Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Student Choice in Reading: Let Students Decide Whether They Want to Read a Shakespeare Tragedy, Comedy, or History Play

One thing is certain: when students are given choice—whether limited or wide open—they read and write more.  -Kelly Gallagher, "Moving Beyond the 4x4 Classroom"

Why Is Reading Such a Chore?

What makes something a chore? Is it the essence of the activity itself, such that mopping the floor, for instance, is inherently more chore-like and more obligatory in nature than doing something else, such as watching a movie? Is it really that ontologically simple? Surely not. The idea that something is a chore due to the nature of the act itself is an obvious oversimplification: it fails to account for the importance of context. That's why cleaning the house can also be therapeutic, perhaps even fun. The word chores functions, not as a label for a certain set of activities, but as a description for how one feels about the activity he or she is engaged in. The question has more to do with why one is engaging in a given activity as well as how one came to be motivated to do it in the first place.

As teachers of reading, this is exactly the kind of oversimplification we are battling when students enter our classrooms and say, "I don't know. Reading is just not my thing. It's such a chore." They have become convinced that reading is one of those activities that falls under the category of chores.  How can we convince them otherwise? How can we get them to experience the joy of reading again?

What happens when, over time, an activity that one used to enjoy begins to feel more like a chore? Whether it's something that's leisurely or something that demands a large amount of work, an activity risks becoming a chore, in my opinion, when one (or all) of the following factors starts to seem amiss:

1. Agency in the form of having a choice in the matter.
2. Purpose in the form of knowing why you are doing the thing in question.
3. Relevance in the form of appealing to one's interests and/or passions as an individual

Even things we enjoy doing can become a chore when we no longer feel a sense of agency, purpose, or relevancewhich brings up the important question for all teachers:

How can we make students see reading as something other than a chore? How can we prevent what Kelly Gallagher calls Readicide, namely the "systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in our schools"?

Kelly Gallagher suggests several things for combatting the phenomenon of Readicide. One suggestion that's challenged me to grow as a teacher and designer of curriculum is the idea of providing more opportunities for student choice, thereby getting students to exercise agency in determining what texts or books seem most relevant and purposeful to them. 

Core Texts: Community at the Cost of Agency?

I am a big fan of building a learning community around the collaborative study of a core text, whether it be classic or contemporary, but I slowly have come to realize that, if that's all I'm doing, students will inevitably lose sight of one (if not all) of the above three factors (namely, a sense of agency, purpose, and/or relevance).  Community is important, but so is agency. In agreement with Kelly Gallagher, I think there needs to be a balance, but in no way can I claim to have made room for choice to the extent of a "20/80 model" like that in Gallagher's class

On a quick side note, I personally think there are strategies one can employ for purposes of empowering student agency even when one is reading a singular text as a class. I suggest the following ideas:

1. Let students choose to be a certain kind of "expert." Sometimes I'll create four reading groups: Group 1 reads for setting, historical/authorial context, etc.; Group 2 reads for character development and analysis; Group 3 reads for theme analysis and development; and Group 4 reads for rhetoric and literary style. Each group is responsible for being the experts in the room when it comes to discussions that relate to their topic of choice (Go here to read more).

2. Allow students to have more direct influence over what you discuss and how. There are so many technological platforms that make this possible. I often use google docs as a back channel for students to make clear to me what they want to talk about and address in the novel we're reading (go here to read more). My friend, Joel Garza, often uses hypothes.is to amplify student voice and particularly to empower the quieter students in his classroom (go here to read more).

3. Gamify the experience for the students. I've written extensively about the pedagogical benefits of gamification, which can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

4. Allow students to persuade each other and to choose democratically a core text for the class to read.

I don't think that assigning core texts necessarily implies a lack of agency, purpose, and/or relevance for students, but it does demand us to be intentional and creative as teachers. On the flip side, promoting student choice for reading also doesn't need to be seen as a threat to cultivating a sense of community in a collaborative classroom. There are ways to foster community while allowing students to direct their inquiry more independently, whether limited in nature or in a completely open framework.

Student Choice in Reading

A couple years back, NCTE published the article "Top Five Reasons We Love Giving Students Choice in Reading" and the first reason the authors identified was the idea that "Choice empowers students":

School is sometimes a frustrating place for students. Their technology-rich world is robust with opportunities for decision-making and choice, but when they enter the classroom, the opportunities for choice are much more limited. When students are routinely assigned books to read without any opportunity to act on their own judgment, many end up dreading the reading and often fail or refuse to complete it. But when we provide students with choices (even within parameters), they make their own decisions and they feel empowered and important. (Campbell, Dubitsky, Faron, George, Gieselmann, Goldschmidt, Skeeters, and Wagner)

I emphasized the 2nd and 3rd sentences because I think this gets to the heart of how choice connects to relevance and purpose, especially for the 21st century student. Our students' technologically-laden world is one that constantly invites them to make choices, to interact, and even to manipulate the things that capture their interest. This is why school can seem so frustrating at times: They don't have that same sense of agency.


This year, when designing my latest unit on William Shakespeare, I was debating whether to do a Tragedy, Comedy, or History play, and it occurred to me: Why not let the students choose? I knew I would limit it to a 3-option choice, meaning there were still strict parameters when it came to exercising student agency. Despite how minimal it was, a significant change in student engagement was immediately evident due to a simple gesture on my part: I trusted them to make a choice based on what sparked their individual interests the most, and simply put, that excited them.
Working off the thematic question of What does it mean to be the Other?, I selected three very different plays: Othello, Merchant of Venice, and Richard III. On the first day, I framed each text for the students (we watched movie trailers for each one as well...). We also identified common themes across the plays, and I encouraged them to explore each option a little more by getting on YouTube, Google, and other platforms to find out more information.
Once students selected the play that perked their interest, they received the following instructions:

(1) Based on who chooses what play, you will form “reading groups” with other students who are reading the same text as you.
(2) On the class calendar, each reading group is scheduled to lead a class discussion on various days on a weekly basis.
(3) Groups will lead class discussion only on the due dates for completing each Act of the play (meaning there will be five scheduled presentations for each group).
(4) On those scheduled due dates, each group is expected to present their ideas in a 10-15 minute period of time. Each presentation will be followed by a 10 minute harkness-style question and answer session, and all reading groups are expected to participate.
(5) Presentations will be based on the questions related to the themes that are listed below. Groups may use the same question (or questions) for multiple presentations as long as each presentation develops the revisited question further.
(6) Expectations for each presentation:
     (a) They must be at least 10 to 15 minutes in length
     (b) They must address at least 3-4 of the questions that are related to the themes
     (c) Students must turn in presentation notes, outlines, or scripts
     (d) There must be multiple citations of the text to provide evidence
     (e) Presentations must be cogent, prepared, and collaborative: everyone has to talk
     (f) Optional: Students may use media, visual aids, etc., to enhance the presentation

My school's schedule operates on an ABABC block schedule, meaning I get to meet with students for 80 minutes on either A or B days, and I see every class for 45 minutes at the end of the week on the C day's modified schedule. The reading plan looked something like this (with a few improvised adjustments along the way...):
For each play, we identified 7 common themes we wanted to talk about: (1) Prejudice towards Otherness (2) The idea of Bonds, especially with Family (3) Marriage & Love (4) Hatred (5) Honesty & Trust in a World of False Appearances (6) Gender Politics and (7) Justice vs. Vengeance. There were 3-5 questions for each theme that potentially could be applied to any of the three plays, and students could use any of those questions to frame their weekly discussions on the days they were assigned to lead the class meeting.  (Go here to see the complete google doc that contains the questions as well as the rest of the resources related to the project)

It was very much an experimental risk on my part. How would it go with students talking to each other in class discussions while reading different texts? Would it fall flat? Would students make interesting connections? Overall, I was blown away, watching students teach, challenge, and make connections for each other in organic conversations that were purely student led. By giving them choice, the students gave back as well both to me and to each other. There were days, no doubt, when it was dry, and by the end, I think we were all ready to move on. However, with a few adjustments to the calendar and to the volume of discussions, I will definitely be doing this again next year.  As the authors make clear in "Top Five Reasons We Love Giving Students Choice in Reading," providing students with more choice (whether it be limited or open) empowered them to have more meaningful conversations, to deepen relationships with both peers and the teacher, and to think more independently as developing learners (Campbell, Dubitsky, Faron, George, Gieselmann, Goldschmidt, Skeeters, and Wagner). I saw all of this at work on a daily basis when students took ownership of their choice to read a Tragedy, Comedy, or History play, and although there were a lot of student-led discussions and presentations, there was also time for independent reading, group preparation, and small group discussions with the teacher. 

For a final project, students had the following choices as well:
1. Team up with 1 or 2 other students from your class section (or from another section).
2. Decide whether you want to partner with peers who read the same play or with people who read something different.
3. Select one of the seven themes from the student-led class discussions.
4. Choose to either create a digital essay (using sound, image, & text) or a podcast episode (using sound and voice) that explores the theme you selected.
(Again, Go here to see the complete google doc that contains the final project instructions as well as the rest of the resources related to the project)

We examined examples of both mediums and discussed their merits and flaws, and students were let loose to make their compositions, and overall, the final products were creative, funny, and diverse. You could tell they had a good time: With all the options, I think it felt less like a chore and more like an opportunity to take a risk and be creative. (One of my favorites was a podcast created by 2 sophomore boys where the episode would periodically be interrupted by Shakespeare-era adds like the one from the company "2 Murderers for Hire"). I will say, I had no idea what to expect with the digital essays; it was new territory. Overall the products were beautiful, and to demonstrate, I leave you one on Richard III created by Rosalind K. & Reagan L:

Works Cited

Campbell, Bridget, Andrea Dubitsky, Elizabeth Faron, Deborah George, Kelly Gieselmann, Brooke    Goldschmidt, Keri Skeeters, and Erica Wagner. "The Top Five Reasons We Love Giving Students Choice in the Reading." English Leadership Quarterly, National Council of Teachers of English, 2016. Accessed 27 March 2018.

Gallagher, Kelly. "Moving Beyond the 4x4 Classroom." Kelly Gallagher: Building Deeper Readers & Writers, Gallagher & Associates, Inc., 15 July 2015. Accessed 27 March 2018.

Gallagher, Kelly. "Reversing Readicide."Educational Leadership, ASCD, March 2010, Vol. 67, No. 6. Accessed 27 March 2018.