The two untouched photocopies in the recycling bin make me sigh out loud. I handed them out to my grade 12 class last period and asked the students to glue them into their notebook then annotate the text. Rather than circulate, I had worked alongside them: using a document camera to model “reading like a writer”, marking up the text with my observations, questions and notes. I really thought the students were doing this, too.
I’ll admit it: this class isn’t starting like many other English classes they’ve taken. Heck, it’s not even starting like the other English classes I’ve taught. I’ve reconsidered my reading instruction over the past few years, and now most of our reading is independent, choice reading. Every class starts with 15 minutes of reading. Every student reads a minimum of five books in a semester (though I’ll negotiate for really thick or complicated books). Since I started this, my students’ reading volume has increased dramatically; many read far more than five books, and they are better prepared to approach the complex texts that we work on as a class.
But… it still feels weird. I mean, doesn’t every high school English teacher start with short stories while the class list gets finalized? Shouldn’t I be telling them how to think about literature? Isn’t that my job? It’s unsettling to use new methods.
To make class even more odd, this semester I’ve committed to having students write daily. After all, I say, “You can’t get better at something you don’t practice.” I’ve only had this group for a week, and I suspect they are already sick of hearing me say this.
So, you know, we read, then we write, we study a short text. We move around and share. We edit our own work… it’s workshop-y. And, ahem, I haven’t graded a thing. Not. One. Thing. I haven’t even given feedback yet – shh! There is method to my madness: I really really want these soon-to-be graduates to remember that reading and writing are things that we do because they make us whole. These are things we do for our lives, not just for a teacher. “When was the last time you read for fun?” I ask. Some of them can’t remember. “When did you last write something that wasn’t for school?” Some of them say never.
But those papers in the recycle bin make me think I’m not doing a very good job with my new-fangled methods. I worry that my goal-oriented students feel adrift, that they are waiting for me to tell them how many paragraphs they must write and how many pages they must read. Or maybe the students don’t take me seriously; maybe they think the class is too easy and that they can just coast.
I close my eyes for a second and try to visualize the class: the students seemed engaged. When I looked up from my annotations, they were (mostly) writing away. When they stood up to share, they looked like they were reading from their notebooks.
Those untouched papers laugh at me: this isn’t working.
I fish them out and flatten them, putting them into my own notebook to give to….oh wait!… to give to THE TWO STUDENTS WHO WERE ABSENT TODAY!
Oh my. Papers firmly in hand, I sit back down at my desk to map out the writing and craft moves I want to accompany Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book This is the Rope tomorrow. At least with a picture book there will be no copies for anyone to recycle.