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Getting Real Reading to Work

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Back in January, teacher Dan Brown sparked a fantastic conversation in his Get in the Fracas blog about reading for pleasure as a key ingredient for student success, especially in the case of standardized tests. Dan drew on research by lawyer and education professor Veda Jairrels, who contends that voluntary reading is the crucial missing piece for many African-American youth and accounts for the achievement gap between black and white students.

Dan teaches high school English in the District of Columbia. I’m an 8th grade English teacher in Brooklyn, New York. Dr. Jairrels’s argument really resonates with both of us and our daily classroom experiences.

Intrinsic Motivation

Reading for pleasure is such a key factor and indicator of learning and intellectual growth. When a child reads voluntarily, he or she is focused on the reading experience and not on the grade, the desired test score, or the approval of the teacher. Our schools and school systems are built around the idea that kids will respond to extrinsic motivators to learn. Research shows that extrinsic motivators (i.e., incentives, grades) work when the task is very simple and doesn’t challenge us. But when the task is more complex and requires critical thinking, the extrinsic motivator has a negative effect on learning. That’s because it moves the child's focus to the grade or desired outcome, instead of the content and experience itself. (For more about this research, see Daniel Pink's recent book, Drive, which he summarizes in this Ted Talks video.)

In his blog post, Dan Brown argues that the “readers,” students who read for pleasure but often do not complete class assignments, are building genuine intellectual experience in their reading; while the “worker bees,” those who complete all assignments but understand very little, are just trying to earn the grade and/or please the teacher and other people in their lives. They are far removed from the real process of learning, which requires intrinsic motivation.

Connecting with Parents

I believe that intrinsic motivation to learn is the crucial factor in academic success. Reading for pleasure is not the only way kids can develop and become empowered by intrinsic motivation, but it’s a really important and rewarding place to start. I agree with Jairrels that including the parents in the process is extremely valuable. Some of my most rewarding experiences as a teacher have been when I've connected with parents around my reading curriculum, so that parents understand their child's reading interests and actually get involved in their reading lives directly, by reading together, or through conversation about the reading. Of course, it is true that some students really do not have family situations that allow for this. Parent involvement becomes more complicated when parents do not speak English or are not readers themselves. Nonetheless, I have not found these issues to be an insurmountable barrier to students developing a love of reading.

Last year I had a student I'll call Jamar. Jamar was a sweet, very sociable kid, who always expressed a desire to do well in school, but who, in reality, was pretty disengaged with his school work. He had a lot of trouble focusing and following through on assignments. His grades in most classes, including mine, regularly hovered between a D+ and a F. His skills more or less matched those grades.

My homework all year long is reading. We alternate between students choosing their own books and me assigning whole-class novels. Every night, students are to read at least 10 pages and write three sticky notes inside the book with their responses. (I also allot class time for this.) I make lots of phone calls home to let parents know what students are reading and especially to alert them when their child is not keeping up.

Jamar was reading very little, especially at home. I had made a few phone calls to his mother. As it turned out, she was out of work on disability and so she had plenty of time to spend with Jamar in the evenings. This time I was calling about a novel—The Dream Bearer by Walter Dean Myers—that the whole class was reading. The deadline to complete the book was two days away, and Jamar needed to finish it in order to participate in seminar-style discussions. "That's it,” his mother told me. “He's gonna read this book."

The next day, Jamar skipped into school early. "Ms. Sacks, you're not going to believe it. I am SO tired. I was up til 2 a.m. reading that book with my mother! But you know what? The book is really GOOD! And you're gonna love reading my sticky notes!"

The following day the book was due, and Jamar came in boasting to everyone that he'd finished. His participation in discussions that week was exemplary. His insights into the book were deep and well-evidenced. A new voice—both knowledgeable and inquisitive—emerged in our classroom that day.

I called Jamar’s mother to tell her how wonderfully he'd done and thanked her for her help. She said, "You know, I'm home with him every day. I always ask him what homework he has and he says he already did it. This is the first time I got to really work with him on anything." She also told me how much she'd enjoyed reading the book with him and asked me what other books I had that might be similar so they could read some more together.

A Different Student

The amazing thing was that Jamar was not the same student after that moment. Something had clicked. He became much more engaged with his work, not just the reading, and not just in English class. He had benefited from the real intellectual experience of reading and was able to speak from that experience in an academic context. The power that came from that work of the mind, and the deepening of his relationship with his mother, was great enough to turn him on to learning.

As we continue on the trajectory of high stakes testing and accountability that NCLB first set us upon when my 8th graders were learning to read in elementary school, the time is overripe to revisit the importance of authentic learning. In our quest to close the achievement gap, we need to draw the readers out of hiding and into the intellectual life of our classrooms. Likewise we need to help the worker bees calm their minds and genuinely connect with academic material. Sustained reading is good for that.

Most of all, we need to venture outside of the limited territory that is typically considered to be the realm of “school”—exploiting, in the best sense, our students’ innate desire to learn and the family and community relationships they already have.

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