Empowering My Students by Changing the Way We Talk and Write about Reading (Action Reseach Part 1)

Several months ago, I came up with a plan for my action research project. This is the first time that I am writing to talk about what has happened with that plan. It is scary to share because I always worry that what has happened, won’t live up to what I planned to have happen.  But as I shared in my last post, I know that it is time to write about it. It turns out, I had a lot more to say than I imgained. So here, is part one:

By the time most of my students get to fifth grade, they have grown a deep and very serious hatred of writing about their reading.  They have been asked, for several years, to keep track of the thinking that they do on post-it notes, in reading journals and through reading response letters.  And to be honest, they hate it. They have hated it for years.

And for so many years I would tell them things like, “Writing about your reading is sort of like eating brussels sprouts. You may not like it, but we know it is good for you.” Honestly. Those words came out of my mouth. And at the time, I thought I was doing a good thing for my students. Teaching them that sometimes we have to do things we don’t like because it is good for us.

But when I reflect back on those words, I realize that I was sending my students a much more harmful message.  What I was telling them was, “I don’t really care about your feelings towards this task. I am telling you to do it and so you should do it. It does not matter that it does not seem meaningful and purposeful to you. I am telling you it will help you to be a better reader and that should be enough reason for you to do this.” And my kids hated it. They hated the task that I was giving them. The task changed from weekly reading response letters, to post-it notes, to writing in sentences and paragraphs daily in a reading journal, but the idea remained the same,  And for many years I ignored the fact that no matter how I changed the task, they still hated it.  I just kept doing what I was doing because I believed it was good for them.

And that’s the thing, so many of us are driven by incredible intentions. We do what we believe is best for our kids or what we are coerced into believing is best for our kids. Because we love our kids. We want them to do well. We want the very best for them.

But what I am learning this year is that we might want wonderful things for our students, but if we continue to take our students out of our equation, if we continue to ignore their feelings about the work that we are asking them to do, then we aren’t really doing what is best for them.  Because they know what is best. They know what is meaningful and purposeful. They know what motivates them and what drives them to push themselves towards deeper levels of understanding.  And they are so willing to tell us.  They tell us with their complaints, they tell us with their glazed over looks out the window, they tell us with their misbehaviors, they tell us with their smiles and their hugs and the speed with which they run or walk into our classrooms in the morning.  But we must listen and we must act on what they have to say.

And my students were telling me loud and clear that how I was asking them to use their reading journals, how I was asking them to keep track of the thinking that they were doing as they read, and how I was asking them to write about their reading, all of that was not working.

With that information in mind, I began my action research project this year to find a better way to help kids work with their texts in a way that would deepen their thinking. My goals were to:

  • Help students to notice the thinking that they were doing as they read
  • Help students to take what they were noticing and use it to come up with a plan of what they would pay attention to as they continued reading a text
  • Help students to create a system to keep track of that thinking that worked for them as a reader and as a thinker
  • Help students to take all of that thinking and synthesize it through writing that would allow them to deepen their thoughts and share them with the world

The place I chose to begin was with the very students I was hoping to reach and to help. We started our year as readers together by talking about the reading work they had been asked to do in the past. I asked them to tell me about how they were asked to keep track of their thinking in previous years and I asked them to tell me how they felt about it all.  And because they are good and honest and wonderful and because in our first few days together we had already built a community of trust, they told me.  They told me about the post-its and letters and journals of the past years. And they also told me about how those things often stopped them from enjoying what they were reading. They told me how they found little purpose in the tasks that they were asked to do. They told me how the work they did in those journals and on those post-its was not helping them to be better readers.

Right from the start, I knew that one of my first obstacles was going to be overcoming their negative attitudes towards writing about their reading.  And by that, I do not mean that I needed to teach them to be more positive. No. What I needed to do was work to find a way to show them something different. I needed to prove to them that writing down their thinking as they read could actually enhance their reading experiences.  That is work that I needed to do in order to help them to feel more positively. I could not expect them to change their attitudes if they believed that I was going to ask them to do more of the same. If I was going to continue to demand of them work that lacked meaning and purpose, I could not fairly expect them to change the way they felt about that work.

So in the first few weeks of school, I did not require any of my students to write about their thinking as they read. And at first, that felt wrong. It felt like I was losing valuable time. It felt like they should be doing more than “just” reading. It felt like I was letting them take the easy way out.  But, of course, that is not what I was doing at all. What I was really doing was beginning by building a culture of joy around reading in my classroom. We talked about books that we loved. We talked about how books could make us feel less alone in the world. We talked about how books could help us to better understand people in this world who are vastly different than we are.  And then I began my conversations with my students. Slowly, I began to meet one-on-one with each of my students in reading conferences. And that is when the real work began.

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7 thoughts on “Empowering My Students by Changing the Way We Talk and Write about Reading (Action Reseach Part 1)

  1. Jessica,
    Love that you have shared the need to take a step back and rethink your plan. That’s a great life skill for your students to see “modeled”! The very conversations that your students are having about their reading (likes, dislikes, etc.) are important and are not of lesser value just because they are not “written down.”

    Definitely looking forward to hearing more about your action research!

  2. This is absolutely what teaching should be. I am a literature student at university and an English Literature and Language tutor at GCSE and A-Level in England.

    This is the issue that so many students have with English at a base-level. The task is done for the task’s sake.

    How it affects them remains unconsidered.
    How it impacts their everyday interactions with the world is seen as secondary.

    So many teachers do this, and though it is done with the best of intentions, it fails the students most.

    Your proposed work, in moving on from this outdated scheme, sounds fantastic. I cannot wait to read your findings.

    Thank you for the work you are doing. As a literary student, literary tutor, and a literazzi, your work fills me with hope.

  3. As a current student and a former rebel of school with its strict rules and principles, I’m very happy to see that some teachers understand the core of the problem!

    I grew up, and I realised that all my teachers and parents were saying had great intentions, as you said, yet all it did was push me away from academia. I enjoyed reading only outside of classes (I still enjoy the books I choose myself better than the ones we’re set by university) way more than studying literature in school. I can imagine it takes a lot of effort to persuade your students to read and think about it, because such things need individual discussions and a lot of flexibility. I, myself, hated to think that my understanding of books had to be what some other critics thought of it, I wanted to see something new and unique whenever my teachers said ‘it’s traditionally seen as…’

    It’s so important that you have one-on-one discussions with your students! Feeling appreciated and heard is a very strong motivation for anyone, especially when we are very young. I hope (and believe it will) your hard work pays off and you’ll end up working with motivated young people with strong opinions.

  4. Jess,
    This was part of my action research last year! I am currently in the process of writing about my experiences as well. I loved how you placed emphasis on showing them the power of this work. So often this is the missing link. We can say why things are important but showing them is really what causes the mindset shift. What an incredible tool! I look forward to reading more about your action research!

  5. In Australia we are coming to the end of the school year. Two more weeks with my students and then a 6 week break until I meet my new class. This post is incredibly inspiring. I find your attitude refreshing and look forward to reading more about your action research and your journey with your students. You already have me re thinking my approach and excited about starting fresh with a new group of students in Years 5&6.
    Thank you for sharing this. Talking about the aspects of our planning and teaching which are less than effective, is every but as important as discussing those which work well.
    -Alex

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