Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Reading What You Want

Michele Dunaway teaches English and journalism at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Missouri, when she's not writing best-selling romance novels. Here Michele continues her discussion from last month about how choosing the right literature to read is the key to getting students excited about books.

In my last article, I mentioned how important it is to choose works of literature students will love. I said that our current generation of kids has grown up on video games and Internet downloads as their primary entertainment venue, often opting for these things instead of reading.

This can have a detrimental effect on reading levels and cultural literacy, and to combat this teachers are going to have to rethink how and what they teach, especially since teachers are trapped on the fine line of test score results and creating lifelong readers. Unfortunately, we often lose the lifelong reading in our quest for the test scores required by law. We teach skills, not the joy of reading.

So today I'm going to propose something really radical. If you want to develop readers, you're going to need to let them read. You're also going to need to let them pick their own novels. Let me explain.

When I was teaching juniors a few years ago, I came up with a way to teach those pesky test skills through a book of their choice. Everyday I gave my classes the first five to ten minutes of the period to come in and crack open a book. The key was that the book had to be published after 2000. It had to be modern and it couldn't have a Spark Notes web page or be something they'd read in fourth grade. After a little initial resistance, I suddenly had kids reading Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, James Patterson and more. Some read mysteries. Others dove into romance or suspense. Still others found science fiction. The key was that they chose the book. Aside from it being published in 2000 or later, which I did since most of the stuff read in school was written by dead guys, there were only a few other rules. The first rule was that if their parents objected to their choice of independent novel, they had to choose something else. The second was that it needed to be a book they would have no problem sitting down with the principal and discussing. I never had the problem with anything "inappropriate."

After reading the kids would take out their notebooks (that they kept in a drawer in class) and journal. They had 30 questions on a sheet stapled inside the front cover, which were everything from summarize what you have read to make a list of figurative language found in the selection.  They had to back up everything with examples from their book, and at the very end of the quarter, they owed me one book report on any book they'd read for pleasure during the quarter. There were no rewards for speed. If they started reading and decided they hated a book, they could choose something else. They didn't have to finish if they didn't like it. They could read the book in class, take it home, finish it, and read something else. The key was they had to read the entire time. This daily reading got them in the habit of losing themselves inside a book. Many times when the timer buzzed, they weren't ready to stop. I'd use the remaining class time to teach communal pieces and skills and content. After reading, they were always ready to learn, as reading had engaged their brains and gotten them ready to learn.

What followed was truly magical. They learned to love to read again. I remember one time when Jessica put down James Frey's A Million Little Pieces (and yes, she knew it was made up and didn't care) and announced to the class "I'm finished. This is the first book I've read since seventh grade." And then she decided to read Frey's next book. I admit, the teardrops prickled. She was again a reader. Once Ben's mom called me to let me know Ben had fallen in love with Alex Cross novels and that he was constantly reading at home — something she hadn't seen in ages. She actually had to tell him to put a book down to do his chores. When she wanted to buy him a full set for Christmas, I sent her to my friend's used bookstore where she bought up all my friend had. I saw kids recommend books to each other, and even swap novels. I'd hear, "I'm going to read that after you." My kids became regulars at the school library and they'd go to bookstores. They talked books.

And those test scores I had to worry about? We hit it out of the park that April. I'd taught the skills needed using their own books of choice, and I'd supplemented those with selections I loved. We created a culture where it was cool to read, and made those pesky "it's on the test so we must learn it" stuff fun. We'd read more than we normally would have because we picked books and pieces that made us want to read again. Reading can be like chocolate — you can never have enough. Even better, the more you read the better a reader you become.

When I teach reading, my overall goal is to create lifelong readers. It's not about test scores. (If kids are reading those will naturally follow with a little teaching and training.) It's about enjoyment. It's about engaging the brain into cerebral pursuits, ones that encourage us to imagine and choose a book instead of a movie or video game. Reading is fundamental. To get reading back to the popularity it deserves, it's time we also make reading fun.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.