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Reading Freedom

By Donalyn Miller — March 11, 2008 2 min read
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As both the language arts and social studies teacher for my group of 60, I am charged with covering a great deal of content. While studying Europe, it is required that students examine World War II. My students already learned a lot about this war last year.

Looking for ways to make this unit fresh and interesting, I chose to conduct a book study. Students picked a book on World War II from our vast class library, and focused their reading on the background of the characters, how each became involved in the conflict, and the short-term and long-term consequences of the war for them.

Nearing the date for the class discussion of what they had learned, I checked in with my students to see how the reading was going. Many students were having trouble staying motivated to finish their books. I couldn’t believe their lack of interest. These kids are readers-- hungry, enthusiastic readers. I have worked all year to make them so.

While chastising them for their lack of effort to complete their reading, my students let me know that in large part, the culture of independent, opinionated readers I have fostered in my class made this assignment boring:

“I don’t like Number the Stars, but I am forcing myself to read it because I have to.”(forcing yourself to read it?!)

“I wanted to read Don’t You Know There’s a War On? , but J. took the class copy and I got stuck reading Lily’s Crossing.” (definite chick book, why did he pick it?)

“I’ve already read three books on World War II this year. Can’t I just use one of them?”(hmm...seems reasonable...)

and my favorite,

“Mrs. Miller, I am in the middle of Inkheart right now, don’t you know how hard that book is to put down?” (yes, yes, I do.)

Some students selected the very shortest books that they could find, or were reading books in which they had no interest just to get the job done--behaviors they had never shown before.

Transformed, our class was now a place where students dreaded reading and only did it for the sake of getting the assignment over with as fast and as painlessly as possible.

I was horrified.

I had somehow stripped the joy for reading out of my students, joy I had strived all year to instill. I had turned them loose to feel book love and the freedom that making all of their own reading choices brings, some for the first time. By requiring that they read certain books, on a specific topic, within a deadline, I had hobbled my wild-at-heart readers.

And now, they were looking at me wistfully over the fence.

Issuing rare weekend homework, I gave my students two more days to finish their books. Most of them were able to meet the deadline. For the final activity, students composed a critical summary for their books, evaluating the impact World War II had on the lives of the stakeholders involved.Turning in their essays one by one, students returned to their desks, and pulled out books. The books I had kept them from reading during the book study.

Running through the pages of their own books, my students were free again. Surveying a room full of readers, I realized that if I can keep the gate open, and have the sense to get out of the way, they will read.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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