Allowing for choice reading while teaching literary essays

I am so lucky to be able to spend time in teachers’ classrooms and get smarter about teaching.  I’ve been in education for 45 years (but who’s counting?), and I still learn.

The other day, I had the opportunity to observe a class that is so close to my heart in terms of reading.  If you’ve read my previous pieces, you know my beliefs around the importance of choice reading for students.  For the first time in a long time, I visited a classroom where I saw this in practice.

Beth’s class in an urban area, was 11th Grade English.  The make up of the class was 100% Hispanic, probably a third of whom are English language learners.  Several students with IEPs were also in the mix.

Beth decided to “throw out” the district curriculum this year.  Last year, which was its first year of implementation, was one of struggle for her; the class was supposed to read several novels, and her concern was that the students were not engaged in the reading.

This year, after reading Penny Kittle’s Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, she has implemented a choice reading program.  Her classroom is filled with books, both labeled bins and across the chalk trays.  Students were reading a vast array of books.  One girl, who said she was Native American, was reading Geronimo. Other students were reading titles from Harry Potter to typical teen issues.

What was so impressive, however, is that Beth was not forcing students to read a common text in order to write a literacy analysis paper.  Rather, she was teaching students to write the essay, and they were using their individual books to do so.

I can already hear some questions you’re pondering…How can I teach students write an essay about books that I haven’t actually read?   How do I know if they’re “right”?  How do I grade essays that are written about different books?

Trust me, you can!  The points is, we’re teaching students how to write, not how to write the answers we’re looking for!  The use of mentor text is mandatory.

For example, during the mini-lasson, a sentence from an essay about Catcher in the Rye was put up on an anchor sheet.  A discussion ensued about how the sentence, which stated the thesis for the paper, was structured.  Then the teacher put up a sentence she had crafted about a book she’s currently reading.  She gave a short summary of the book and then talked about her sentence.  She then had pairs of students create similarly structured sentences on a topic of their choice.  After hearing some of these, students were sent back to their desks to work on their essays with the specific task of trying out the sentence structure.  During work time,  Beth, along with her teacher “guests” conferred with individual students.  Our goal during the conferences was to ask probing questions to guide their sentence structure.

And how were we able to confer with students without having read the books?  Remember, our goal is not to determine if they’re right; rather, it’s to help them write.  We ask questions (How’s it going?  How can I help you?).  Often, I begin by asking the student to read aloud the paragraph they’re stuck on.  In reading it aloud, they often will find things that need to be revised.  I observed students deleting sentences after their read aloud, saying that things needed to be added, and then typing away as I left the conference.

And then there’s the grading question…which I believe comes back to the rubric.  I’ve never seen a writing rubric that said WHAT words had to be on the paper.  As long as you have a decent writing rubric, you can assess student writing on a variety of topics.

But the most important part in all of this is that students were writing about something that was theirs, something that they had chosen and over which they had ownership.  It wasn’t the teacher’s book or the teacher’s topic.  It was theirs.  And the engagement was so much higher than what I typically see in a high school class where students are writing required essays.

What I came away with was this: we can teach students to write the type of essays that are required while allowing them to read books of their own choosing.  If we want students to actually READ books, if we want them to become lifelong readers, then they must have the opportunity to read books of choice in school.  If we don’t offer these types of opportunities, then students will not read.  And for me, what’s most important is that students read!

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