I am a big believer in student choice and engagement in school. As a student myself, I always craved more choice in my education, but it wasn’t generally available in the eighties when I was in elementary and middle school, nor in the nineties in high school. I was a bright kid who loved learning and reading, yet I was often bored and disliked the texts we were assigned to read. Not till college in the Honors Program at UGA was I able to do independently-designed learning through Honors Option courses.
In graduate school, I learned about Reading and Writing Workshop, and quickly set about learning as much as I could about this literacy program. The basic tenets of student choice and voice were very appealing to me. I began by reading Nancie Atwell’s book In the Middle and began attending the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project‘s Summer Institutes on reading and writing. I used Reading and Writing Workshop for nine years, never teaching a whole-class novel the entire time I taught middle school English Language Arts and Social Studies. Instead, I read mentor texts aloud to my students – poetry, articles, opinion columns, novels, short stories. Most of the time in a workshop class, students are reading in self-selected books. The teacher’s role is to model reading strategies using the mentor text and then confer with readers to help them apply the strategies that work for them, in their independent reading books. This supports students in their choice reading.
Choice reading helps students find their way as readers. It’s inherently differentiated by interest and ability level. It’s motivating and satisfying to be able to try books and abandon them until, perhaps with support, you find a Just-Right book. Having a rich variety of text types – fiction in various genres, nonfiction, shorter texts, graphic novels, etc. – helps the students find their niche as readers.
Now that I have transitioned to full-time World Language teaching, I have been doing a lot of thinking on the whole-class novel in my French and Spanish classes. I used to teach whole-class novels in my World Language classes. It was what I’d been trained to do. It was what I saw others doing with the novels. It seemed like we had to do that because our kids were beginners. So even though in my ELA and SS classes I would have never done a whole-class novel, I taught them in French. We would do SSR a couple times a week in my small library (of books that were way too hard!) and do one or two novels a year.
My students would grow weary of the novels despite the activities we did with them. We generally would get through three or four chapters and the bloom would fade. I would sometimes abandon the novels and sometimes plug on till the end. I thought that because many of my my students’ reading abilities in L1 were low, that it was just to be expected that they wouldn’t like the novels as much as I hoped they would.
Then I moved to full- time language teaching in a low-poverty school. The kids generally love L1 reading. But the first year when we did whole-class novels, they still tired of the novel. I started thinking maybe it was about the nature of whole-class novels, not the kids’ attitude towards reading. The same kids I’m fighting with to put their books away during class would groan quietly when we got out the novel. They would also be heard complaining about their ELA novels (my new school does not implement workshop as widely as my previous school).
So I began to think about whole-class novels in World Language. And I stopped the practice in mid-year three years ago. And then the next year when I began the year with just SSR, I noticed that the kids’ attitudes toward reading in L2 were much brighter. The power of student choice had worked wonders! Even novels that has elicited groans as whole-class books were being read eagerly by engaged students. I like to died when I heard a kid recommending Pauvre Anne to a friend!
The nuts and bolts of implementing SSR are certainly a big consideration, which I hope to write about soon.