What’s Your Classroom’s Reading Culture?

As an admin or coach do you ever have a moment when you wish you could go back into the classroom?  This week it happened to me when I was attending a professional learning experience facilitated by my instructional coach and literacy coach about literacy instruction.

The purpose of the PL was to give teachers an opportunity to reflect on their literacy practices individually, explore some articles and books of their choosing (linked in a hyperdoc), and then have a conversation with their peers about the elements of literacy instruction that they felt had the greatest impact on students.  (Using the “Event-O-Meter” Protocol from the book Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk)

After having time to think about the way I structured literacy when I was a teacher, there were many things that I did that helped students to grow.  At the beginning of my career, I learned the importance of having a balanced approach to literacy because not all students learn to read in the same way. Because of this, I incorporated independent reading, small group work, word work and writing daily.  I taught students explicit strategies, regularly gave them feedback and helped them to set future reading goals based on this feedback.

As I progressed to the later years in my career, I started incorporating more choice, conversations about reading with peers and reflection.  We did service-learning projects that helped them to learn to about the world and the difference they can make.  Students blogged, created videos about their books and could choose from a wide variety of activities to demonstrate mastery of skills and strategies.  Students often had organizers to complete along the way and were provided with questions to answer to help facilitate deep thinking and discussion.

All of these things definitely made a positive impact on students and their ability to interact with any type of text.  However, after doing some deep reflection and listening to the conversations of my staff, I realized that for most of the years, my reading instruction was all about me and doing what I asked.  Even though I gave choice in activities, I was the one who created the projects to choose from, questions to answer and direction of most conversations.  Students had time to read independently, but it was always with the purpose of answering my questions, practicing skills, creating a project or coming prepared to talk in a group discussion.

I started thinking about the message that my literacy instruction was sending to students and I was pretty sure it was something along the lines of…”the purpose of reading is to read the words, think about the text and complete some sort of task for a grade.”  Many of my students loved learning and loved reading which they probably continue to do today, but I’m guessing that there are other students who stopped reading the minute it was no longer a required school activity. 

 If I ever went back to teaching, my first priority in literacy instruction would be the reading culture of my classroom.  We would start by exploring students’ reading identity which would be more than just their preference of genre or series.  I’d ask questions like…How do they view themselves as a reader and what do they think they want to grow in?  What are their strengths and how can we use them?  (Question from a great blog post by George Couros)  

We would talk about the purpose of reading in our classroom and the many reasons for reading beyond school.  We would discuss what we want our reading culture to be like in our classroom and what our steps and expectations are for achieving that culture.  I’m picturing something like this…

The students of Dr. Podraza’s classroom enjoy reading and will be given opportunities to develop a love of reading daily.  The reasons why we read vary depending on our purpose.  We may be reading to find answers to questions we have, to expose us to new ideas, to prepare to talk with a partner or group, or purely for the enjoyment of it.  When we are reading, we will approach the text in a way that meets the purpose.  As we read new information or a genre, we will look at it with with an open mind and think about whether the new ideas confirm, contradict or complicate our previous thoughts.  We may not all enjoy the same type of book, but that is okay.   We will be given opportunities to read a variety of different texts in Dr. Podraza’s classroom, but will always have the choice to read the types of texts that we enjoy most.  It is our job to grow as readers so that we can read any type of book that we want, learn about the world around us and make an impact in evidence-informed action.  We will push one another’s thinking and help one another to grow.  Dr. Podraza’s job is to introduce is to new ideas, help us to stretch our brains, and work with us to create goals that are meaningful and give us feedback.  To help achieve our goals we will read individually, in small groups and in partnerships.  We will be given opportunities to explore questions and issues that are important to us.  We will get to create based on our learning and when it makes sense to do so.  Dr. Podraza will offer suggestions of ideas, but we are always welcome to develop projects on our own.  We are readers because we want to learn, to question, to have fun, to collaborate with peers, and to grow in our ability to see other perspectives and empathize with others.  

In essence, we would develop a reading identity as a group first.  The instruction would come next, all built around the dialogue and agreements we had as a class.  My literacy instruction would involve more time for students to just read, simply for the joy of it and to develop their reading interests and passions.  When they worked on projects, they would have a purpose beyond just turning it into the teacher.  I’d still meet with students in small groups and 1:1 conferring etc., but there would be more authentic collaboration and discussion in general among students instead of just with the teacher.  

I’ve heard the quote from Peter Drucker many times that,”Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  In the context of literacy, this statement especially holds true.  No matter how many great strategies we teach kids or interesting work we give them, if they only see the purpose of reading as something they do to get a good grade in school, then our impact is only as far as the end of the school year.  When students are immersed in a classroom culture where reading is valued for authentic reasons they will continue to pursue and enjoy reading for a lifetime.