Part I: 30 minutes a night
At the beginning of the year, I administer a reading survey to all the ninth graders. The survey confirms what I already know about them: They have never read enough to fall in love with literature. After brainstorming about why reading is important in our lives, I break the news: They must read for 30 minutes a night, every night of the school year.
They may read novels, biographies, autobiographies, or other extended stories. I want them to become involved over time with stories and characters. There is no time off for holidays, birthdays, funerals, or illnesses. If they miss reading one night they must make it up the next night. If they miss half an hour of reading during the semester, they will fail English. If they read 30 minutes every night during the semester, the worst grade they will receive in my class is a D. I tell them I’m so serious, that if, God forbid, they should get into a horrible motorcycle accident and end up in a coma in the hospital, they can still pass my English class if they their parents will read to them daily and let me know about it. I tell them that even the doctors will recommend reading to stimulate their brain, that reading is so powerful that it can save their lives.
None of my students are initially as excited about this program as I am. To reach the levels I expect from them, I know I must organize their learning so that all meet success.
Part II: Choosing the right books
Because most of my students are inexperienced readers, they must learn and practice most skills that accomplished readers have. A critical first skill is where to locate good books, so we brainstorm about possibilities. The students always mention neighborhood stores, the mall, libraries, friends, family and classroom.
A few years ago at one of many conferences I attend, Stephen Krashen told me that if adolescents have book within arm’s reach they will read, so I found a discarded paperback book carousel for my room and filled it with 300 donated paper books. Students can take and return any of these paperbacks as they like. In addition, I spend $1,000 each year buying books by and about Latinos, immigrants, sports, and other topics that might be of interest to my students. Some are popular adult books, some are young adult books, and some are wonderful children’s books. These books are on separate shelves in my room and students are free to check them out in an honor library system.
After we have exhausted our list of places to find books, we discuss how to discover if a book is worth reading. They all know to look at the cover and to read the title. Most don’t know to read the back cover, the inside book flaps, and the first two or three pages before deciding. After discussing these simple previewing techniques, I put a stack of books on each table, pulling heavily from my special books, at a variety of reading levels, and ask my students to preview them. This takes half of the period. At the end of the period, they share their discoveries with the class. Not so incredibly, many find they might like to read.
Then I let them in on an amazing secret — good readers don’t always finish every book they start. I give them permission to abandon a book if they find one that is inappropriate, too hard, uninteresting, or offensive, or if their parents would find it objectionable. From now on, the books they choose to read for this program are up to them.
Their first question is. “How many pages do we have to read every night?” This, of course, varies with each book and each student’s reading ability. That’s why I prefer to have them read for 30 minutes. To give them an idea of the intensity I expect them to read, however, I have them read for 10 minutes in a book of their choice. This number is noted in their journals. We then count pages and multiply the number by three. This gives us both an idea of their capabilities and my expectations for their nightly homework.
Part III: The reflective journal
In order to keep track of their reading, keep a reflective journal while they read. They keep a log in the back of their journals of the books they have read and abandoned. At the top of each page in the journal, they note the date, the times they start and stop reading, as well as the page numbers where they start and stop. In about 5 or 6 lines, I ask them to summarize what they have read.
Before they can do this, we practice summarizing in class, because many of them think that summarizing means copying directly from their books. After the summary, I ask that they reflect on their reading. Of course we also must practice this, and I use the five strategies for active reading defined in our literature text: predicting, connecting, questioning, clarifying, and evaluating.
To provide a scaffold or a structure for their reflections, I provide sentence starters for the type of reflection I would like to see in their journals. Some of these include “I think that ___________ is going to happen because …”; “This character reminds me of myself because … “; “I wonder what _______________ meant when he said______________. Maybe he thought ____________.”
Students are expected to write in their journals every day while they read or immediately afterward. Journal writing should take them no more than 10 or 15 minutes.
Every Friday, the students bring their novels and completed journals to class. They read silently all period. Of course, few students in class are able to sustain their reading more than 10 minutes when we first start the program, so we discuss avoidance behaviors, such as falling asleep, needing to go to the bathroom or to get a drink of water, making noise, writing notes, daydreaming, and so forth.
Part IV: Motivation
We also compare reading with athletics, how when training to run a mile for the first time, we often want to stop; we get pains in our sides or are too out of breath to continue. If we give up, we never get into shape. We know that to get into shape, we should not stop, but should slow down, walk for a while and then continue running. If we do this every day, we will get a little better. We discuss how developing physically is just like developing habits of the mind. They both take practice and self-discipline.
I tell them that if they find themselves engaging in avoidance behaviors, to recognize them for that they are, look away from the book for a few minutes, and then continue reading. It’s the best way to get their flabby brains in shape and to improve their reading.
To motivate them even more, I share their previous year’s standardized test scores in reading and language and discuss with them what the scores mean. Most are discouraged, but I promise them a marked improvement if they will follow the program for just this school year. Those who do the program for the entire year have always shown great improvement.
While the students read silently on Fridays, I read and grade their journals. I usually have time to conference with them about their books and journal entries. In addition, I can spend time with the most reluctant readers, discussing their interests and their past histories with reading, and recommending books they might enjoy.
At the beginning of the year, I ask the students to estimate how many books they think they can read during the school year if they read 30 minutes every night. Their estimates range between one and ten. By the end of the first semester they have all surpassed their estimates, reading between 15 and 36 books by June. This reading program is merely a supplement to the regular curriculum. We still read stories from our anthology and novels on the recommended core, as well as Romeo and Juliet. The students are still responsible for other homework in my class, mostly writing, comprehension, and research assignments.
The types of literature from which my students can select is important to their success. I make a concerted effort to buy as many novels and biographies by and about Latinos as I can find. These, for my students, are not more “boring stuff”. If I can hook reluctant readers with these books and they can read enough to become fluent readers, then they usually expand their selections beyond books that reflect their own lives.
Part V: Seeing themselves in literature
Most of my students have seldom encountered Latinos with lives similar to theirs in the literature that they read at school. Latino students are not invisible in school; they should not be invisible in the literature to which we expose them. When students find themselves and their lives reflected in the books they are reading, their own lives become validated When given the power of choice over their reading selections, along with rich literature that reflects their own experiences, and support in achieving success, these students continue to surpass everyone’s expectations of them.