Sunday, August 19, 2012

We Read for Pleasure, but We Accidentally Learn

From the first day of my Reading for Pleasure class (initially called 'Appreciating Literature' since I was afraid to call the class what it really is), I have been blessed with administrators who understood what I was doing, or at least trusted me to understand what I was doing. No one has ever suggested I do pre-and post-tests, proving students are better readers at the end of the semester. No one has insisted that I show 'results', demand that all students read the same number of books, or the same number of pages. At the beginning, I just wanted to show that a class where students were giving the freedom to choose which books to read would impact their attitudes about reading and their own perception of themselves as readers.

I've given reading tests for 30 years, and I know most students don't understand the results. What, exactly, does the number 8.6 tell us about their reading? They DO understand if they read more slowly than the other students in class, or if they realize in discussions their understanding of the book is incomplete. They know if they can read all the words in the assigned texts -- and if they can't, they go into panic mode, spending their energies on trying to hide their inadequacies from their classmates and their teachers. They know reading can trip them up all through their day. These are the students I hoped will come away with a new perception of their strengths and their developing capabilities.

I didn't intend for my class to impact students' work outside my walls, but from listening, asking the right questions, and trusting my students to ask questions they want to answer, I've learned much. The benefits of my 'little' elective are far-reaching inside Norman North High School and beyond, in colleges and universities. I help students become 'life long readers' and 'life long learners.' I always wondered what those terms meant -- I now see the transformation begin.

On their final last semester, students wrote a question that addressed impact on other classes. "How has R4P helped you in your other classes? Explain." It wasn't one of the required questions, but many students did choose to speak to the changes they've seen in their work at school because of our class.

The biggest impact students notice is their ability to focus, sit still and pay attention for longer and longer, their willingness to be quiet and be with a book. We don't begin our semester reading for 45 minutes a day. I know many of my students cannot sit that long and focus. This is one of the many ways my students vary wildly in their abilities. Some are used to sitting for hours and reading. Others literally can't focus for five minutes. I talk to them about building their stamina slowly. We break up the class period with other activities, but we read every day. I've had extreme cases where students, usually because of learning difficulties and attention deficits, feel trapped by the quiet in our room. Most of them trust me and work with me. I learned a wonderful strategy to use with such kids and am eager to try. I watched a teacher literally time a student reading for two minutes, giving him a break, and then asking for another two minutes. It was done respectfully and the young man was eager to extend his attention. It doesn't take long for those kids to surface in the classroom, and now I have a new idea to help them extend their stamina.

Most of the students don't use the word 'stamina' but that's what we're a runner, like a swimmer. We need to practice extending the time we can read and focus. Nearly every student who enrolls in the class with a stamina challenge has found the discipline to be quiet and to attend to his or her book for longer and longer amounts of time.

Students also point to increased father just told me that his nieces and nephews noticed how many more 'big words' his son used in conversations now...a year of R4P exposes students to millions of words, many of them new and many of them big!

As a Teacher Consultant for Oklahoma Writing Project, I understand the connection between reading and writing is important and one I stress. We read and we write. They write to me; I provide an authentic audience who responds. Often I'll have students who already know they want to write as professionals. They know, before I ever tell them that reading makes us better writers. I've had students keep journals of the strong writing they encounter in class. But most students are surprised to discover extensive reading strengthens their writing. It doesn't take them long to make that observation and to attribute it to the reading they do in this class.

I didn't set out to change the culture of our school, but the 300 students who take my class each year go out into their other classes armed with new skills, new strengths, and most of all, new confidences. Can't get any better than that.

But it doesn't end at North. Many students have told me they're taking my class to help prepare them for the rigors of college reading and writing. They know they'll have to be self-directed in reading their assignments, and they'll need that stamina we build. Students return from college to tell me the practice in our class did just that -- helped them sustain their independent work through college.

Through social media, I stay in contact with hundreds of my former students. Yesterday, I had a long exchange with a former student about Hunger Games -- book vs. novel. It's not unusual for former students to ask for book recommendations, or recommend books to me. They send me pictures of their children reading. What we started together in R4P extends into their adult lives.

I've had students who've been inspired to continue their passions for reading and writing, and they've chosen majors in Classics, Literature, Creative Writing, and that makes me proud. I've had other students who tell me as parents they read every day to their children. In some ways, that makes me prouder...we are changing our school and the world with this class.

As usual, I am excited to share my brilliant students' reflections.

  • In English class we read the ‘classic’ novels and every time a book comes around no one in the class likes it and that discourages the students from reading because they think all books are going to be that boring and uninteresting if they are regular readers. But in this class we get to choose what books to read and we can find that there are books that we actually like instead of classics…in response to “We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading” ~B.F. Skinner (and yet the student said Angela’s Ashes was the most inspiring.).
  • APUSH AP US History)  requires a great deal of discipline in order to read 30 pages of a long, dull, and ultimately torturous text book. R4P helped me improve my reading time, so I could actually read my text in the time I was given.
  • By taking this class I am now confident in reading in front of others and so proud of reading so many books.
  • I think every student should take this class before they go off to college. I know that I am now more prepared than ever to start college because I can tackle those long hours of just reading
  • I’m convinced that reading thoughtfully and consistently in R4P has improved my writing and my overall creativity
  • I’m more able to concentrate in other books
  • I’ve learned to look out for symbols and figure out their meaning. This has helped with poetry and especially in my AP English class.
  • In English we have to read aloud a lot and when I spend 30-50 minutes in 1st hour listening to characters in my head it can seriously help.
  • In other classes I can now read through long tedious passages. I get to relax and enjoy myself when I read.
  • Our generation never reads anymore and [the administration] wants to keep us reading
  • R4P develops reading/writing skills along with creativity. It also allows students to express themselves through reading
  • R4P has definitely helped me in my early enrollment English classes, just improving my reading and English skills. R4P has shown me that I can really enjoy reading if I have the right book.
  • R4P has helped in other classes by expanding my vocabulary. I actually enjoy reading now.
  • R4P has helped me expand my vocabulary when I’m writing papers for my college composition class
  • R4P has helped me in History because I used to not be able to just sit down and read from cover to cover. Now I can calm down and read for longer periods of time. It has helped in English because we have to do the logs, so now I think more about what the characters are thinking and how their actions are going to affect the future of the story
  • R4P has helped me in my AP European Hisory class because I have been able to read documents faster. R4P has shown me that I am a very good reader. I find that reading is very relaxing and it helps to just sit down and read instead of doing something that stresses me out.
  • R4P has helped me in other classes because I do some sort of reading in every class…I’m able to focus better now. I can pay attention to something that I’m reading for a longer period of time now.
  • R4P has helped me in other classes because now I can come up with a fairly good response over any reading material. It has also shown me that I read A LOT, which is something I’m very proud of. I get extreme entertainment out of reading
  • R4P has helped me in other classes by making me focus and take the time to understand what I am reading or learning about
  • R4P has helped me in other classes by teaching me to try new things even if I don’t like the topic
  • R4P has helped me pay closer attention to directions especially in English. There is always room to improve as a reader and I can make time to read.
  • R4P has helped me stay focused better in my English class and also outside of school when I’m reading things like instructions and what not
  • R4P has increased my reading ability so much that it has impacted my grades. This class has given me the ability to read for a long period of time and comprehend what I’m reading. I now get a great joy from curling up with a good book in the evenings
  • R4P has made me feel smarter in all my classes. It gave me new habits. It made my life feel different like I’m in my books doing crazy adventurous and fun things.
  • R4P helped in my AP English class because I was able to read the passages on the test faster
  • S R4P helped me bear English…I feel like I’m fairly cultured in literature, and that just wouldn’t be true without this class. I feel like I’ve reaped academic rewards from reading and I know it had a large role in how I think and act as a person.
  • R4P honestly helps me to not get bored in my other classes. I’ll finish my work and know that I have something fun to do afterwards
  • R4P isn’t a core class but it truly has helped in every single one of my core classes.
  • Reading makes people smarter->smarter means  more  AP tests, AP classes and higher ACT, SAT, and AP scores-> higher scores reflect well on our school -> good reflection on the school means better reflection on us all and more school funding
  • Reading my chemistry book became easier and faster as the year sent on and that’s the best that I could’ve asked for
  • Spending an entire semester reading will drastically improve your reading speed, and writing the Logs reflecting on what you’ve read increases your writing ability and reading comprehension at the same time. Not to mention your critical thinking skills!
  • The administration…would probably have a riot the size of the state if they did away with R4P
  • This class has been one of the biggest impacts on my life in the four years I have been at NNHS


  1. I love when student voices tell the story the world needs to hear.

  2. How can we get student voices into the conversation? I agree -- let them tell the story. But too much of the nation marginalizes them.

  3. You didn't include the impact this class has had on other teachers as they work to recreate the magic you have with your students. It may be to create a version of R4P or change their reading program to incorporate the ideas you share. Either way your reach has been tremendous and all because you share.

  4. Carmi, I LOVE how we learn from each other, share, experiment, and learn again. That's the strength of our profession. I'm so grateful for my friends and for my students.

  5. I use Phodphad! ( ) to learn almost anything online. Its very useful and I highly recommend Phodphad! . Hope it helps. Thanks.

  6. I help students become 'life long readers' and 'life long learners.' Love this!