“Why do you always make us read!” asked my teary-eyed eighth grader.
After arriving to my fifth period class, a room with desks in rows that I normally don’t teach in, I found 30 some students chatting, chasing each other around the room, and generally off task. My warm up projected on the SmartBoard and stated: Take out your independent reading book and enjoy some reading time”
But clearly no one was doing this. No one cared.
My face reddened. I called the class to attention and asked who among them had brought their IR books to class. Not a single student raised his or her hand.
“Please go to your lockers right now and return with your reading books. This is not acceptable,” I demanded in a stern tone laced with spite. Students left the classroom with frowns and scowls. They hated reading. Their expressions said it all.
Ready for the cliche: Then I woke up.
The irony about my classroom nightmare is that this scenario couldn’t be farther from the truth. Students become angry when I don’t offer enough classroom reading time for them. They will frown and scowl at me when the daily lesson doesn’t carry as much merit as reading a great book. I appreciate the pressure they place on me to find more in-class time to read for pleasure and to weigh the value of an assignment against the benefits of reading widely and often.
There is an immediacy and a boldness when it comes to my students’ desire to read. They will sneak-read books tucked conspicuously inside their desk cubbies during mini lessons; they will negotiate and beg to read the moment they enter the classroom, “Please, can we just read today;” or they will blatantly ignore the daily lesson altogether, completely engrossed in their stories, willing to risk the consequences. Reading engagement can be a rebellious act in our classroom, and I love it!
However, there are English classrooms out there operating in a real-life nightmare, where teachers are handcuffed to specific scripted programs, requiring students to read whole class nonfiction passages and answer multiple choice comprehension questions so that their responses can be easily converted to standards tracked data.
I refuse to live this nightmare. I refuse to commit Readicide, as Kelly Gallagher so aptly coined. I’ve seen what happens when a prescribed and rigid English curriculum ends choice and time to read in-class. My own voracious teenage readers became disgruntled nonreaders in a matter of one high school year, reading only three assigned novels from September to June.
While I believe in teaching to a common set of standards, I also know this to be true: If we want students to master main idea, key details, patterns of organizations, conventions, spelling, and so on, children need to live and breathe inside the books they read–really absorb the written word until they make it their own.