By Lynn Esser, Former Educator & Administrator
I loved being a classroom teacher. As an avid reader myself, I loved opening my students’ eyes to the possibilities books offered. However, reflecting on my years in the classroom, I can’t help but think of the times that I could’ve been more effective as a teacher.
Maya Angelou’s quote comes to mind, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Here are four things that I wish I had known about reading practice:
1. Facilitating reading practice vs. modeling reading practice
When I was teaching, DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) and SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) models were common practice. My middle school was no exception. This meant the entire school spent the first 30 minutes of every day reading—students, teachers, administrators, and other staff. The adults modeled how much fun reading was. (I have no doubt my students already knew how much I loved reading!)
What they really needed from me was to facilitate their reading practice. My students’ reading practice could’ve been more deliberate and beneficial if I would have moved around the room having conversations with them about what they were reading, checked their comprehension, encouraged them to try a new genre, pushed them to stick with a book, or debated with them about the author’s intent. I missed an opportunity to better understand their interests, struggles, and successes, and most importantly, to connect with my students on an individual level.
2. Practice at the right level
DEAR time in my classroom was totally open and unstructured. My students had lots of choice. They could read anything—books, magazines, comic books. They could lounge on the floor or cozy up to a window. Upon reflection, that’s one thing I did well. They could read things that piqued their interests.
What I could’ve done better is put some parameters around their choice. I know some of my students consistently flipped through books that were way too easy, while others regularly chose books that were far too difficult. But hey, they were reading, right?! That’s what I thought, but I know better now.
While this is okay sometimes, their time would’ve been better spent reading books in their “sweet spot”—challenging, but not enough to the point of frustration, and not easy enough to induce boredom or complacency. It seems obvious to me now, but of course students aren’t going to grow if they’re consistently reading texts that are too easy or hard. I should’ve guided them to appropriate texts without taking away their choice. In fact, they probably would’ve enjoyed reading more because they’d be reading at the right level and wouldn’t be frustrated or bored! Success is motivating!
3. Accountable reading practice
Sure, my students “read” 30 minutes every day, but I didn’t hold them accountable. I gave them free range. They could get up at any time and change books. They could read a new book each day. There were students like Jarvis who spent the bulk of his time searching for something to read. Books like the Guinness Book of World Records were popular and I have no doubt some were simply turning pages looking at the cool pictures. But hey, they were reading. That’s what important, right?
I should’ve held them accountable for their practice. By accountability, I don’t mean that every book needed a book report, a summary, or detailed notes. That would’ve taken away any joy they may have gotten from those 30 minutes. By accountability, I simply mean a way to monitor their reading. It could have been as basic as a reading log.
Using a reading log, along with checking in with students, would’ve helped me quickly identify those students who were having trouble finding something engaging. I could’ve talked with them about their interests and made some suggestions. Reading logs may have prompted me to push students to finish a book rather than switching day to day. They would’ve had practice tackling longer texts. They would’ve discovered the agony of having to put a book down just when it’s getting good or the anticipation and wonder of what will happen next. I’m sad to say that I probably robbed a few students of these experiences by not holding them accountable and encouraging them to push through longer books.
4. Reading is social
In spite of the changes I’d make now, and the opportunities I missed, I’m proud to say many students came to look forward to DEAR time. They discovered they had favorite authors, genres, or topics. They learned they had opinions and preferences when it came to reading. They learned they actually enjoyed, and for some, even loved reading.
I wish I would’ve capitalized on this. I should’ve encouraged more social interactions around what my students were reading, instead of shushing them anytime they dared to talk to a peer about what they were reading. I should’ve reserved time for book talks to empower my students and let them share the books and magazines that were sparking their curiosity. Instead of my students’ books neatly tucked away in baskets, I wish I would’ve displayed what they were reading more prominently. I wish I would’ve invited other teachers and administrators to talk about what they were reading. I wish I would’ve displayed pictures of each one of my students and the title of what they were currently reading. I wish I would have done more to make reading special for my students.
Share what you’ve learned
Let’s make learning social and learn from each other. As you reflect on your experiences with reading in your own classroom, what would you do differently?
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In addition to her tenure at Renaissance, Lynn worked in the Milwaukee Public School district as a middle school reading and social studies teacher for five years and then as a school administrator for four years. Lynn is passionate about reading and spends time volunteering for causes that promote literacy.