Middle Schoolers Will Read…If We Let Them: Slice of Life #sol18 28/31

Yesterday, a group of eighth graders on a college campus visit were guests in my Children’s Literature class. It’s perhaps not the best class to choose to visit if you want a sense of what college is really like. They walked in the room to find Elephant & Piggie titles on display all over the room and a giant stack of Leslie Patricelli’s baby board books, which a couple of us are currently obsessed with. The eighth-graders probably thought they were in for a lecture and a PowerPoint, but instead they got a read-aloud. (The Pigeon Needs a Bath, if you’re curious.) It was clearly a little weird for them, as they struggled to laugh at the right spots. (Which made my college students self-conscious and hesitant to laugh at the right spots. So it was pretty much me reading aloud and snickering to myself.)

But then it was time for the eighth-graders to become the experts and teach my preservice teachers all they know—and they know a lot—about how to teach reading so that kids will want to read.

I always say that if you want to know what’s wrong in your classroom, ask the experts: the students. These eighth-graders were ready to fix everything that’s wrong with education. My preservice teachers got an earful!

We broke into groups, and the preservice teachers interviewed the students about their reading lives, their reading likes and dislikes, and the teaching practices that either support readers or turn readers off books entirely.

The common thread for every single group was CHOICE. They really want to choose their own books.

When asked what’s one thing school does to make kids hate to read, this was the answer across the board: “They force us.”

That was the word that came up most often. FORCE. They feel forced to read, forced to read books they don’t like or understand, forced to read books chosen by someone else who hasn’t taken them or their interests or needs into account, forced to listen to books they don’t like read aloud, forced to read passages in a textbook that don’t make sense and don’t relate to them.

When asked what teachers could do to make kids love to read, every group gave the same answer: “Let us pick our books and help us find good ones.”

This is a school where independent reading and time to read are part of daily reading instruction, which is wonderful.

But these are students who aren’t self-identifying as readers, who are full of complaints about reading, who feel forced to read, who don’t know how to find books, and who hate how long they are “forced” to spend reading each day. Fifteen whole minutes!

“Don’t make us read for so long,” most of them said.

My preservice teachers made quick work of that problem: “They aren’t reading books they like. They’d want to read for longer than 15 minutes if they were reading the right books.”

Several eighth-graders were ardent readers who have taken their reading lives underground because school doesn’t support it. A group of girls talked about their love of manga and anime. Their school library doesn’t have any manga, and their teachers won’t let them read manga during independent reading time.

Other students had interests that could easily be tapped into for book recommendations. When a group of boys was asked what their perfect book would be about, they said “Fortnite.” Their teacher and I were standing there. I asked, “What’s Fortnite?” and she said, “I don’t want to know.”

That’s a moment I’m going to be thinking about for awhile. I know this teacher loves her students and wants them to read. I know she puts a lot of time and effort into designing her lessons and trying to figure out how to motivate her students and get them hooked on reading.

But we also have to be willing to follow our kids where they want to go and, as Donalyn Miller says, bless the books they want to read. This means blessing their interests and hobbies and inner lives too.

I did want to know what Fornite was, and the boys were eager to show me. It’s a video game. I don’t know if there are any books about Fortnite—but I know there are books about other video games, and I know there are books about gamers and gaming culture, and I know those boys would read if a teacher would put those books into their hands.

Every single student could remember a book he or she had loved, even if they’d read it a few years ago. One boy described his love of The Crossover. He’s not currently reading anything. He hasn’t read anything he likes in a long time. He also hasn’t read Booked. He hadn’t even heard of Booked. One of his friends said he’d read Booked and really liked it. Why aren’t they talking about the books they read and sharing? He doesn’t know about Walter Dean Myers’s basketball books or Matt de la Pena’s basketball books. He hasn’t read Jason Reynolds’s track series.

There were so many loose threads in their reading lives that only need to be gathered and stitched together.

The foundation is there. They have classroom libraries and time in class to read. But they desperately need teachers to help them grow their reading identities, to help them discover books they love, to connect their interests outside of school to books they are invited to read inside of school. They need daily book talks and a teacher who reads voraciously and shares her reading life with them. They need a teacher to notice that they’re almost finished with The Crossover and to pull Booked off the shelf and bring it to them. They need fewer mixed messages. Fifteen minutes of independent reading time followed by forty minutes of traditional reading curriculum (worksheets, graphic organizers, textbooks, comprehension questions, assigned reading) doesn’t support readers. They need to talk about books and share what they’re reading with their teacher and with each other.

Most of all, they need to be asked what they know and what they need and how we can do better.







26 responses to “Middle Schoolers Will Read…If We Let Them: Slice of Life #sol18 28/31”

  1. Katie Diez Avatar
    Katie Diez

    What a great reminder that CHOICE is so essential for reading engagement! I am sure this was a class that your college students will not soon forget!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I hope it made a lasting impact! The 8th graders also talked a lot about a couple of classes where the teacher doesn’t give them enough to do and learn, and they really, really wanted to learn! I think my preservice teachers were surprised by just how much the 8th graders sought engagement in school.

  2. 2shaye Avatar

    I love this so much! I would have sent B up if I’d known it was 8th grade day. How cool! I’m really wondering why manga is banned during reading time. Do the schools not see that as “real” reading?? And I’m not sure why we wouldn’t want to know about Fortnite. Generally, guys and girls are both getting into it. Hmmm. I’m so glad these preservice teachers had this experience (and your guidance)! ❤️

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I wanted to print off an article for the kids to share with their teachers about the significant demands of reading comprehension with graphic novels, but I resisted!

  3. elsie Avatar

    This sentence said it all: “There were so many loose threads in their reading lives that only need to be gathered and stitched together.” I hope these pre-service teachers take that to heart.
    When you mentioned Fortnite, I immediately googled the term because I did want to know. Of course, if I’d finished reading first, you would have told me. It’s disturbing that the teacher didn’t want to know what Fortnite is.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I wonder if we’re scared about what we will find if we dive a little deeper into kids’ worlds and interests. I had this little moment of hesitation before I asked about Fortnite because I didn’t want to embarrass the kids or ask about content that might have been school-inappropriate and perhaps get them in trouble in front of their teacher. I wonder if this was her hesitation as well?

  4. margaretsmn Avatar

    This sentence caught me, too. “There were so many loose threads in their reading lives that only need to be gathered and stitched together.” I wanted to scream at the screen for that boy who loved Crossover. My boys are passing around Jason Reynolds, Kwame Alexander, and the boy who loved these writers also loved Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. Yes, they need the teachers to gather the threads.
    My boys are really into Fortnite. Many of their slices are about that game. I’ve learned to accept this about my boys but I’m not in the habit of celebrating it. I’m concerned about the amount of time kids play video games. I don’t know what the balance is yet.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      It was SO HARD to let that boy leave without pressing about 10 books into his hands, and I couldn’t resist preordering Rebound for him. I’ll track him down when it comes in. I figure he can donate it to his teacher’s classroom library when he’s done! I agree with you that there is waaaay too much screen time in general and most kids’ lives are so out of balance. It’s an important and challenging discussion for sure.

  5. Akilah Avatar

    This is so good. I need to remember to be better about asking my students what their interests are so I can recommend books to them.

    It’s so odd the teacher didn’t want to know what Fortnite is. I’m sure there’s an explanation behind it (she has a relationship with the students after all), but still.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I need to do a better job with this in my college classes too. So often the kids who don’t like to read become quite interested in nonfiction if I can find out more about their interests and make some book matches.

  6. persistenceandpedagogy Avatar

    Oh how I wish that I had read this *before* my lunch meeting today. I tried to moderate a discussion about using book clubs in class, but many teachers in my department are bound and determined to teach one book to the whole class or to limit which books the students can choose. I know it’s daunting to let the students make their own choices, but I have become convinced that it is the best (and maybe only) way to turn them into readers. Now I need to decide if I can share this post with the teachers. Maybe not yet… “But they desperately need teachers to help them grow their reading identities, to help them discover books they love, to connect their interests outside of school to books they are invited to read inside of school. They need daily book talks and a teacher who reads voraciously and shares her reading life with them.” Yes!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I wonder what’s behind the resistance here. Maybe teachers worry that learning isn’t happening if we aren’t fully in charge and in control of what’s going on? Maybe it’s just difficult to break that mindset that there really is one right book for everyone to read at the same time (and usually at the same pace)? I find it very curious. I need to remember to ask more questions and listen next time I’m in a group of workshop resisters so that I can try to understand more about this strange phenomenon of teachers who pay no heed to research and best practices!

  7. glenda funk Avatar
    glenda funk

    The thing man that teachers don’t realize is how much better tethering lives would be, how much easier their jobs would be, how much more willing to read a whole class novel a class would be if their teaching were grounded in student choice.

    1. glenda funk Avatar
      glenda funk

      Ugh. Sorry about the typos. Phone is to blame!

    2. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Yes, yes, a million times yes. I can’t imagine teaching any other way for many reasons, but one of those reasons is certainly that nearly all of the classroom management problems I had when I taught the traditional curriculum disappeared once I shifted to workshop.

  8. arjeha Avatar

    These kids are the experts. It is a shame that so many are not asked for their input by their classroom teachers. What a valuable lesson for your preservice teachers.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I’m always amazed at just how articulate and insightful kids can be about school and learning. My preservice teachers were also surprised to be told that teachers need to use less technology! The kids had some good evidence to support their argument too.

  9. Trina Haase Avatar
    Trina Haase

    There are SO many things that I love about this post! Yes for choice! Yes to listen to our students! They matter the most. Way to empower those 8th grade students!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I hope they felt like their opinions and experiences were truly valuable. We learned SO much from them!

  10. mschiubookawrites Avatar

    Sounds like my kiddos!! I cannot agree more. I often make preview stacks for students looking for a new read. For my Fortnite boys, they have enjoyed Solo by Kwame Alexander, Ghost by Jason Reynolds, Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, and Dear Martin by Nic Stone. I encouraged them to form a book club and partner read. This way they can talk about the book (and somehow connect it to Fortnite), which helped them understand it better.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      These are such great suggestions for the kids who love Fortnite! I also love preview stacks and personalized book recommendations. I shared your idea for partner reads with my Children’s Lit class today and they loved it!

  11. carwilc Avatar

    This post should be required reading for every middle and high school teacher and teacher candidate. Will you share it with your students? Like several others, I love the line, “There were so many loose threads in their reading lives that only need to be gathered and stitched together.”
    My seventh graders have been struggling for the last couple of weeks– they were doing great and then the other ms teachers wanted to switch out six kids and we haven’t quite gotten our rhythm back since then. I need to do some serious book talking next week. And maybe shorten their time. They had been reading for 30 minutes with the previous group, but maybe I need to cut it back. Hmmmmm……

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      They may indeed need to build up their stamina a bit more. I sometimes get out of the habit of book talks and I think workshop flags a bit if I’m not sharing new books and having my students talk a lot about what they’re reading.

  12. karpenglish Avatar

    Wow! Your preservice teachers are going to be extremely well-prepared. I wish that someone had brought 8th graders to my preservice classes. (And how could they not laugh at The Pigeon Needs a Bath? It’s hilarious!) One thing that I have found very challenging as a teacher is simply knowing the vast variety of books so I could make those recommendations. I spent years with half of my schedule AP English courses and half Reading Workshops with way below grade level struggling readers. It was easy to find out what my students were interested in, but much, much harder to find the books that filled those roles (Especially when some of them had typical 9th and 10th grade interests and 2nd or 3rd grade reading levels. That added some extra layers of challenge.)

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      This is such a challenge, isn’t it? I remember when I first started teaching high school, all my students were OBSESSED with basketball, and I’d never read a sports book in my life or even heard of sports books. It was really hard to connect them with the right books that first year as I was learning more about books.

  13. Reading & Writing & ‘Rithmetic – Persistence and Pedagogy Avatar

    […] language and etc. (This is an oversimplification of the process, but you get the picture. Elisabeth Ellington’s post hits at some of what I mean – and she kindly sent me on to a post by Donalyn Miller which […]

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