The 2016-2017 school year has officially begun. The students are present, the bells are ringing, and the emails are finding their way to my inbox.
Every year I require my students to read books independently outside of what I assign them to read. I pick our class novels and other literature that we study; they pick their books for independent reading. This is where students get to read more high-interest books that will hopefully turn them into life-long readers.
Even teaching honors students, many of them still don’t like to read. Every year I wrestle with the independent reading requirement and work to find the magic recipe that will make it less of a struggle. I’ve had years where students had to read a certain number of pages, years where they earned points based on the quality and length of book they selected, and years where students had to read one book a month. There were years where students had to complete projects for their books, years where they did a combination of projects and presentations, and last year, where they simply had to conference with me about their books.
I actually liked conferencing with my students. It was nice to have face-to-face, one-on-one conversations with them about books. The problem is that I had to have ten conferences per student throughout the year. I had over 120 freshmen honors students last year. Go ahead, do the math. These book talks would not take more than five minutes, but that’s still 6000 minutes or 100 hours outside of class time talking about the books they read. Granted, not all of my students read their ten books, but I still spent hours upon hours in conferences. Add in the fact that high school students often wait till the very last minute and what I would get the week of a deadline was a line of students snaking out of my classroom door beginning at seven in the morning, all through my half-hour “duty-free” lunch, and again after school.
This year, I was given a fifth section of honors English and I knew that there would be no way I could strictly conference. I also know that research supports that assignment tied to independent reading are counter-intuitive to instilling a genuine love for reading, but if I just “trust” that they will read, we both know what will happen.
Last year’s students said that a book a month (ten for the year) was too much. The result: drop the requirement to two books per quarter (eight for the year) and give them four ways to “prove” they’ve read the books.
The first is still the conference with me. Like I said, I enjoyed talking to my students about books. Not only did I get to know them better and build relationships, but I also got some great book recommendations for myself and to share with the rest of my classes. Yet by making them only conference with me on two of the eight books for the year, I should only be putting in about 28 hours of my time outside of class.
Another thing they will do is present two of their books to the class. They get to create any type of presentation they want—a video, a Prezi, a PowerPoint, or even a book trailer. They can read passages from their book or simply convince their audience why they should or should not read the book.
Twice they will need to write a letter to me or a friend sharing their thoughts on their book. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
And then twice, I have asked my students to talk about their book with their mom or dad. (GASP!) I know, I know…I am requiring teenagers to speak to their parents. Since I am not there to witness these conversations, I have asked both student and parents to write a brief response about their discussion. I suggested a half-page of writing.
Then I sent home the requirements along with a slip of paper for parents to sign saying that they were informed of the independent reading expectation in my class, and I went home to bed thinking I had it all figured out.
What I hadn’t planned on was defending the purpose behind asking parents to write a response.
Educators are asked, heck-evaluated even-on how we build partnerships with families. We have school statements that affirm things like: we believe parents are an integral part in their child’s education. We are asked to find ways to involve parents in our classrooms, something that becomes harder and harder to do at the high school level.
Visit an elementary school on Back-to-School night and see the halls swarming with parents; visit a high school and you may get as many as five parents in a class of 35 who actually show up. Parents love to volunteer in elementary classrooms. In sixteen years of teaching, I’ve never once had a parent offer to volunteer in my class. When I have an assignment that involves parents in what we are doing in my class, I see it as a win-win.
When we study Romeo and Juliet, I ask my students to interview their parents on “the perfect mate.” It’s always an animated class discussion when students compare the type of partner their parents would choose for them versus the kind of partner they would choose for themselves. I envisioned a similar outcome for this assignment.
Just the other night, I sat at my own daughter’s Back-to-School night and listened as her teacher said, “I don’t know how you all feel about this, but the third grade teachers have decided not to give homework packets this year.” That’s not to say that the kids don’t have homework. They are expected to read nightly and they will do math practice on the computer, but the third grade teachers won’t be sending home the traditional homework folders that my daughter grew accustomed to in first and second grade. They came home on Monday and went back on Thursday and every night she completed a worksheet or two.
Sitting there I thought: Oh, ok…How do I feel about this? And then I immediately thought, I trust my daughter’s teacher to know what’s going to be the best approach to educating my child. Because that’s her job. My job is to be the parent, and her job is to teach my kid. If she, and all the other teachers of that grade, think this is best, then it probably is. I will support her however I can. If that means buying extra Kleenex for the class, I will. If that means helping my daughter memorize her multiplication tables this year, I will. And if that means that I simply trust in the decisions she is making in the classroom, I will.
You see, we teachers really do plan and reflect and revise in an effort to get it a little bit more right each year.
I can only hope that the parents of my students will also trust me as their child’s teacher. But I also secretly hope that they will participate in these book talks with their children and have really nice conversations, ones that don’t center around emptying the dishwasher or feeding the dogs, ones that don’t involve discipline or disappointment, ones where maybe they gain an insight into their children that they didn’t have before. Because these kids grow up and change so fast.
Lately, the eight-year old version of my daughter has a totally different mind than the one I knew a few months ago. I’m awestruck each time I talk to her these days. And these days, she still wants to talk to me. When she’s fourteen or fifteen, I don’t know if that will still be the case. So when she is, if her teacher makes her talk to me, the only thing I might communicate is my sincerest thanks.