Teacher Talk – Independent Reading in My High School Classroom

I have a confession to make. I don’t really like to read anymore. Please don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me, not yet, anyway. I KNOW how bad that is. I’m an English teacher. I should LOVE to read.

I used to love it. I was almost always reading, finding new books to read, and talking about books I had read. Then college happened, and I took so many classes about literary analysis and teaching reading and understanding the Common Core standards that somewhere along the way, reading became a JOB to me. I no longer just curl up with a book to relax. I can’t read for fun anymore. It seems that every time I pick up a book, I feel like I’m working on an assignment and I need to analyze every part of it and compare and contrast it with other texts and every other thing that I teach my students to do every day in my high school classroom.

As an educator, I have a major problem with this. I use to LOVE reading, so much that I decided to study literature and make it my career. Reading and writing were at one time my passion, and the education system that I was trained by and that I work for has KILLED that passion. The part that frightens me the most is that I’m afraid that’s exactly what I (as a part of the education system) am doing to my students.

Almost all of my 9th and 11th grade students hate to read. They whine and complain and kick and scream and throw a fit when they’re forced to read something (I only wish that I was exaggerating).

It’s a major problem, and over Christmas break, I racked my brain for a way to combat this. I thought about books that I read when I was their age that I absolutely loved, books that changed the way I thought about things, or introduced new ideas into my life, or that I got so wrapped up in that I actually mourned for the characters in their tragic stories. But it doesn’t matter how great a book is if I can’t get them to have the desire to open the book and give it a chance.

So I started asking myself WHY they hate reading. And then I got pretty honest with myself. When was the last time I read a book for fun? It was at least two or three years ago, maybe longer. Why don’t I read anymore? Is it because I don’t have time? (That’s my favorite excuse for EVERYTHING.) Or is there another reason?

When I really thought about it, I realized that I actually don’t like reading anymore. I’m in the same boat as my students. I’m just as reluctant to crack open a book as they are, and when I realized this, I did some soul searching about why. I realized how much WORK reading has become in my life, and when I think about the way my students have been exposed to literature in the past, I imagine that they feel the same way.

They’ve never been allowed to just read for the enjoyment of it. Ever since they started school, books and reading have been linked to assessments and AR tests. Reading has been synonymous with WORK.

I want to change that mindset in my classroom. I don’t want reading to be work. I want it to be an enjoyable experience that my students actually look forward to. Just because I want it to be that way, doesn’t make it so. It is going to take a LOT of time to convince my students that they could actually enjoy books, and it starts with me finding my love for reading again.

One way that I am trying to make reading an enjoyable experience in my classroom is with our 2017 Independent Reading Challenge. I am giving the students free-range to CHOOSE what books they want to read. I think this is the first step in fostering a love for reading, because if you only read things that are required for your classes, you miss out on so many great books and authors and topics. I want my students to discover what they like, and hopefully begin to foster a long-time love of reading a particular genre or author. My ultimate goal is for them to become lifelong readers, and this is the best way I know to start. Figure out what you like, and it becomes less of a chore, right?

The second thing I am doing is hosting an Independent Reading Day in my classroom every other Friday. This day is JUST about reading. Students bring in the book of their choice, spend time reading, and will eventually be talking about the books they have read and hopefully recommending books to classmates and friends. In my head, this day was going to go perfectly. The kids would come in, sit in a comfy spot in the room, get out their books, and read quietly. I would do the same. Seeing me set an example by reading and seeing their classmates engrossed in books would encourage even the most reluctant readers to get engaged with the text and they would eventually see that reading can actually be fun. Every teacher has had that dream scenario when they write a lesson plan, and every teacher knows that it is NOTHING like reality.

We prepared for this all week. I started out on Monday by assigning our article of the week, which just so happened to be about the importance of reading (teachers are sneaky like that). Then, on Wednesday, we went to the library as a class and students had to do a scavenger hunt to find books that matched specific criteria. This was my way of getting them to see what books the library has to offer and hopefully spark their interest with a book they saw while they were there. I excitedly pumped up the Challenge all week, reminding students that our Independent Reading Challenge started on Friday and if we reached our goal of reading 250 books as a class by May that we would get an awesome class party. I talked about some of my favorite books. I brought new books from home to stock my classroom library.

And then it was finally Friday. Today was our first day of Independent Reading, and while it went well (most of the students did actually read for at least 30 minutes, and about  a third of them came into class with a book they had already picked out and knew they would enjoy), it was nothing compared to the dream classroom that was in my head when I planned all this out.

Stuff happened.

Some students came to class without a book and had to borrow one from the class library, which ate up a lot of time (because students are MASTERS at wasting time).

They wanted to talk about how much they hated reading.

They wanted to talk about ANYTHING to keep from getting started reading.

They had HUNDREDS of questions:

  1. What’s the point of this?
  2. What if I can’t find a book I like? Can I watch a movie on my phone? (Seriously, kid???)
  3. How am I going to be graded for this?
  4. How are you going to give us a test if we are all reading different books?
  5. Is this like AR for high school?
  6. Is the Principal making you do this?
  7. Did you just forget to write a lesson for us today? (Yes, my students are little smart-alecs. Gotta love them. At least, that’s what I tell myself.)

When I told them that they would not be tested on these books, I could literally see their minds being blown (which is actually one of the coolest things about being a teacher – you can almost hear it happen). They have no concept of doing ANYTHING unless they know how many points it is worth and how it will affect their grade. Then I got flooded with the “If I don’t have to take a test, then why do I have to read?” questions.

I had expected this question, and I was prepared for it. I assuring the students that I would be holding them accountable for their reading. There will be a few assignments for them to complete when they finish a book (which I feel almost defeats the purpose, because that means reading is still being looked at as an assignment and as work rather than fun). However, the assignments are small, relatively easy, and mostly creative projects that should be fun (I think my students think that I don’t know the meaning of the word FUN, but I still toss it around a lot – I’m kind of a nerd, so a lot of this stuff is fun to me).

They will also get participation grades (DING! DING! DING! – There’s your reason to read, kid!). If they are not reading, they will get a dreaded zero. A goose egg. They’ll “take an L,” as they like to say. That seemed to be enough to make most of them decide they would read after all, so after about 15 minutes of chaos and questions, they quieted down and we finally got started reading.

I modeled good reading behavior by reading my own book, one that has been in my “To Read” pile for what seems like forever – The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. My mother read it and highly recommended it, so I ahve been meaning to get to it and telling myself that I didn’t have time (hello – I just had a two week break from school for Christmas where I watched the ENTIRE series of FRIENDS for the 12th time, and I thought I didn’t have time to read a book…oy).

I actually got about half-way through the book today (all my classes are participating in the Challenge, so I got to read ALL DAY – which is basically a normal English teacher’s dream), and I must say, it has been great so far (despite me having to keep a watchful eye on my students and whisper, “Shhhh….” every 5 minutes. Is this what librarians feel like?).  I’m really enjoying this book, and I’m happy about that. I made sure to come into this with the mindset that I used to have, which was always excited about reading and just enjoying the story without overanalyzing everything. This gives me hope that I might be able to rekindle my love for reading, and that will be the best way to spark a love for reading in my students, so I have high hopes.

As far as  our Independent Reading Challenge… all I can say after day one is that this is a work in progress. I’m sure I will tweak it and change it as I see necessary, but I am determined that it is a worthy cause and I AM going to find a way to make it work.


Do you do Independent Reading in your high school classroom? How does it work? How do you keep students accountable for their reading without making it boring or seem like a chore? I’d LOVE to hear any comments or suggestions, so please leave a comment and let’s talk about it!


2 Comments Add yours

  1. A great resource for independent reading that I used in my classroom last year is In the Middle by Nancie Atwell. She uses all self-selected reading and writing and lays out details for how to implement reading workshop into a classroom. It changed my perspective so much!


    1. Thank you! I will have to check it out!


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