Transforming the First Ten Minutes of Class
By Karen Gold
“You know what the problem is with kids these days? They don’t read!” As a veteran English teacher, I’ve heard this lament for years. And who or what’s to blame? Technology? Netflix? My colleagues and I shake our heads and laugh a little, almost resigned.
But I grew increasingly concerned and frustrated, especially as I listened to students talk about their reading. More often than not, I’d hear, “This book is so boring!” and students’ classroom engagement reflected the lament. Worse still, I’d hear others brag about getting through most of their high school careers without actually reading an entire book. Quite honestly, I worried it was a losing battle.
After attending Penny Kittle’s workshop on 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents last summer, I made the decision to shift my teaching-. Like most teachers, I’ve done a lot of professional development. I’d come away refreshed and excited to try something new, but too often, it was challenging to incorporate a big, new idea into the fast-paced routine of school. Penny’s workshop was different. Something resonated with me that summer morning, and I thought, “I can do this. I WILL do this.”
On the first day of school, my students and I met in the library. Instead of going over a syllabus or introducing course expectations, the librarians and I gave brief book talks, sharing novels we had read or that we knew were well-received by young adults. When I invited my juniors to choose a book to read, they stared at me blankly.
One brave soul whispered, “I’ve never read The Outsiders. Can I actually read that?”
You mean I can actually read The Hate U Give? In class?
Wait, graphic novels count?
Their first homework assignment was to write me a letter about their relationship with reading. I was amazed by their honesty and vulnerability, especially since I hadn’t taught any of them before. Responses ranged from brutally honest (“Why do you English teachers only assign boring books?) to poignant (“I hate to read aloud because I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake and people will think I’m dumb.”). Most worried they were slow readers. One young woman wrote, “I love to read to escape the realities of the world. Call me a nerd, but until I enrolled here, reading was always my first source of entertainment.” In fact, more than a few wrote they loved to read . . . until they got to high school. What changed? What were we missing?
So what’s it been like? Does transformative sound like too strong of a word? I’ve been blown away by how reading for the first ten minutes of class has quickly become the norm in our routine. Most days I don’t even need to remind them. One skeptical colleague worried, “Ten minutes is a lot of class time,” but I’ve swapped those ten minutes for the small talk (How about those Red Sox? What’d you do this weekend?) and nagging reminders to put phones away or stop talking or take your homework out. They come in, they take their books out, and they read.
One young woman described the first ten minutes of class as “meditative.” Those few minutes of quiet reading not only serve as a welcome break from their noisy, demanding days, but I’ve found it sets the tone for the remainder of the class. Occasionally someone chuckles or sighs or even fist pumps. Last week, one self-described reluctant reader whooped, “YES!” pumping his fist in the air. While it disrupted the “meditative” quality of the class, it was more than worth it when he said, “I can’t put this down. You guys have to read it!” He was reading Dear Martin by Nic Stone, and when he finished the book in class, he sighed and put his head down. “I don’t want it to end.” When I asked him the last time he said that about a book, he replied, “Never.”
We overheard another young man push a book toward his classmate, “Dude, I just finished this. You HAVE to read it!” Without my prompting, they recommend books to each other, and — no surprise — high schoolers are far more interested in what their classmates suggest than what I might have in mind. Some habits are harder to change. A few have been reluctant to “break up” with a book they’re not thoroughly enjoying, insisting they want to get through it. My goal is that their next book will be far more enjoyable.
The first quarter just ended. What have I noticed? I spend far less time “settling down” my class than I have in years past. They’ve settled into the routine of reading faster than I would have imagined. I’m lucky enough to hold most of my classes in the library, an ideal location for our new venture. The librarians are collaborative and as enthusiastic as my students and I are. They report that in the first two months of school almost 150 more novels were checked out than last year at this time! They’ve become the “go-to” people when a student finishes a book and is ready for the next.
Another boon is the change I’ve seen in my own reading. The first six weeks of school I read alongside my students and finished four books. One of my students begged me to read The Hate U Give once she finished it so we could talk about it. Alas, when I watched Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s webinar on 180 Days, I learned that time was better spent checking in with my students about their own reading. That being said, it feels as if we’ve created a community of readers, and I wouldn’t change that for anything!
Karen Gold is the Chair of the English Department at The Governor’s Academy, the oldest independent boarding school in the country. She teaches American Studies and Junior English and runs a boys’ dormitory.