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:
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.
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.Ss are exploring the first scenes of the #Shakespeare plays they’ve chosen to read. Already, I see more interest & engagement b/c Ss have a choice in the matter #engchat #aplitchat #edchat pic.twitter.com/TfZEb1EJTU— Jared Colley (@jcolley8) January 12, 2018
(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
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: