Friday, September 9, 2016

Building Reading Relationships: The Balancing Act of Accountability

Author's note: This is the first post in a series on how I'm approaching reading in my 7th grade English-Language Arts classroom.

Middle school is a weird time. Everything is in a constant state of change for the typical middle schooler--the timbre of their voice, the friends they eat lunch with, their fashion identity, how they feel about their teachers. It’s no wonder that I find myself asking, “With this constant state of flux, what will they truly remember about my class?”

I’ll tell you what they will remember: feelings. About you and how you taught your subject. Which is completely scary--the amount of power we have as teachers to make or break a kid’s feelings about an entire subject isn’t one to be underestimated.

I take this seriously when I approach reading in my class. I don’t need to spend time defending how crucial it is that students read. The question is how.

For me, the approach I take to making this happen is to focus on the relationship students have with reading. How they feel when they’re asked to read. Is what I’m doing in my classroom when it comes time to read stealing joy or creating it? These are the questions that circled in my mind as I decided how to approach reading this year. Whatever I did, I knew I wanted my students to leave my class feeling good about reading.

Reading accountability without stealing joy
Accountability is so important, but it’s an area of balance. When deciding how to hold my students accountable for their reading, I thought about what I would want as a reader. I know what I wouldn’t want: a reading log that is used punitively, a one-size-fits-all approach or something that forced me to tear myself away from the book and write about my reading just to prove that I was thinking.

At the same time, no accountability is just as bad. With no one checking on them or caring about their reading lives, students won’t feel motivated to grow. After all, what we prioritize sends a message to them.

My approach is to use Penny Kittle’s method that she discusses in Book Love: the class clipboard tracking system. We have a class clipboard with a sheet that lists each student’s name, has a space for the book they’re reading and a box for each of the class days for two weeks. All students have to do is write what page they’re currently on in their book at some point during class each day we meet. It doesn't matter when they write their page number--pages they read after that recording will be captured the next day when they record again. Essentially, it's a running record.
The One Clipboard to Rule Them All
The clipboard also includes a two-week page goal. It’s not based on minutes (no watching the clock and jumping up when the timer goes off), and each student gets a page goal tailored to them and their reading level. The page goal is calculated based on how many pages they can read in their book in 10 minutes. I ask for 2 hours of reading per week, so we use the following slip to calculate their goals:

We recalculate every two weeks because as readers grow and books change, so will the page goal. A quick glance at the clipboard tells me who is reading at home and who I need to check in with and conference with about their reading. It’s low-stakes, easy to do and doesn’t require any paperwork at home. And it doesn’t damage anyone’s relationship with reading.

Capturing thinking while still respecting the individual student's process
When deciding my approach to reading for the year, I also considered how to ask my students to show their thinking about their reading without making it into a chore. Reading is something that shouldn’t be interrupted if it can be helped, so I prefer reading responses to be organic in nature. Borrowing from Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study, this year, I’m asking my students to focus on capturing their thinking in inventive ways that aren’t necessarily just a canned paragraph response with the teacher as the audience. Instead, we are exploring generative ways of recording our thinking that use visuals, color, graphs, charts, symbols and more.

For many students, not being told exactly how to respond to their book is a foreign concept. To give them some ideas for how to respond without being prescriptive, we did a gallery walk today to look at samples I collected--some of them were my own jots, some were from students from last year, and some of them came from the Units of Study.

Gallery walkin' and jottin'
All of the responses showcased individual approaches to capturing thinking. Best of all, the audience for these “jots” is the writer themselves. Instead of writing to please someone else, they’re truly writing for their own reflection. Students grow to appreciate the autonomy and choice when responding to reading in this way.

I also make it a rule to carve out specific time to respond to reading--around 10 minutes at the end of workshop will be dedicated specifically to producing these generative jots. I think this structure works well for middle schoolers because, if they’re anything like me, I get sucked into a book and don’t necessarily want to stop to write in the middle of a really good part. Knowing that the last 10 minutes will be used to jot is good, but I plan to be flexible--if a student really wants to keep reading and jot at home, I will applaud that reader’s self-awareness!

I’m still finding that balance between accountability and freedom. Like my middle schoolers, I find myself constantly changing as a teacher throughout the year. I plan to regularly solicit feedback from my readers to find out what’s working and what isn’t and make changes.

But I won’t change my commitment to making sure that what I’m doing in ELA this year is growing my students’ relationship with reading, not damaging it.

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