23
Jun
11

Balancing Act

On reading Steven L. Layne, Nancie Atwell, William Broz, Kelly Gallagher

I appreciate the viewpoints and passion of all these mentor teachers. Their enthusiasm for learning, for students, and for good teachers and teaching translates into all their writing. They are full of stories, hope, and honesty about what their students are accomplishing. The difficulty for someone navigating the impasses –forks in the road where they may seem to disagree–is one of discernment. It is not “which is correct”,  but “which methods are best for my students today?”

Because they all focus on reading, the issues and solutions they address often feel most relevant to reading workshops in which daily periods are dedicated to reading, as they might be in middle school, where there is also separate time in the day for writing. Since reading and writing are integrated in my high school language arts curriculum (at least in the school day), I am reading them with an eye toward how the reading will relate to the writing that goes along with it. What I am left with after briskly reading each of these authors is a clarified sense of my role and responsibility to make readers of my kids – to help them to love books and want to read them.

Gallagher’s theme is to make certain that a 50/50 balance is met between pleasure reading and assigned reading, such as class novels; Layne’s is that we teachers can do much more to promote a love of reading, and he provides many structures and modelling behaviors we can use to do so. Atwell insists that reading is the single activity which promotes “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers,” sharing and promoting her own tested methods of engaging mainly younger students (pre-high school) in the pleasure of the reading experience. She and Gallagher observe that book lovers entering ninth grade may soon become indifferent to reading when the fun is choked out of it by well-intended assignments that inhibit the “lived-through” experience Louise Rosenblatt wrote of as an aim in esthetic reading.

All agree that certain scaffolding can occur, and Broz qualifies Atwell’s approach by pointing out the practical need for such teacher expertise in classrooms where you won’t find students able to read Jane Austen on their own (an example Atwell uses).

For myself and my students, I reflect on this past year and fondly recall the many days in my 10th grade class when we had pleasure reading time. I really can and ought to encourage something approaching the 50/50 model. All the books contain practical ideas for how to log the student reading without making it burdensome for teacher or student. It seems that I am fortunate in that I am in a position to teach only the books I love, and therefore my own enthusiasm about the texts we read as a class can transmit to the readers. I also liked the idea of allowing readers an opportunity to read these in any order. As students are making such decisions, it is beneficial that several of the writers provide samples of students learning goals, and introduce scenarios that scaffold such goal-setting for the students.

But because I am also largely affected by the social dynamic of book discussions, believing them to offer students the multiple viewpoints of their fellow classmates, and alternative ways to experience literature, I hesitate to do away with them. All of these writers are interested in helping teens out when literature gets difficult and classes become harder in high school. They are clear about the message that good teachers must do everything in their power to gain and keep readers for life.

So if I can fashion a schedule wherein students can spend a bit of time reading, a bit of time discussing, and a bit of time writing, and involve a combination of student-selected and canonical works, I will be happy. I must add even more times when I am reading aloud to the class, enthusiastically, dramatically; this is a venue which seems to help students to enjoy a book – being read to by an expert reader.

Next, I will read up a bit on writing, with Donald Graves. Tinkering with the fit between reading and writing will help my classrooms to run more clearly toward their goals.

 I am wondering what you are doing or have done to make sense of any of the recent arguments for or against class study of novels, such as Readicide? How do you handle the balancing act between teaching students how to read the challenging books and how to read for all the pleasure they can get?

As  a related note, young adult books are crucial to the arguments in Atwell and Layne, especially. Atwell’s book was recommended to me by Gordon Pradl when it came out; and the necessity of drawing children of all ages to love reading and learning is closely connected with Mike Rose’s ideas in Why Schools?, such as the Jeffersonian ideal of an educated citizenry.

This assortment of related books leads to my central questions about how and when to introduce philosophy and politics to students, such that by senior year they are able to read “Federalist” papers or segments of Tocqueville. I like Matthew Lipman’s work in this area, as well as books like The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten

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