Our Approach to Inspiring A Love of Reading in Our Students
Written by Jeanette Lelchitski, 7th and 8th Grade English Teacher
(Part Two of an article from our Spring 2018 Congressional School Magazine)
Read Part One: Inspiring Lifelong Readers
Novelist Robertson Davies called reading “a personal art;” tastes vary from person to person, and these tastes can change over time. The fact of the matter is that every book is not for every person at every time in his or her life. Even as an avid reader, if I pick up a title that I do not find enjoyable, I find excuses not to read it. I will listen to NPR rather than my current audio book or scroll through Facebook rather than pick up the book on my bedside table. The solution is to make reading enjoyable by allowing children to choose some of what they read.
The full “formula” for creating lifelong reading, then, is frequent, voluminous, self-selected reading, an idea has long been touted by Nancie Atwell, founder of The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a professional development opportunity I had the pleasure of participating in last spring.
CENTER FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING
Congressional School sent Jeanette Lelchitski and Cameron Yassine, Middle School English Teachers, to learn from Nancie Atwell at The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). Ms. Atwell is an education “celebrity” among many English and humanities teachers. A middle school English teacher for more than 40 years, she has written nine books on teaching and was the 2015 winner of the prestigious Global Teaching Prize as well as numerous other accolades. CTL is an independent K-8 demonstration school Ms. Atwell founded in 1990.
Thankfully, much of what we witnessed at CTL already happens at Congressional. In middle school language arts classes, Congressional students engage in thoughtful dialogue about shared texts, write about the deeper implications of the reading, and are not afraid to voice “outside-the-box” ideas and questions. My students regularly amaze me by supporting their observations with interesting, nuanced details and interpretations that I had not previously considered.
We did bring back some new ideas, however, and they have inspired some thoughtful and exciting shifts in the curriculum. After multiple meetings with the language arts department, in-depth communication with the administration, and a summer fellowship focusing on middle school language arts, Congressional middle school students are benefiting from several key changes to the reading curriculum.
1. Rigorous Independent Reading
An impressive product of the Center for Teaching and Learning’s (CTL) reading curriculum is the fact that its middle school students read an average of 40 titles per year. One of the reasons CTL is able to offer so much direct instruction in reading and provide time for reading during the school day is that they have carved out substantial time in their daily schedule.
For the 2017-2018 school year, Brent Hinrichs (Associate Head of School and Director of Lower and Middle School) and Andrea Weiss (Director of Innovation and Learning), have made some changes to the schedule. One of the many positive outcomes is that the new schedule includes a daily 25-minute “Reading Zone” period. This time built into the new schedule, along with the required independent reading students complete at home, provides time to emulate the rigorous reading schedule which produces such volume.
Nancie Atwell calls poetry “the essential genre” to teach, and one of the most compelling methods we saw at CTL was her use of daily poetry to teach a wide range of reading and writing skills. At the start of every class, her students “unpack” a poem, whether it be a classic by Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, or Wallace Stevens, or a more contemporary free verse piece. They listen to the teacher – a fluent reader – read the poem, spend several minutes annotating independently, and discuss as a class the author’s craft and the poem’s central theme.
Cameron and I were impressed by the intellectual “bang-foryour-buck” in this daily exercise: Because the shared reading was condensed yet full of meaning and technique, students practiced important deep reading skills in just 15 minutes per lesson. In our classes, we are supplementing independent reading and shared novels with even more short fiction than we did previously
3. Classroom Literature
One of the most conspicuous characteristics of CTL is the staggering number of books it houses. Every room is lined with bookshelves, and students are always in easy reach of their next great read.
The Congressional library contains a wide variety of reading material for student use, and our librarian, Ross Mulry, is passionate about putting books into children’s hands. To supplement this collection, however, we also need an extensive, varied, and carefully curated collection of literature in our classrooms. As a result, Cameron and I have been busy selecting and purchasing hundreds of new titles for our classroom libraries, and more books are on their way!
As a lifelong reader, a Congressional parent and educator, I am deeply invested in building the community of readers at Congressional. Both professionally and personally, I know the benefits of reading: Children grow as people, readers, and students when they read. I have always felt proud of the reading instruction our students receive.
"I am excited to take that instruction to the next level by taking steps to ensure that Congressional students develop the right habits and experience the joy of being lifelong readers."