The Road to Recovery

The first step in any twelve-step program is admitting that you have a problem. Nearly a year ago to the day, when I formally proposed my idea for Reading for Pleasure, I did just that. I came clean and acknowledged my role in contributing to readicide. In his marvelous book, Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, Kelly Gallagher defines readicide as “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.” Now, I know I wasn’t the worst offender out there; there were a lot of things I was doing right. I had an extensive classroom library, and on a daily basis I provided SSR time, delivered booktalks, and conferenced with students. That said, something still wasn’t quite right. Students continued to volunteer iterations of this sentiment: “I used to like reading, but then I got to high school. It got harder. I got busier. I don’t know how to find books I like. Reading isn’t fun anymore.” Etc. Etc. Etc. Despite my efforts, many students were still suffering the effects of readicide. It was time for an intervention. Something needed to change. That something turned into Reading for Pleasure.

As I see it, THE PROBLEM is that, in many English classes, there is a huge disconnect between the students and the books read “read.” Contributing factors include:

  • Students not having choice in what they read
  • Students not enjoying what they read
  • Assigned texts being too hard (or too easy) – not tailored to each student
  • Students resorting to Sparknotes, Shmoop, etc.
  • Students choosing not to read at all

Following the lead of my faraway teacher mentors – Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, Nancie Atwell, Teri Lesesne, and Sarah Andersen – I have built this class on the pillars of TIME, CHOICE, RESPONSE, COMMUNITY, and STRUCTURE (*FYI, Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild is a must-read for anyone interested in this sort of classroom framework):

  • TIME to read
    • We started at 15 minutes but have worked our way up to 30 minutes every class meeting (out of 90-minute period)
  • CHOICE in what students read
    • I want students to explore a multitude of genres, but they have complete choice (no “assigned” books)
  • Students RESPOND to books they read
    • Written and oral
  • Class as a COMMUNITY of readers
    • Sharing reading experiences with one another
    • Intentional seating chart in table groups where students face (and can easily interact with) each other
  • Structure of PREDICTABLE RITUALS and procedures that support all of us
    • Booktalks
    • SSR time
    • Mini-lessons
    • Read-alouds
    • Conferences with Mr. Hall

I’ve also maintained high expectations for the class from day one. Modifying Donalyn Miller’s “Forty-Book Requirement” (for a yearlong class), I had students set a stretch-goal of twenty books read in the semester. Students also generated their own personal goals at the beginning of the semester, ranging from expanding their genre horizons to increasing their reading stamina to reading for at least 10-15 minutes every day. The progress they make toward all of these goals will help us determine their grades at the end of the semester.

Releasing control in this way, and allowing the students to take control of their reading and learning, has really been a liberating experience for me and my kids. I have fewer assignments in the gradebook but more books in the hands of my students. Last minute cram sessions of vocabulary words and figurative language terms have been replaced with discussions about the stunning conclusion to the treasured book one friend recommended to another. Impromptu conversations and stories about reading pop up almost daily: the football player who packed American Sniper to read on the bus during the road trip, the reluctant reader who has already read more books in two and half months than he has in the past three years, the best reading spots to enter the reading zone, why we all need to keep a book in our cars so we can read during red lights. 🙂 I’d gladly take these trade-offs any day.

Change can be hard. Admitting there’s a problem can make you feel vulnerable. But there’s freedom that comes from giving that problem a name, and with the proper support system in place recovery is possible. My students and I aren’t completely there yet, but we’ve made some incredible progress in just a few short months. With good books and time to read them, I’m convinced the effects of readicide are treatable.

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