When a friend and I decided to implement a new reading program in our high school classrooms several years ago, our goal was to create a true culture of reading. I’d been guilty of saying to my teacher friends, “These kids just won’t read.” But when I landed a job at the Atlanta area high school I graduated from and teamed up with a fellow graduate and classmate, we started thinking about why we became English teachers – for the love of literature. How could we teach that love to our students? We came up with a program, described below, that brought amazing results.
In a three-year period, we increased our SAT Critical Reading scores by 30 points, while other schools in our county increased at an average of 8.5 points. On the 2013 SAT Scores, and we topped all six high schools in our district in Critical Reading (National—496, State—490, District—528, Our School—542) and jumped to third in the district in Writing (National—488, State—475, District—511, Our School—514). Our media specialists reported an increase in circulation from 9,510 in the three years prior to our program to 19,763 in the three years of its implementation. In one year, students checked out more books than they had in the three years before. Students who said they hadn’t read a book since fifth grade were reading twenty, thirty, or sixty books a year. These gains were achieved in a school with over 60% on free and reduced lunch, a high minority representation, and a very large population of students served by special education.
How did we accomplish this? We worked hard to create an atmosphere of literacy at our school through a four-pronged approach:
Step One began with a commitment to having our students read in silence for ten minutes a day. I’d tried this the year before and failed, but I’d learned two things since then. Kids will not read stuff they aren’t interested in – and you have to meet them where they are. I was willing to give it another go. I knew that practice time is essential. Just as an athlete or musician has to practice to improve their skills, a reader must practice on a regular basis.
A funny thing happens when you tell kids there are no book reports, no quizzes, no tests. They start reading. They were told they would be given a participation grade for the day, totaling 100 points per week. If they were talking or not reading, they would receive a zero for the day. In the beginning, these grades were important motivators, but they quickly became unnecessary. Within a few weeks, students were eager to open their books and dive in – an amazing transition. Other English teachers noticed and asked what we were doing. They began to follow suit. By the end of that first school year, we had hundreds of students in our school reading.
We modeled good reading habits by reading with our students. If we tell students reading is important, we have to lead by example. We read widely in the young adult genre so we could recommend books our students would enjoy, especially our low-level and reluctant readers. The teacher’s role is crucial to the success of the program. Being able to guide the student to the perfect book through your own reading knowledge is a powerful thing. The results were well worth our efforts as we watched our students become active and engaged readers. Many of them began reading for pleasure for the first time in their lives. Students began to trust their teachers for suggestions and, more importantly, to share recommendations with each other. As soon as one kid became enraptured by a book, the popularity of that book increased exponentially.
Step Two: Easy access to books is critical, so we built extensive and fluid classroom libraries. Students will browse in your classroom if you have available books on your shelves. We worked with our wood shop to build shelves specifically designed to front-face the books, a placement tremendously important in capturing their attention, and they sit all around the room. There is something magical about being drawn in by a book’s cover, then thumbing through its pages. Being surrounded by incredible books all day long stimulates their interest.
Used book stores, especially in libraries, are good sources for classroom collections, and many teachers are able to access PTA funds or gather financial support from parents or businesses. The out-of-pocket cost isn’t overwhelming, and it doesn’t have to be done all at once. I started with 20-30 titles and grew from there over a four-year period.
Our media specialists were a little worried that our sizeable classroom libraries would take “business” away from them. We assured them that if they added YA titles to the library, they’d see a tremendous explosion of readers. They trusted us – and now we have a media center that rivals any in the country. Kids flock to them because they know they’ll have the book they want. They are a destination.
Step Three in our current program is our author visits. I’d never met an author until I was in college, but I knew it would help make literature more real for our readers, especially new readers. We host between two and five young adult authors every year. We make a big production of their visits and require that students read one of the author’s books in order to be part of the experience. Routinely, we can give the authors 100-150 students who have read the book when they visit, and the kids are able to see literature as a living art instead of something that belongs to those crusty old guys from long ago. It’s absolutely amazing to watch them join in a discussion with authors! In recent years, our students have spent time with Laurie Halse Anderson, Chris Crutcher, Simone Elkeles, Ned Vizzini, Matt de la Pena, Jessica Khoury, Beck McDowell, and many others. This spring we will host Georgia Peach Award Nominee, Mike Mullin, and NY Times Bestseller, Jay Asher. We can’t even begin to tell you the impact these events have on students. (Author visits can be funded through grants, donations, fund raisers, and administrative support, and many authors agree to come at a reduced rate when they learn our students are purchasing 150+ copies of their book.)
The author visits inspire our teachers, too – to spread literacy to students before it’s too late, before we lose them as potential readers. We often focus too much of our attention on the curriculum and forget that instilling a love of literature in our students has to be our primary goal no matter what standards are dictated or which standardized tests are required by the current government or administration. We must teach them to love reading as we do and inspire them to become life-long learners.
Step Four was adding a Writer’s Workshop as English elective, which has been an important part of our curriculum for three years now. The Writer’s Workshop is a class for students who want to devote class time to developing their craft. These students have entered and won various writing contests and are embarking on NaNoWriMo for the first time this year – a challenge we’re sure our students are up for.
We’re proud to report that you can walk around our campus any time of day and find students reading. Not because they have a project to do or a book report to complete, but simply because they are readers. They’ve fallen in love with the written word and are clamoring for more. Those of us who’ve built classroom libraries have students we’ve never met coming to our rooms asking for a book they absolutely have to have. We’ve made books available and they’ve responded.
Because many teachers at our school went “all in,” we’ve seen phenomenal growth, but I wonder what things would be like if we never lost those readers in the first place. Currently, we are working with middle school teachers to implement a program in our feeder schools. We know that when we put a system in place and provide the students with the tools necessary, they will read. The culture of reading we’ve established can be expanded to close the gap between elementary kids who love reading and high school kids we lose along the way.
Our ten-minute reading program has become part of the School Improvement Plan for our 11th grade Literature classes. It accomplishes the differentiation requirements because students are self-selecting and reading at their level, no matter what that level happens to be. As we discuss with our students what they are reading on a daily basis, we’re able to informally assess their reading progression and understanding. This is far more effective than any quiz or report because it is genuine and authentic. Our library has an incredible selection of YA literature, author visits are in full swing, and the Writer’s Workshop classes are full. We’ve used YA literature, writing, and authors to create a culture of reading at our school.
When you put these four elements together – and you extend them over a period of years – students begin to see themselves as active participants in a literature program, not just kids taking classes. By giving them time they need to sit quietly each day to read, offering interesting books, reading alongside our students, and bringing in authors they will love to read and meet, we are able to inspire students to read and write. We’ve opened up a world they never knew existed and instilled in them a belief that they are readers who can one day write a book of their own. What we offer can be done in any school with the proper training and a full commitment. Don’t you wonder what you can accomplish for your students if you simply commit to creating a new culture of reading? We are eager to share our mission, and we welcome an opportunity to present our program to teachers in your school or area. Please contact us to set up a workshop or if you have questions or suggestions.