The question: how do you get at risk kids, kids who are proud to have never read a book, to read. What am I missing here? I would love to make readers out of more of my students but so far it’s been a losing battle.
My answer: keep trying.
Three years ago I taught a remedial English class. It was my second year of teaching and I had a class full of 9th grade boys whose highest reading level was 5th grade. The school spent a chunk of money on a “Reading Program” that promised significant grade level gains in only one year. I was given a special ed co-teacher who pointed out the irony that we were teaching kids to read with a program that contained zero actual books.
The kids hated it.
The program was worksheet based: find the right answer, fill in the blank, and you’re done.
By Christmas break, I hated it too.
The Hunger Game craze was hitting its peak, so we decided to offer kids a treat: finish your worksheet and I’ll read out loud to you for the last time minutes. Soon, the boys wanted their own copy. Shortly after that they wanted to read for the last 20 and then 30 minutes of class! Shortly after that one student asked if he could be the one reading out loud. He’d read until he got tired and soon others followed suit.
It took forever, but we read the whole book out loud.
Every boy in that class not only told us it was the very first book they had ever read, but each seemed privately pleased with this accomplishment.
Why did this work?
1. Engagement. They plot is great.
2. We met them where they were and did not treat them like “little kids.”
One of the boys in that class was homeless for most of the year but he discovered a love for reading and although he borrowed (and never returned) 5 novels that year, he read them. By the end of that year his mom found a job, a low income apartment and had settled down for the first time. On the last day of school my student told me that he got a summer job working for the local library so he could read all the books he wanted. I saw the power of a reading workshop approach and I have not looked back since.
Not everyone teacher agrees with this approach. Many believe allowing choice is simply a free for all and there’s no structure or accountability. But what they don’t realize is that choice only works with structure and accountability. And once you have seen how the love for a book can change that one kid, I can’t see how you could ever be the same.
That being said, I have not had that ah-ha moment every year. I haven’t had it since. But I still see the benefits. And yes, many still want to read the shortest book. When pressed, they’ll tell me it’s not always because of the length, but because shorter books tend to have constant action. So, I find them books with constant action (war books like Fallen Angelsand Jarhead; steam punk books like Leviathan; and James Patterson is super popular with these boys. Humor books as well: How to Light a Fart is the most popular book in my room). I find reading parts of books out loud (the parts with the most action) peak their interest, so I try and book talk books daily. And when all that fails, and it does sometimes, I read with them Sherman Alexie’s “Superman and Me” and tell them about my own “Reading History” and how books saved me. It’s not easy. I have 116 students this year and trying to find books that interest every single one of them is the hardest part of my job. And there are days when I want to give up on that one kid who takes pride in not reading. And there are days when I do give up on him/her. But then Monday rolls around and it’s a new week, a new beginning, and we try again.