New Old Reading (and it’s working)

The Gist:

  • I’ve been frustrated for years with trying to force books on kids.
  • This Fall I got an indirect nod to try something new.
  • My kids are reading whatever they like.
  • It has changed reading in my classroom.

The Whole Story:

I taught Cam when he was in 9th grade.

Cam is a story you’ve heard before. He’s crazy bright, enlivens class discussions and does a lot of nothing on the assignments front. This made Cam incredibly frustrating as a student.

Cam is back in my class as a G11 student this year. I watched him trudge piece meal through

The Things They Carried and The Taming of the Shrew. In the end, I’m not sure how much he actually read of those texts.

Six weeks since we’ve been back in school, Cam is reading his second book of the year, Our Boys Speak after burning through A Long Way Gone.

Coming back from Winter Break, I changed the way we do things in my classroom. I’ve always moved from activity to activity to mix things up and keep things interesting.

Now, though, at least three times a week, my students are reading whatever they like for 20

minutes. I intend no hyperbole when I say it’s amazing to watch.

I’ve wanted to try this since I started teaching. The seed got planted earlier this Fall when this New York Times article reminded me of the reading workshop popularized by Nancie Atwell.

At the time, I found the reaction to the article quite humorous. It’s not a new idea.

I’m not running things according to Atwell’s program. Well, not on purpose.

In trying to describe what’s going on to people, the most frequent question is “How do you hold them accountable for what they’re reading?”

At once, this question seems logical and sad.

The answer is two-fold.

Students are required to write a review of any book they read and post it two places. If the book they’ve read is available in our school library catalog, they are to post their review online via Koha. Without exception, they must also post their reviews somewhere public like,,, etc. and then send me the link to their published review.

This has led to some great discussions of writing for a specific audience. To gear up for the task, we spent time reading reviews from the NYTimes and read this post from UK freelance journalist Johnathan Deamer on the secrets to writing good reviews.

The general consensus was that the NYTimes writers use too many words.

The second bit of accountability is just coming online now. Through a partnership with UPenn’s Reading, Writing and Literacy Master’s program, I’m fortunate enough to have Hannah interning in G11 classes this semester.

Using information she gathered through a Google Form we pushed out to the kids, Hannah is breaking the class into genre groups and sitting down with them to discuss what they’re finding in their books, what they like and dislike and what they’ll be looking for in their next text.

Though Hannah won’t be with me forever, I’m planning on picking up where she leaves off when her time with us is done.

Some things I’ve noticed:

  • They’re going to the library.
  • They’re seeing our library in a new light.
  • We’ve had to review Daniel Pennac’s “Reader’s Bill of Rights” – specifically #2.
  • When I next ask them to read a common text, I’m going to have to totally rethink my approach.

Cam’s mom helped out with EduCon this year. We struck up one of those informal parent-teacher conferences as she was helping to clean up after Saturday’s dinner.

“Is Cam supposed to be reading every night for class?” she asked.

“Not as a requirement,” I said.

“Well, he is. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.”

I hope so.

21 thoughts on “New Old Reading (and it’s working)

  1. Nicely played!

    I was once in a 4th grade classroom where the kids were free to read anything they wished. All of a sudden, one 9 year-old jumped up yelling, “I finished it!” while waving a copy of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather: in the air.

    Just as the teacher rushed to say, “Great! Put it in your bag and take it home,” another 4th grader snatched the book and yelled, “I’m next!”

    There was evidence that “The Godfather” was becoming the defacto basal for 4th grade in that classroom.

    You might also enjoy reading,

    Rock on!

  2. Great that you are having such a positive experience with doing this!

    I’m just reading the Book Whisperer–the author is following a similar principle in her classroom. You might be interested in the book!

    Wouldn’t we all rather read this way?

    • I’ll check that book out too. I think we’d all rather read this way. The rub is the paradigm shift this means for teachers. I’m managing workflow in a completely different way now.

  3. After graduating from HS, I found that my peers and I had grown sick of books. Having to read assigned books at an assigned pace with the primary concern of remembering content likely to be on the test led to nothing more than large-scale resentment of books. I rediscovered reading as something for my own benefit rather than a chore when a Drexel professor did something very similar to what you just described.

    So keep it up Zac, I think you’re on the right track!

  4. This is very inspiring. More teachers at the school I work at are oding this as well. One question- did you have anyone that it didn’t seem to work with? If so, what are strategies would you recommend?
    I am a librarian and was very happy to read that students were going to the library more. One thing that a librarian can do to help with this process is to make sure you have the books the students want to read. Sounds like it is common sense but often times libraries are the first to take budget cuts. You need to keep up with the latest books if you are going to keep the students interested!
    Thanks for sharing this great story!

    • Debbie,
      No kids that it totally hasn’t worked with. A handful of kids who went through book after book after book before finding a suitable match. Also, I can’t think in traditional terms. I’ve kids reading Please Stop Laughing at Me by Jodee Blanco and kids who aren’t ready to move from graphic novels. It’s natural differentiated instruction. From the working side, this means I’ve got to be paying attention as a teacher. It’s not the same as giving a reading quiz where everyone’s literally supposed to be on the same page. They’re running the show and I’m taking notes.

      As for the library component, Ms. Bowers is amazing. Our library is stocked with the latest titles, and she knows her stuff. No student has come back from a library trip without at least three books to try out. It’s what it should be (if that makes sense).

      -Mr. Chase

  5. This is wonderful. there is nothing better in school than encouraging reading of any sort. When a student sees that they can do something related to their own tastes, they are more motivated to do that task.

    Why are we surprised by this?

    We adults are the same way. Yet we have the right to refuse, students usually don’t. We call that rebellion when they do. We call it our right when we, as adults, do the same thing.

    When we help the students make choices that they see are relevant, life, as well as school, are more enjoyable and worthwhile for everyone.

    • Gene,

      I am in agreement with what you’re saying here. What, though, to those who argue for the importance of a cultural IQ? What about the idea that our kids should have a core of certain texts? How does that work in? I love Hamlet and think i important as a text for our students to read. At the same time, I know this setup isn’t going to lead students to pick up Shakespeare. Are we ok as teachers if choice means leaving classics behind?
      -Mr. Chase

  6. “my students are reading whatever they like” I found this to be key when implementing SSR. My kids loved it last year. I haven’t done it this year because they cut the minutes in our class time, but I am definitely going to try and build it back in on Fridays at least. I used to line my classroom library along the board ledge. It had great eye appeal and the kids grabbed a book on the way in. I used a daily reading response log, but I like your idea of writing reviews on BN and other book sites. I need Hannah! I have also used lit circles instead of teaching whole class books. Give students 4 or 5 books to choose from and then discuss them in groups. Choose a final product to show what they learned about theme, style, and so on. It really is amazing to see kids enjoy reading! Thanks for sharing.

  7. I was am currently am a student of Mr. Chase’s and I can understand just how activity based his classroom is. I remember when you had us reading books on The ability to choose what you want to read as a student has always appealed to not only myself but my peers as well. The classroom of love allows for students to really see the purpose in the work of literary artist, or in some cases the lack of purpose. Now that I’m a senior I am taking Storytelling with Chase and although it seems a little daunting at times it has helped me become a better reader. I now know how to read a story and look for critical aspects.

  8. This is inspiring!

    As Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer author mentioned in an earlier post) so often says, we want students to become lifelong readers. And one way to do that, it seems, is to give them the same opportunity to choose what they read that we have as adults.

    As an aside, when I taught 2nd Grade years ago, we implemented an individualized reading program. We called it OTTER for Our Time To Enjoy Reading. I now set aside time for OTTER in my own busy adult life. (And, yes, I call it OTTER. Mock me, it’s fine. I can handle it.) I wonder how many of my former students do this now, too. THAT is the real assessment, isn’t it?

    Thanks for sharing this!

    • I’m going to head out on a limb and say your former students aren’t saying “I’m gonna be off the grid for a bit while I OTTER.” At the same time, I’d be willing to guess (and we should know this stuff, not guess) that they’re still reading or more likely to read because you gave them choice.

      Now I’ve really gotta get The Book Whisperer.

  9. I read the same Times article earlier this year, and after sitting in on several sessions at the NCTE annual conference that endorsed student choice as well, I decided to try it out in my classroom. What I did changed my classroom almost immediately. Upon walking in the classroom each day, students would meet me with an eagerness in their eyes to discuss what it was they were reading. They began having discussions spontaneously and energetically, unprompted. They began talking about stories and characters and writing and plot not because it was on my agenda for the day, but as a matter of necessity to express what it was they were doing individually as they engaged with text. They were driven to find their own “voice” as a reader. We ask them to be confident in their thinking, especially in moving them towards inquiry learning; yet traditionally, we take away their choice when it comes to reading. This just doesn’t make sense to me anymore.

    As a school, we are facing cuts, and many of our elective classes are being cut as a result. I can’t help but think how students might begin to re-engage with reading if we start to move away from traditionally teaching specific books and specific classes and instead teach a love of reading through choice reading.

    I might also add, that I have never had as much parental support and response as I have since I started offering choice reads. Parents have emailed me stating that not only have their sons/daughters been reading each night enthusiastically, but they have then passed books on to their siblings and even their parents. How awesome!

    I would love to hear more about how this evolves for you over the course of the year!

    • What you write leads me to what I wanted to write in the post, but forgot to.
      I want my students to be better writers, so I give them choice and chance to write.
      Why would I be resistant to giving them choice and chance to read when attempting to make them better readers?
      I guess the pull quote from Atwell was my attempt at making that point.

  10. I do something similar to this with my 8th grade reading classes. Our kids aren’t allowed to do much posting on-line, so my accountability is pretty old school. The kids give very informal book talks to the class as they finish their books (they’re required to give two book talks each semester and can do more for extra credit); I casually ask the kids about what they’re reading; and they do two open-ended book projects a semester (write a letter to the author, write a new chapter of the book, write a diary/blog of a character, write text messages from character to character, research a topic related to the book, create a work of art related to the book, etc.).

    I have found that this pretty casual system works well and is easy for me. I’ve done this for about ten years. I’ve only had a few kids who didn’t really read, and they were kids I couldn’t get to do anything else either. I don’t think any accountability system would have changed that. (I’m also lucky to have small classes…my class of 10 this year is the biggest one I’ve had in years.)

  11. How refreshing! I missed the NYT article, but like what you and all the others who commented are trying out. Great idea for the authentic reviews. I teach Social Studies, but will have to see if I can get my friends in the English Department on board. Maybe some of the students would even choose to read things related to Social Studies.

    I hope that some day my kids have teachers like you.

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