Thursday, March 18, 2010

About Reader's Workshop: The Scariest Thing You'll Ever See

I've been a bad blogger this week, partly because I'm busy, and partly because I've been in a snit over an article I read last week. It wasn't my intention to read it, but our curriculum person sent it to me thinking I would be 'interested' in it. It had the words 'Reader's Workshop' in it, but was the worst perversion of the concept I've ever seen. Calling it 'collaborative', they took away student choice and independent reading time, and turned into a teacher led discussion of the same piece of work (probably with highlighters . . .)

I sat there shaking my head (and shaking a little on the inside too). This isn't the first time I've felt that I'm being pushed to make my reader's workshop more 'uniform' and teacher led. To include more 'discussion' and 'analysing text'. To remove more reading. I vented on twitter, I vented at school (to friends), I vented at home to my husband. Then I've been in a snit over it for a week.

I've kind of come to a conclusions about it all, though, which might be completely off-side, but I'm going to discuss it anyway. I think some people get scared by children sitting there, reading their own choice of book silently.

 Why would this be? Personally, I think a child reading is the best sight ever. But when I think back to the ways people used to react to me - the child who always had a book in their hands - I see a lot of the same attitudes that I see from other teachers around my school. I have a few thoughts on why . . .

It doesn't look like work

I hear this from teachers and students from other classes. We'll be sitting in the classroom, or out in the lovely garden outside our room, reading and other students will walk past making a lot of noise. "Shh," I'll say, "we're working here." "That's not working, that's reading." One student laughed.

You can't see the work when students are reading. They don't screw up their faces in pained expressions as they do when they're doing maths or when they're writing. They don't seem to produce anything. They actually look like they're enjoying themselves. You can't see them travelling across different countries, or back in history or forward in time. You don't see them getting into the deeper feelings of their characters (unless they start getting teary, as some of the girls have). Unless you get up and talk with them, you don't see the amazing connections they are making, the vocabularies they are building, the grammar they are resting their understanding on.

But then, when it's time to stop reading, the children stretch and yawn and look like they've been running a long distance race. They know how hard they've been working.

The teacher loses control

"How do you know they're really reading?"
"Shouldn't they be reading 'good' books?"
"We're learning about subject a, so shouldn't all reading be about subject a?"

It's pretty cool being a teacher. We get to use our teacher voices. We get to tell the students what they will learn and when they will learn it. We get to rule the world (oh, wait a minute. Not yet). It's easy to fall into a pattern of needing to know all, be all  and assign all in the classroom.

And then someone suggests that maybe the students could choose their own books.

"But they'll only choose rubbish books."

Actually, I've found the opposite of this. As long as you have good books to read in the classroom, and you promote them, the students begin gravitating towards the 'better' books sooner or later. They know they're becoming better readers, they want a bigger challenge. Sure they'll read some of the 'rubbish' books as well, but when they have the choice to read, you'd be surprised at what they'll try. Some of my boys are reading books that we would probably say are 'girl' books. My Grade 5s are desperate to read the same books as the Grade 7s and the Grade 7s want to read the books I read. 

"How do you know they're really reading?"

I've talked about this before - here and here and here. We live books in my classroom. We're excited about new stories, about discovering old stories, about the plot twists and characters and places. Students are excited when they find out that Al Capone and Alcatraz were real, and when they work out that one book is set in the same place as another. They want to share what they're reading, and you know that they are reading.

I also read a lot of the books myself. When I'm unsure, I know the questions to ask to probe a little more. I can suggest taking a step back, rereading, having a discussion with another person.

It's unknown

Sadly, we don't have a reading culture in our school. Seeing a student with a book is much less common than seeing one with a football or a hand ball. And the idea of letting students just read? Well, what about those comprehension worksheets, and class sets of books, and highlighters and fancy reading programs? Surely they have to be more useful, they're what we've always done.

I know when I started teaching, I did what was always done in reading. I gave out lots of worksheets, and limited silent reading time and borrowed class sets of books and insisted that students read out loud without a chance to read through first. It was a big step to step into reader's workshop.

There seems to be a concerted push for uniformity across the school system. Every teacher needs to do this, every students needs to know this. There's not a lot of room to move, or be different. Except, well, our students are different. And our teachers are different. And if one or more of them wants to be the loony teacher who makes children read, maybe we should leave enough wriggle room for that, without wanting them to fall in line.

Maybe we should let the children read.

Read more about Reader's Workshop here

Photo from Flickr


Cathy said...

In today's testing culture, it does seem spending time reading loses time to so many other parts of the day. For many children, reading at school may be the only time they read. If we want to be better at piano, we play the piano. If we want to improve our shot in basketball, we practice shooting the basketball. Why would we do anything besides read to become better readers? Your points are well articulated. I think sometimes those parts of our day which seem the most "unstructured" have the most structure underlying within them....otherwise they probably wouldn't work.

A Reader's Community said...

Thanks for your comment :) I like the use of the word 'unstructured' and the idea of that although it looks that way, it has careful structure built in - you've given me another way to see Reader's Workshop! :)

Chorkie said...

I loved your blog. I was using novels in the 70s. I was definitely a rogue. I bought a rug for my classroom where kids could get on the floor to read. I hated the basal from the get go. But, I was lucky. I had a principal who let me do what I wanted. Books are so good.

A Reader's Community

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Queensland, Australia
A Reader's Community is a place to find ideas, information, resources and recommendations about Reader's Workshop.

This Blog has five main types of posts.

About Reader's Workshop - information about Reader's Workshop in my classroom and how it works

Reader's Workshop Tools - resources you can access and use to help you with reader's workshop

Book talks - Book recommendations of two or three books centred around a particular theme

Book letters - in-depth reviews of one particular book

Reader's Workshop Links - Short links lists to help you find more information
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