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Bringing Reading & Fun Together in the Classroom

Written by Antero Garcia
May 06, 2013

Jessee Macklin, Emma Steward, Alexis Yeager

Reading in the 21st century

Recent studies have shown that 73% of high schoolers use social media; often times this can even be seen inside the classroom (Jackson). Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube and other popular social media websites are accessed through computers, phones, and other technological devices by teenagers every day. Most teachers have probably witnessed their students trying to hide their phones or iPods in their laps or between books while surfing various websites during class. In a typical 8 hour school day teenagers are bound to hop on the web at least a time or two.
Constantly being ‘in-the-know’ can be a little too tempting for students sometimes. But the fact is that students spend time on social media doing exactly what teachers try to get them to do in their classes: read! Posts, statuses, blogs, articles, comments, links, notifications, photo captions – reading is weaved into almost every aspect of any social networking website. For the majority of teenagers and high schoolers in America this is precisely what reading looks like in the 21st century.

Now that this idea (as negative as it might seem) is formally acknowledged, the next step is thinking about how teachers can utilize social media and the Internet as a learning tools in their classrooms. If students would rather surf the Internet than flip through the pages of the class textbook then there are times when we teachers should embrace that! Teachers can include activities in their classroom that disguise reading as explorations of social media.
Boring book reports are a thing of the past. In order to keep the fun factor in the classroom teachers can provide means for working social media into writing about books. “Book Trailers” can be used as a way to excite students for reading books. Students spend time with Windows Movie Maker or iMovie to create a mini “trailer” equipped with sound, text, picture, or video for a book they have recently read. This type of project can be assigned after reading a class text or as a way for students to introduce a favorite books to their peers. Either way students are utilizing the Internet and social media to talk about the books they are reading. This is also a way to spread interest among a class full of adolescents and expose them to titles or genres they might not have otherwise heard before.

Ask any high school student these days if they enjoy reading and if they do the reading that is assigned in class, and more often than not the answer that is received will be a resounding no. So why do student’s not like reading? How can we, as (future) educators, change these negative feelings when it comes to reading?

There are many reasons why student’s and adolescents in general have an aversion to reading, and those can range anywhere from learning disabilities, to a band experience, to just never really seeing the point in spending their time reading. In a discussion that was had in our Teaching Reading class, a lot of the students mentioned that their aversion to reading started in middle school when a teacher butchered the teaching of a book, and just made in unenjoyable for their students. All it takes is one bad experience to ruin something forever, and reading is no exception to this rule. However! It can be salvaged!  In an article written by LuAnne Johnson titled 10 Reasons Why Nonreaders Don’t Read – and How to Change Their Minds which can be found here, Johnson brings up the top ten reasons why students don’t read and explaining them in depth before suggesting things to counter those reasons, and hopefully get children interested in reading.

As teachers, we can help by drawing positive, fun connections between the students and reading, and showing them that reading can be fun! There are a million and one activities that are floating around out there, most of them tried and perfected by other teachers. An example of some of these activities and how they can be used are found online on sites like tips-for-teachers.com which anyone can add too! An example of reading activity tips can be found here.

The question of why student’s don’t read is an old one, and yet, there aren’t many records of teachers and other adults actually asking the students directly why the do not read. After searching online, I stumbled across this documented account of a teacher actually asking her students about their reading habits, and why they were the way they were. She did this via a video, and at the end the students explain what can be done to change their reading habits, the main one being that they wanted to be able to choose what they wanted to read.
How do we utilize students reading books of their own choosing in the classroom? Is it possible for students to master the standards when THEY choose the books? According to various studies, yes. At this point, students are conditioned to dislike a book before they read it simply because they are being essentially forced to read it. There is no dispute that famous novels are famous for a reason, but when students are forced to read things it creates an instant riff in their sense of ownership over the book. This leads them to lean more towards things like cliff notes and sparknotes, instead of actually trying to read the book to see if they’d enjoy it. Certain pieces can be hard to nix– you can’t really teach students about Elizabethan times with anything besides Shakespeare– but letting students learn about a genre that canonical books are usually employed for doesn’t necessarily have to be a whole class novel experience. Gay Ivey, a professor of reading education at James Madison, is a firm proponent of letting students choose with reckless abandonment what they want to read.

“For the past three years, Dr. Ivey has been involved with a project at a Virginia school in which 300 Grade 8 English students were allowed full choice over their reading with few strings or work attached, other than classroom discussions about shared themes and small group conversations if several students had read the same book. The goal was to get every student engaged in reading – the kind that you do in your own free time. “It’s [about]the experience we have all had as adults when we forget to eat or go to the restroom because we are so into what we are reading,” Dr. Ivey says. “And that so rarely happens in school, and it certainly hardly ever happens with the whole-class-assigned novel.”

The results, she says, have been overwhelming. “We couldn’t keep up with the need for books,” she says. Even in classes with struggling readers, students read an average of 42 books over the course of the school years, some as many as 100. And even with their options open, students didn’t stick with Twilight and Gossip Girl series for long – as their appetite for reading grew, so did their interest in more challenging reads, coming to class for example to debate the ending of Walking on Glass by science fiction writer Iain Banks.

There’s a perception, Dr. Ivey says, that “when you give choices, they will choose something that’s not good for them. But that is not the case at all. We wouldn’t have kept kids from reading Captain Underpants. But quite frankly even our least experienced readers didn’t choose books like that.”

Instead, she argues, students learned a more important lesson. “Sometimes really hard thinking can be pleasurable – that’s what our kids experience. Pleasure doesn’t have to be a no-brainer.”

Dr. Ivey argues that schools would do well to abandon the whole class novel, which, she says, despite new styles of teaching literacy still remains a common approach in North American schools. And to those who argue in favour of a common base of knowledge through class-assigned novels, she scoffs: “The experience of being assigned a book is extremely common. Having knowledge of [that book]is rare.”

This is backed up by authors like Donalyn Miller in her book, The Book Whisperer. She mirrors this idea and advocates that when you let students read by choice, they tend to become voracious readers and exercise their passion for reading in the classroom. She says that even reluctant readers are able to find a niche they love, and then a knowledgeable teacher can adapt to make sure that the in class books fit a genre.

If teachers are hesitant about abandoning the whole class novel completely, they can consider the idea of doing class set novels. This is expounded upon in articles such as “Reconsidering the Whole Class Novel.”

Some book set ideas from the website:

  • Problems in school:Stargirl (Spinelli, 2000), Leaving Fletchville (Schmidt, 2008), Schooled (Korman, 2007), The 6th Grade Nickname Game (Korman, 1998), and Loser (Spinelli, 2002

  • Irish Famine: Under the Hawthorn Tree (Conlon-McKenna, 1990) and Nory Ryan’s Song (Giff, 2000), and three novels by Canadian authors, Bridget’s Black ’47 (Perkyns, 2009), The Grave (Heneghan, 2000), and the most recent Governor General’s Award-winner, Greener Grass (Pignat, 2008).

If teachers are concerned about whether students will actually read, they can include framed silent reading time in the beginning of class to guarantee not only that students are reading, but that they are transitioned from wherever they came from into the mentality that it is time to be a participant in class.

Finally, teachers can utilize websites like Figment.com for students. Figment, an online community, lets students find other readers with similar interest, peruse book choices, participate in forums and give their own opinion on books.