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Teaching My High School Students to Love Reading

I gave up planning and shifted away from the traditional curriculum—and it’s working

Dina Ley
Dina Ley
Jan 18, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo: iam Se7en/Unsplash

I have a confession: I am currently teaching a book I have never read. I don’t have a single plan prepared. No resources are available online for me to utilize, nor do I need any. I’m winging this thing entirely. And I have almost total engagement from my students. But before I tell you why and how this works, let me take you back to my life as a high school student.

In 11th grade, I purchased Cliffs Notes for a book I was assigned to read. It was my first time taking the easy way out of reading a book I had no interest in. I can’t remember which book the Cliffs Notes were for, but I do remember I had no desire to read it. That was the beginning of my Cliffs Notes journey. The internet was still relatively new; SparkNotes was not yet a thing; and summaries of chapters, questions and answers, and reviews of the books my teachers forced us to read were difficult to come by. So I paid for them. I felt scandalous.

The entire process was dreadful and complicated. I probably should have just read the book. The thing is, I love reading and always have. English and literature were my favorite classes, and I craved books. I enjoyed few things more than opening a brand-new book and diving into the story. I even took Shakespeare as an elective, and my parents bought me Shakespeare’s anthology for my 16th birthday. I was that kid. What I disliked, though, was mandatory reading. Forced reading of books I found no value in. Forced reading of books that didn’t appeal to me. Forced thinking about my teachers’ interpretations. Forced. So, essentially, I cheated. I read summaries and waited for the teacher to tell me what happened. I wrote down her analysis and regurgitated her words in an essay or on the test. And I received all A’s.

In a major plot twist, I became a high school English teacher. What could be greater, I thought, than to share my love of reading and writing with kids? What could be more rewarding? Turns out, most kids don’t read. They don’t. In the age of instant gratification of Shmoop and YouTube, why would any teenager spend their valuable Snapchat and Fortnite time reading a book they see no meaning in? As an educator, this obstacle is beyond frustrating. Coming to class ready for a meaningful discussion and finding only two students have done the reading is infuriating.

‘Are we seriously reading that, Ms. L?’ my students instantly started complaining. ‘That book is so thick!’

Thousands of books are written on the instruction of reading. The books are mostly self-help or how-to manuals for teachers who struggle with getting kids to read (in other words, most teachers). Close reading, dialectical journaling, reading checks, literature circles, student-led discussions, backward design, Socratic seminars—you name it, I’ve tried it. I am continually utilizing new strategies and experimenting in my classroom. Nearly every approach produces the same results: failure to get students to read and an inability to get the students to actively engage with the text if they do read.

It doesn’t take years of education, expensive doctoral degrees, and decades of experience to understand why. Students struggle to want to read for a myriad of reasons: a lack of modeling or reading at home, apathy or disinterest, overstimulation, and distraction. Simply, kids don’t read because they don’t want to; they aren’t interested in the books presented to them, and furthermore, they don’t have to. Why “waste” time reading for homework when they can watch a two-minute YouTube video from Shmoop? I probably wouldn’t read the assignment either.

This year, I decided to tackle this issue with a different strategy. The opportunity was granted to me via luck and slight persistence. A friend casually mentioned a YA novel she enjoyed, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, a dystopian tale about a world in which “humanity has conquered” hunger, disease, war, and death. “You had me at dystopia,” I responded and started planning a way to get the book into my classroom and curriculum.

I went out on a limb and asked the administration to purchase a class set of the novel. The justification for my demand was simple: Students need choice. My principal, the most supportive boss I have ever worked for, forwarded my purchase order to the people in charge of these types of things. My request was approved, and I was the proud owner of a class set of these new, exciting, and intriguing books.

“Are we seriously reading that, Ms. L?” my students instantly started complaining. “That book is so thick!” At 435 pages, Scythe is definitely intimidating, especially to teenagers who aren’t used to reading more than a few random words laced with slang in their Snapchat snaps.

We’re experiencing the text together. We are constructing meaning together. We are shocked together. We are heartbroken together.

My process was simple. For the sake of organization and some management, I split the students into groups of four, into literature circles, if you will. I created and laminated a reading calendar, which they use as bookmarks. At the end of each reading section, students are asked to discuss what they’ve read, pull out some interesting quotes, and write down the results of their discussion. Easy. Every few days, we stop and discuss. I offer my opinions only at the end of the discussion and only if asked. They usually ask. And I definitely don’t tell them what to think.

I haven’t read the novel before. I am reading it with them. They are aware. I am always honest with them. I had no preparation of any kind. No culminating assessments planned, no vocabulary tests, no in-depth analysis (yet), no didactic lesson (yet). For now, I’m teaching them to fall in love with characters and stories. To imagine worlds way different from their own. To be villains and heroes, friends and foes. We’re experiencing the text together. We are constructing meaning together. We are shocked together. We are heartbroken together. And they love seeing my reaction to the twists. My curiosity and thirst for more are inciting their own questioning and analysis. If I fall behind, due to grading or other priorities, they eagerly await my arrival at their destination.

I teach 45 seniors, and approximately 30 are not only actively reading but genuinely enjoying the novel. A few already ordered the sequel. Students who have never picked up a book are reading. Students with IEPs are reading and keeping up with the unmodified pacing of the class. Many are reading ahead of schedule. Some finished over winter break. Teenagers are reading. For the first time in my years of teaching, most of my students are actively engaged with a text and want to keep going.

English teachers have been teaching the same novels for decades. I know why: lack of funding and resources; not wanting to reinvent the wheel; minimal desire to create new units, new lessons, new plans, and new assessments. Trust me, I get it. I work in an inner-city school in Philadelphia. But these novels we teach over and over again, while interesting to us “academics,” get lost on our social media-inclined teens. The message is lost. So, how do we find it? Offer choice. Appeal to your administration. Change your curriculum. Spice up your classroom library. Find a book you all can experience together and get lost in it along with your students.

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