Over the first few days of this school year we have had several powerful conversations. Conversations that have had an impact on what I believe as a teacher and conversations that have changed the way I thought about reading and writing and school in general. Already this year, my new students have taught me so many things. But this has only happened because from the minute that they walked in this room, I let them know that I wanted to hear what they had to say. I have asked them, over and over and over again for their thoughts, for their input, for their ideas. I have listened when they have made suggestions and so they know that they can share.
I am so thankful that they are willing to share their thinking with me because it is what led to our incredibly powerful conversation about reading yesterday. At the end of the first week of school, I asked my students to fill out this survey. Before they began, I asked them to please be honest with me. I reminded them that we cannot fix things if we can’t even talk about what exactly needs to be fixed. I asked them to trust me. And they sure did.
Over the weekend, I read through all of their responses and I noticed a disturbing trend. Multiple students said that they HATED reading. Not that they didn’t like to read, but that they HATED reading. I was surprised. I don’t often find this kind of hatred for reading in fifth graders. But it came up in several surveys and it matched the responses that parents gave on their surveys. Many parents spoke about a gradual decline in a love of reading over their child’s school years.
What all of this told me was that I to dig deeper to find out what was going on.
So yesterday, our reading lesson was simply to talk about what we loved about reading and what we hated about reading. I broke the class up into four groups and asked each group to make a chart that had two columns. One to list what they loved about reading and one to list what they hated about reading. Again, I asked them to be honest and I asked them to try to be specific. And then I sent them off. As the groups worked together, I circulated around the room asking questions and pushing the groups to be more specific on their charts. Here are a few images of what the groups came up with:
After the groups were finished, I asked each student to walk silently around the room and read the words and the thinking of the other groups. I asked them to look for trends and patterns that they noticed and to be ready to share them with the class. After a few minutes, the kids worked their way back to the carpet and I asked them to share what they noticed. Based on what they shared, we created the following anchor chart:
As we were wrapping up, my heart was experiencing all sorts of mixed emotions. I wasn’t ready to share them all with the kids yet because I needed to think about them more. But what I did say to my students is the following: “Well, good news everyone. None of you actually hate reading. You only hate what school has done to reading.” I saw heads nod in agreement. I then went on to share with the kids that I hear them. I hear what they are saying and it gives me a lot to think about. I told them that no teacher EVER wants to make kids hate reading, but I think that we may have been doing that accidentally. I told them that I cannot promise that I will NEVER ask them to do the things that they have shared that they hated, but that I will think carefully about my purpose for doing them and I will make sure to check in with them to see how those things are working.
And then we moved on. Then we read. Then I watched my students happily gravitate towards the books that they had chosen and I watched them find a comfy spot in the room and I just watched them read.
But my mind and my heart did not easily move on from this conversation. The charts that my students made stayed with me all afternoon and far into the evening. I woke up still thinking about my students’ words.
I woke up thinking about what we, as a school system, have done to reading. I woke up thinking about the assignments we give whose only purpose is to check up on our students and make sure they are reading. I woke up thinking about how little choice we give them when it comes to the books they read or the kinds of books that we deem worthy or the ways they think about those books and document that thinking. I woke up thinking about all of the things that we do that get in the way of helping our students to become life long readers and not just readers who read because they feel that they have to.
And after all that thinking, here is what I have come to. I am hopeful. Yes, I am so sad that this is what my students have had to deal with. Yes, I want our current ways of teaching reading to change. Yes, I wish that more teachers would just ask their students how their instruction is working for them. Yes, all of those things exist and I am angry and sad about them. And yet, I remain hopeful. Because what I walk away with is how much power we, as teachers, have to change the way our kids feel about reading.
I can give my students more choice. I can ask my students how they want to share the thinking that they are doing with me and with their classmates and with the world. I can ask my students how they want to talk to others about books. I can give my students the freedom to read the books that they love. I can trust my students to tell me about their reading habits instead of asking them to time themselves and have a parent sign their reading logs. I can take away any worksheet or packet or task that does not serve the purpose of growing readers who love books and who think deeply about what they read and talk about their thinking with others.
These are all things that I have the power to do or not do. There are so many things that I can change. There are so many ways that I can help my students to begin to fall back in love with reading.
And that is a really powerful thing.