languished in the course catalog for three years. My principal was not convinced of its academic merit, and he gave other, more familiar electives their chance to grow. But, as happens, one year there weren't enough electives for students to choose among, and at the very last minute something needed to be added. Since I was such a nag, they gave me a chance. I had two sections that first year, one each semester.

I knew I would need to prove the class immediately or risk losing it, so I found ways to conduct a small research project. My question was: "In what ways does Appreciating Literature change students' reading habits and attitudes about reading?" We did surveys, we kept track of pages read, and I asked students at the end of the year to tell me ways their habits and attitudes changed. And change they did.

I had to prove it wasn't a blow-off class, or a glorified study hall. I had to prove real learning, maybe a different kind of learning, was happening in my class. I had to sell the class to my administration, and I had to sell it to my students and their parents. I worked and recruited. My students convinced me to change the name of the class to Reading for Pleasure, R4P. We still get calls from universities checking the transcripts of prospective students, asking if this is a basketweaving class, and the counselors are quick to explain the class.

We grew slowly from those two sections, and now Norman North offers 12 sections a year. I teach R4P full time, and a colleague teaches one more section a semester. When I told one of my former students I would be teaching R4P full time, he wryly observed, "So, you've figured out how to get them to pay you to read full time!" And, yes I have.

I believe there are several important factors to our success: I read with my students. I read every day. I read the books they recommend to me. Occasionally other teachers will teach a single section, and unless they read with the students, they don't have my success. It's tempting to use that time to grade, or record work, or research on the internet, but what message does that send to the students in front of me when I tell them THEY must read, but I'm going to do this other task instead? If I value reading for them, I'd better be doing it myself also.

I also require students to read books -- not magazines. Real comprehension can't occur reading short magazine articles...at least the kind of comprehension I'm aiming for. We must wrestle with the text, being confused sometimes, but reading on to make sense. I'm open to any book, fiction or nonfiction, they'd like to read, but we deal in books.

Choice is vital. I give my students freedom to choose any book they want to read, and to abandon any book that's not working. I suggest they revisit books they read in middle school to find the beauty in the books they missed. I recommend Young Adult literature to my students, and have really worked hard over the years to expand my knowledge of YA books for boys. I recommend adult contemporary literature and classics. I recommend biographies and other nonfiction. Students are likely to hear about 20 to 30 books a week between my book shares and their classmates' book shares.

Getting to know students quickly helps me focus my recommendations to them. I learn their relative reading level and can match books within their comfort zone. I know their interests, I remember what they have read before and know other books like those.

I have probably 2000 books in my room, books I've collected over the years. I buy many new books, but I also haunt thrift shops, amazon.com used books, and I copy an idea from Kelly Gallagher and ask graduating seniors to consider donating a book to my collection. That helps students because we can browse and 'shop' right in my room. My librarians are highly supportive of the class and are valuable resources to kids who just need someone besides me to talk to.

Another element is the way I respond to their work. We read and we write. Students must write about their books. I absolutely understand 'fake reading.' I know most high school students are masters of the art and craft of fake reading...of being able to talk around the book without doing more than skimming. So, my Reading Logs are the heart of our work. They write about their questions, their predictions, their opinions. I ask them to connect their books to their lives. I have them find important quotes from the books and write about them.

But the real magic of the class happens as I read their Logs...I read every word. And I respond to every entry. I ask questions, I drop hints, I agree with observations...I respond the way readers respond to each other. I model the conversations we have. I make suggestions, I ask clarifying questions. I model predicting and connecting.

I love to return graded papers to my students. They put their books down and pick up their papers to see what I've said to them! They get disappointed if I don't have their papers back the next day because they value our conversations as much as I do. One former student told me how important my role as his audience was to his development as a reader and writer. I was grateful he noticed my hard work...and it is hard.

On the Spring '12 final students, students wrote the questions and I chose some as required questions to answer and others that were optional. One of the optional questions was: What would be the most compelling reason for other students to take this class? R4P isn’t a core class…why do you think the administration wants R4P in the course catalog? 

Here are their answers...I am so proud of my students' reflections!


  • The reason I chose this class initially was because it featured something I was already good at. And I know for a fact this class attracts lots of nerdy bookworms. It also attracts students who heard it was a blow-off class. Granted , it is easy. It was designed to be easy. But it’s not a blow-off. I think this is a good class to take because it gives students autonomy, at least for an hour. As you say, students get few choices in their education, so why pass up a choice when it is presented?
  • R4P is a good reminder that learning can be fun and more meaningful if it’s more about a focus on the students as individuals than number and tests scores. We could read what we wanted and write about what popped out to us and share what moved us, even if it wasn’t some classic that teens can’t relate to anymore…We aren’t really reading it [classics assigned in class], just waiting for the teacher to stop and explain or show us the movie.
  • In R4P we get to relax and read and discuss our thoughts
  • At the beginning of the semester I could barely read 15 pages a day because I could barely focus. Now I can sit and read for an hour. R4P has helped me in English class because it has raised my focus level
  • Considering I rarely ever read before I took this class, I’d say I expanded my reading a lot by just learning how to love reading
  • Going to classes throughout the day that drain you mentally sometimes runs you down. R4P is a class where you can still be stimulating your mind but you are doing it in a way where you are relaxed and enjoying what you are doing.
  • Honestly before R4P I did not think I would ever appreciate a novel of any kind. I now walk away from class with an entirely new perspective on novels
  • I can now focus much longer while reading without becoming distracted or zoning out. This class has helped me to learn to like reading. Before this class I never read for pleasure, nor ever had the desire to read at all
  • I have read 17 books in ONE class during ONE semester. If I wasn’t a good reader, that wouldn’t have been possible
  • I think others should take R4P because you can express yourself and you’re not forced to read any certain book
  • I think students take this class because they get to choose what they read. There’s no requirements, and therefore, more freedoms.
  • I used to hate reading, but I actually read at home now. I’m proud to say even as much as I have never thought I would be, I am a reader
  • I would suggest this class for kids who don’t like reading, but once they get in the class and find a good book their lives will be changed.
  • I’m proud…I have made a complete 180 turn as a reader in every way
  • If you love reading, R4P is already perfect for you because it offers you time to do what you love. If you don’t like reading, R4P teaches you to love reading a lot.
  • In R4P I took chances with books I would have never given a second glance before and I actually do like them.
  • In R4P if you don’t enjoy reading, you learn why you don’t and most likely, you’ll overcome that and discover your inner reader
  • In R4P you jump into the books and get to experience things you never thought possible
  • It doesn’t feel like mandatory reading in here.
  • More time to read…sharpens critical thinking, vocabulary, writing and analysis skills
  • R4P allowed me to relax. Before this class, I was always stressed with work and other classes. R4P was a miracle for me and I don’t know where I would be without it.
  • R4P has helped me most with reading comprehension. As a reader, I find myself more confident in my ability to comprehend literature. I get a sense of pride from R4P
  • R4P has helped me stay more focused and also helped with speaking in front of people. It has shown me that if I open myself up to something new I might actually like it and learn something.
  • R4P has helped me to become a more efficient, faster and careful reader when it comes to school work. It has shown me the progress I’ve made in my reading speed and examining skills…When I go back and read my journals, I feel very accomplished and proud of my writing skills.
  • R4P has helped me to become more mature. I’m more ready to open up and try new things. I’m still as picky as ever, but at least I can get through a boring book. Is that stamina? I suppose.
  • R4P has helped me to stay focused and engaged in other classes when I really didn’t want to.
  • R4P has shown me I can read anything if I put my mind to it.
  • R4P has shown me I can read however I want and I need to throw away the excuses. I get clarity out of reading when my thoughts are jumbled, I can see the silver lining with books.
  • R4P has shown me that I can understand more than one genre, and reminded me of my love for reading…you get to learn your favorite genre of book, learn how to respond to the books and see where you’re at as a reader.
  • R4P has shown me that I’m actually a pretty good reader. I’m better than I thought I was
  • R4P has taught me to give every book a chance.
  • R4P helped me in other classes, especially History, because it got easier for me to read through the information and it got easier to comprehend what’s going in, so I did better in that class.
  • R4P helps people get better in reading and in R4P you almost never have homework so it’s helpful and easy…it can’t get much better than that.
  • R4P helps you read faster, take notes faster, and generally get your work done in time.
  • R4P is a class with more than one teacher because if students keep reading diligently they may find that they are learning twenty different lessons from twenty different teachers, as opposed to one subject by a single teacher.
  • R4P is a good reminder that learning can be fun and more meaningful if it’s more about a focus on students as individuals than number and test scores.
  • R4P is such a peaceful, happy part of my day
  • R4P not only gives you time to read it makes you feel like you’re in a different universe
  • R4P showed me that I CAN sit and read a book for an hour and love it. I get enjoyment out of reading. I also gain knowledge and extend my vocabulary by reading books with words I have not learned
  • R4P’s a great class to just sit back, crack open a book you want to read and just reeellaax. I man any book you might want to read. Boom! Come here, sit down, and read.
  • Students should take this class to build speed and stamina
  • Taking R4P will help you stay put and be able to read, which will help you when you have to read textbooks and things
  • The most compelling reason for students to take R4P is the freedom
  • The most compelling reason for students to take this class is that you get to read and discuss books in school that you want to read. Talking to someone else about a book that you really like is one of the best feelings ever. And for that person to be a teacher that has a degree in what she’s talking about, can only improve your thoughts about a book.
  • The most compelling reason for taking this class is that you get a grade for reading and you never get called [out] for reading while the teacher is lecturing
  • The most compelling reason to take R4P is that it truly is for everyone. There’s a book for EVERYONE no matter who you are.
  • This class offers so much like the opportunity to discover who you are in reading, a fun atmosphere…it is a class to grow as an individual and become confident in your reading ability
  • This class shows kids that gook books to exist. This class forces kids to find something they like in a book
  • This class teaches you something necessary for college and life, to read…and to enjoy reading
  • We could read what we wanted and write about what popped out to us and share what moved us, even if it wasn’t some classic that teens can’t relate to anymore
  • We have the freedom to choose what we learn about in R4P
  • Writing my thoughts and how I feel about what I’m reading made me connect more to the characters. I’m not just reading to get my assignment done
  • You take in knowledge of your choice in a relaxed environment


7 comments:

  1. This post is really inspiring. Thank you. It seems like responding to reading is at the heart of your course. Reading all those logs is time consuming, but you make me realize how important it is. Thank you again.

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    1. Mark!! I'm so sorry I ignored your response for so long. Blogspot is blocked at my school, so I often THINK I'll read at home, and then get distracted.

      Logs are time-consuming. But they're the way I get to know my kids and what they're thinking. Some teachers hold conferences during class to do the same thing, but I made the decision early on that I'd read WITH my students and use Logs to create that relationship.

      Responding sincerely and promptly is so important. I teach a class at Oklahoma University for pre-service English teachers, and they, too, have commented on how much my notes on their papers mean.

      Worth the trouble.

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  2. I am looking at suggesting this to my principal as an elective. What is your class coded as? I need to find something similar in the state of Texas!

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  3. Ammie, for us it's an English elective...NOT college-prep and NOT fine-arts credit. Unfortunately that may doom the class. My district and building administration won't go to bat for the class. Makes me sad. I think another district coded it as 'communications' to allow teachers from several core areas to teach it. I'd love to work with you getting something established. It's exactly what kids need in this test-crazy culture.

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  4. I am so happy I stumbled upon this site! Thanks for your insight! I will be teaching/guiding R4P this year in Westville, OK. Do you mind if we stay in touch this year?

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    1. I tried twice to reply! Oh, well...I'm excited you found me too. How far is Westville from Norman? Can we meet and talk? I can share handouts and the like if you want...my email is claudiaswish@gmail.com.

      I'm thrilled that other schools see value in a class like this.


      How can I help you be successful?

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  5. Greeting, Claudia! Are you still in OK? I just got a teaching position at an OK Middle School for a new class entitled, READING FOR PLEASURE! I tell my friends, "WHO gets a job like THAT?!! Well, I have a million ideas running around in my head, but need somebody who understands how this need to be accomplished -- I also have the new OAS to incorporate! You know, there's not a lot of "how to. . ." in cyber space about this! It's been three years since your last post here, are you still available? Will send you an email, too! Blessings!

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