Growing Readers–Through READING!

Posted on June 12, 2017


June 12 2017

A Teacher Researcher Reflects on Year 1 with the MAISA Unit: Independent Reading

This year was my first year with the MAISA curriculum. In fact, it was the district’s first year with ANY ELA curriculum; I have taught 23 years in a district where every ELA teacher could teach anything, in any way, and, in recent years, as long as they included test prep, as standardized testing had essentially replaced ELA curriculum. But last year, a new curriculum director arrived, and when my colleague/ELA Instructional Coach and I were invited to join a conversation about ELA instruction in the district, we saw an opportunity to re-establish an authentic language arts curriculum, and after evaluating several options, we advocated for the district to adopt MAISA.

Having been an active member of NCTE, MCTE, and Eastern MI Writing Project over the course of my career, I immediately recognized the extremely high quality of a curriculum that relied on the essentials of ELA instruction: Writing Workshop, Independent Reading, voice, and choice for students and teachers. While the MAISA curriculum exceeds ELA standards, it is not standardized, and it does not require students or teachers to be, either. It is extremely well-supported by research in ELA education.

After my first year with the curriculum, I can say that I am VERY happy with it. It is so well organized and supported that a new teacher can simply follow the daily lesson plan as is, and, if they can manage a workshop classroom, they and their students will have rich, engaging, and most importantly, authentic ELA experiences that will empower them as lifelong learners in reading, writing, research, speaking, and listening.

For more experienced teachers like me, the daily teaching point is fertile soil from which any number of flowers may bloom. I spent a few days before school started last summer reading through each unit and planning how to make it work for me. From Unit 1, Day 1, I found it to be clear, coherent, and easy to use. In short: a delight!

As I look back on my first year with the curriculum, I am very happy that the district adopted MAISA. I am excited about the growth and learning I saw in my students, and I am excited to welcome my first ELA9 students who have been through one cycle of the curriculum, because I understand what kind of ELA experience they had last year, and I have a much better idea of what and how they know language arts. As I think about what it will be like to work with students who have started every year with Writing Workshop and Independent Reading, I feel quite excited about the possibilities for the future.

The district’s adoption of MAISA makes possible a coherent conversation between ELA teachers K-12 for the first time in my long career, and I look forward to more meaningful collaboration between teachers and students in elementary, middle, and high school teachers, now that we’re standing on common ground.

Having just finished the final unit, “Researching a Trend,” I am excited to don my teacher researcher hat and have a look at the data I’ve collected on my students’ reading. As I mentioned, the daily teaching points can lead a teacher down any number of paths. The path I chose was “research trends in your Independent Reading practice.” By asking my students to research their own reading practices to identify growth trends in stamina, fluency, range, and/or depth, I could re-emphasize a central theme of the year: reading is an essential, non-negotiable part of ELA–one more time, in the hope that they will read over the summer.

I emphasized the point from the beginning of Unit 2, Independent Reading, in September, until the last day of school, when students were still turning in books to the classroom library or asking to keep them until fall to finish them. When I introduced the unit, I put the question, “How do I improve my stamina, fluency, range, and depth as a reader?” on the whiteboard at the back of the room, where it stayed all year, along with the daily (including weekends) homework assignment: 30 minutes of reading paper books of students’ choice.

Now I am excitedly examining the data I collected on the Independent Reading practices of my students. As I look at a crate full of student folders and a 4-inch stack of artifacts, I reflect on the question I asked last summer: “What happens when I make Independent Reading a high priority in my classroom?” The data I have collected includes:

  • students’ folders with a number of artifacts from various points in the year about independent reading practices,
  • students’ Finished and Someday book lists from their notebooks,
  • students’ online working documents with evidence of growth in 2 areas (range, stamina, depth, and/or fluency),
  • students’ online writing portfolios,
  • students’ projects representing their growth in two areas of reading
  • students’ Google slideshows some students made to present their products
  • my own notebook, finished, and someday book lists,
  • my own artifacts: teacher demos of assignments, lesson plans, teaching notes, reflections, receipts for the $1500 dollars out of my own pocket I spent on books for my classroom library,
  • a number of quality secondary sources, both in print and in the experiences of EMWP colleagues who have taught reading via Independent Reading for years
  • and a stack of 3 x 5 cards where students recorded the titles they checked out from my classroom library. (Name, date, & title. Strike-through title upon return of the book.)

First Look: Initial Findings

  1. Classroom Library Use

Overall, 59 students checked 180 titles out of my classroom library. Here are the numbers.

students # of books checked out
9th 29 118
11th 7 9
12th 14 28
Mythology 2 3
Guests/Not my students 7 22
59 180

2. Total # of Books Read (self-reported)

Not all students turned in their working documents with finished book lists, but most did. They show that:

Total Books Read Avg Per Student
ELA9 3rd  (23/24) 281 12.21
ELA9 6th (15/22) 261 15.2

I am curious to dig deeper into the artifacts and see more, like which titles were popular and how many genres, authors, and series were checked out, but I haven’t done that analysis yet. That is for another day.

In the meantime, I know that one of the best ways to help students learn is by giving them time: to select, read, discuss, abandon, and finish books of their own choosing. In her article “Why Kids Should Choose Their Own Books to Read,” Joanne Yatvin writes of the benefits of Independent Reading and the importance of making time for it in the classroom when she says,

Through independent reading children gain a wealth of background knowledge about many different things, come to understand story and non-fiction structures, absorb the essentials of English grammar, and continuously expand their vocabularies. Many also remember visually how to spell words. In a nutshell, the habit of reading does as much, if not more, than Direct Instruction and the rigorous demands of the Common Core. All without boring kids to death or persuading them that they’re dumb.

Yatvin is an educator with a long career. According to the Heinemann website, she enjoyed a “long career in public education and now teaches part-time in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University.” She has also served as president of National Council of Teachers of English.

In her blog, “If I Were Queen of Schools,” Yatvin emphasizes the importance of reading and access to books for children in poverty when she suggests that if they want to improve the academic performance of  children in poverty, schools should:

Increase the size and power of the school library and make the librarian a key figure in the education of students…Every school needs a full-time professional librarian/technologist along with an aide so that the library is open full time during the school day and perhaps for a while after school closes. Not only should every class have a regular weekly library time, but also times when teachers can sign up to send small groups for specific assistance in finding and using library materials. School librarians should also meet with teacher teams to plan units to be taught and make sure that the materials students need are available. To make these things happen fully funding a school library should be a high priority for the principal and the school district.

In this first year of the district-wide requirement of Independent Reading for grades K-12, I am happy to see the number of books were checked out and read, both from my classroom library and from the school library by my ELA9 students. I know that even though some students spent most of the in-class time doing “fake reading,” more of my students read more books and had more conversations about more books with me and each other than any of my previous years teaching.

I know that some teachers in the English Department were concerned about the loss of the Whole Class Novel, but I did not find it to be a problem. In fact, I found just the opposite: that without a whole class novel, there were a LOT more book conversations going on between my students and me and with each other than ever before. While in the past, all reading was whole class reading, and too many students could fake their way through a class discussion on the work by being careful listeners and rewording comments they heard from peers to make it seem as if they had read books they had not.

In contrast, with weekly in-class reading sessions and informal reflections along the way, student conversations about books became more lively, wide-ranging, and unique. When a student mentions a character or event in one book, other students make connections to the books they’re reading, and the conversations become much more productive for individual students. They OWN what they’ve learned.

Certainly some do “fake” their way through the year with vague comments about how they’re improving as readers, meanwhile carrying the same 80-page, middle year novel in their binders for 6 months; but for those who do read, a classroom community with a diverse group of readers who are reading a diverse array of genres, authors, and topics has a LOT more to offer them. Rather than one hour-long conversation about a single title per month, readers have many shorter conversations that arise organically and branch off into unexpected territories, leading to book recommendations and new discoveries. While I did enjoy spending three weeks really digging into Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet ninth graders each spring, I cannot see how that could be a more valuable experience for my students than reading several books of their own choice in that time period. While I can acknowledge the value of shared knowledge of iconic works of literature, I can also see the importance of empowering readers to choose works of literature that suit their own preferences, circumstances, and reading levels–and that has more possibility to create strong, lifelong readers.

Reading expert Kylene Beers addresses this issue in her blog, “The Whole-Class Novel: To Read Together or Not?” by citing the Coryell study, which can be found here. The study concludes that “intensive study of a single book negatively affected reading attitudes while extensive reading of many books positively affected reading attitudes. Both types of reading yielded similar scores on the same comprehension test.” If comprehension is not enhanced by whole-class selections, why not do the thing that allows kids to LOVE learning? I want my students to love learning, and I see a lot more signs of love for reading in the conversations about student-chosen works than for those any past, whole-class titles.

I always knew that, no matter how enthusiastically I endorsed the few works of literature that we read together in class each year, many of my students would not love them, would not read them, and they could fake their way through the activities and discussions. I never liked being the only one who was excited about reading, and allowing students choice in their reading has allowed for a community of engaged readers to form in the way that book clubs form in real life: with people getting excited about what they’re reading and connecting with other readers on topics, themes, historical eras, genres, and authors. Some books were loved my many, and some books were embraced by a single reader, and that’s just how reading is outside of school–in that “real world” that many adults so often claim that students need to “be prepared for.” While it is true that I can’t reference certain lines from Romeo and Juliet and know that all the students “get it,” I can see that many of my students are much more empowered and self-directed as readers.

Without even considering the number of titles my students borrowed from the school library, students checked out 180 books from my classroom library. In the two ninth grade classes, students read about a dozen titles each! In addition, for whole-class read aloud selections, I read Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir in verse,  Brown Girl Dreaming and Karen Hesse’s historical fiction in verse Out of the Dust. I chose them for their thematic ties to the American Dream and Social Justice that arise in Of Mice and Men and A House on Mango Street. As a text set, these titles represent intersectionality of issues of race, class, gender, identity, and ability. They offer insights into American geography, economy, cultures, and history; they offer compelling characters and storylines. They show the heroism that arises in “regular people,” as called upon by circumstances of place and time. They also gave me an opportunity to steep my students in poetry, because Brown Girl is memoir in verse and Dust is historical fiction in verse. This text set provides a good range of craft and structure, allowing us to read and discuss them from the perspectives of readers and writers.

As we began our first year with MAISA, some of my colleagues expressed concern at the abandonment of a year-long series of teacher-selected, whole-class reading selections. Since I prefer Reading Workshop methodology, I was excited that I would not have to teach the same 6 works one more year. However, I didn’t abandon the whole-class novel altogether; I modified it. In Unit 3, the MAISA curriculum suggests reading a short novel, like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. To strengthen my students’ ability to make choices as readers, I offered the choice of the previously mentioned title or The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I gave a short book talk about each, then asked students to pick one. While reading these novels together, I structured class discussions around book themes and authors’ styles. We explored the themes of poverty, longing, and the search for home through more and less traditional narratives, through male and female perspectives, through the perspectives of rural and urban people, in two eras and in two areas of the country…allowing students to make connections between texts from a number of angles. Rather than harming the sense of community in the classroom, the diversity of perspectives in the two works and among the students enriched and enhanced classroom discussion of both works of literature and the human condition.

Having taken this first glance at the data on Independent Reading, I feel like this first year is a big success. I know that my students are reading more books and enjoying reading more than in any previous year in over two decades.

Knowledge is power, and the doorway to knowledge is reading. Through prioritizing independent reading in my classes, I have been able to give my students a key to unlock that door and feel certain that they know how to use it.

As I begin planning for next year, I am raising the bar: I want to see more students read more books and more challenging books, and I am getting a lot of ideas about how I might do that from analyzing the data I’ve collected this year.

As I plan, I’ll remember what Nancie Atwell says in The Reading Zone: “A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy or marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone became a reader.”

This is the first in a series of posts about ELA9. Links to other posts will be posted below as they are completed.

2. Organizing the Archive for Research