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The Big Miss in Education Reform: Fiction

Motivating students to read may be the best thing we do for them as teachers.

This year, our seventh-grade Language Arts department agreed to the “500 Challenge,” where  students collectively strive to read 500 novels. Each title would go up on a large wall chart, along with the name of the author and the signature of the student who finished the book. Since my two colleagues and I each have two block classes, we’re trying to average 250 novels per class.

So far so good. Our students are reading with more energy and excitement, and they seem genuinely interested in achieving the goal. They are also reading more. I recently polled one of my classes and discovered that 19 of 28 students said they have read more books already this year than in any previous school year. One of the reasons: I was not limiting them to books in the Accelerated Reader program, or as one student put it, “You’re not super strict about what we read, so I’m reading more.”

One of the most wonderful consequences of the 500 Challenge happened by accident. I simply asked my kids to “turn and talk” about the books they were currently reading for the challenge.  What followed was a buzz of excited chatter. I had to step and back and smile. All around the room, kids were discussing their books. We now do this regularly. This “word of mouth” process is the primary way students choose what novel to read next. Conversely, they also learn about which books they might want to avoid.

Back in the late 90s, distinguished teacher Robert Tierney articulated this idea of doing more talking and less testing. “I suggest moving toward conversations and notes rather than checklists, rubrics, and more formal evaluations, which seem to distance the student from what she/he is doing, has done, or might do.”  When students share about the books they are reading, there is a direct connection to the “might do,” which is too-often overlooked in schools.

Kids who are given time and permission to consider what they might do next, in terms of reading and learning, take charge of their own learning in new and authentic ways. Scripted assessments leave little room for kids to think about what next steps they might want to take.  We rarely even ask students what they want to explore, read about, discover.  Rather, next steps are clearly defined for all students, warehouse style. This contradicts everything we know about the uniqueness of individual learners. Yet our primary measurement tools seek to package learning results in the same box for all kids. 

Getting students to talk about what they are reading, learning, doing, discovering, etc. is an essential first step toward reform that can actually make a difference for our kids.  Every new plastic-wrapped reform bundle or online data collection system is bound to fall short if students don’t see the value in what they are doing. I have watched first-hand as kids question how new reform packages (MSP, SBAC) fit with their real lives. The puzzled looks on their faces, as well as the upward trend in anxiety and depression among students, says it all.   

They seem to voice a collective “What is this?” each time we impose a new reform fad. There is nothing faddish about the question, “What are you reading?”  My own un-scientific theory, which I share often with students, is this:  Avid readers are successful. Avid readers “get it.” They understand the world and its issues more clearly because they have lived vicariously through the lives of the characters in the books they read. And this is a good thing.

Tom Jacobs’ Pacific Standard article “Want to Learn How to Think? Read Fiction” points to some fascinating and compelling research by psychologist Maja Djikic on how exposure to literary fiction stimulates more sophisticated thinking processes. Djikic’s study found that exposure to fiction results in higher levels of comfort with ambiguity. In other words, reading fiction allows the brain to rest and accept the idea that issues may not have easy answers or quick fixes -- a key component of higher level problem solving. Imagine the subtle and long-term impact this might have on our nation’s school children. (See Opening the Closed Mind: The Effect of Exposure to Literature on the Need for Closure, Djikic, Oatley, and Moldoveanu)  Imagine reforms that filled classrooms with fiction and spent federal moneys on books instead of tests. 

It is no secret, and any English teacher will concur, the vast majority of our strongest students are avid readers.

Donalyn Miller, reading teacher and author of The Book Whisperer, captures the essence of this overlooked reform movement: “Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters – the saints and the sinners, real or imagined – reading shows you how to be a better human being.”

Motivating students to read may be the best thing we do for them as teachers. It is unlikely that a lesson, lecture, assignment, or unit will remain with them after they leave our classrooms.  However, a love of reading can be a life changer. Donalyn Miller concurs that students simply need encouragement: “Students will read if we give them the books, the time, and the enthusiastic encouragement to do so” (The Book Whisperer). 

Chad Donohue is a middle school teacher, blogger, and adjunct professor living in Snohomish, Washington. Chad writes passionately about issues pertaining to educators, students, and families. He has been teaching since 1993.

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