Friday, December 9, 2016

Getting A Read on Things

When attempting to learn how my middle school students feel about things relating to their learning, there is something that I learned long ago. Simply ask them and they will be more than happy to tell you. If it is something that they are passionate about the conversations can be riveting.  

Recently our district communicated a need for the Social Studies department to integrate teaching nonfiction into its curriculum. Our PLC has dedicated its energy this year to implementing this and professional development sessions have been provided by our Literary coaches to assist in this process.  Recently, I decided to take the temperature of my students regarding their feelings about reading nonfiction text. I posed two basic questions, first I wanted to know which type of literature they preferred (fiction or nonfiction), second I wanted to know what challenges they faced when reading nonfiction text and how they overcome them. The results revealed during the ensuing conversation told me a great deal about the attitudes of my students toward reading.

The answer to the first question indicated a much stronger preference for fiction. However some students indicated that they enjoyed both types, while a significant minority made a strong defense supporting their preference for nonfiction.   The following are responses that favored fiction:

"Fiction is the best  because it lets you use your imagination and can take you to wonderful places." 

Fiction is better because it is in its own world and that allows you to use your imagination."

"Something new and different happens that can't happen here in the real world." 

"I like fiction because it really draws you in."

 I prefer fiction because realistic fiction could really happen and fiction can be like a mind movie."

 While I was not surprised by their arguments I was thrilled by the passion that they used to defend their preference. There was no doubt based on their responses that fiction was the best choice for them. They clearly communicated that fiction was the better alternative because it offered them things that nonfiction did not, specifically a chance to use their imagination and created an opportunity to escape a harsh world. 

As a reader who prefers nonfiction, I was anxious to learn the attitudes of my students who preferred nonfiction. Many of their responses mirrored the reasons that explain why I reach for the nonfiction before the fiction.  They shared the following:

 "I like learning and consuming different facts."

 " I like learning about things that really happened.

" Nonfiction is interesting because there are amazing stories about amazing people."

 "Its interesting and I like learning new things."

 " I like reading sports books." 

  "Nonfiction tells about the world."  

There was little question here that these students understood the value of reading nonfiction and gravitated to it because they had opportunities to explore things of interest and ultimately stoke their passions towards these specific subjects.  

Next I wanted to reinforce with them two very important points.

 One, reading is a life skill and regardless of what you prefer, the important thing is that you read.

Two, nonfiction reading is going to be a necessary part of their academic life moving forward and it is important to develop strategies that increased their confidence when pursuing nonfiction text.

The next step was to sift through the challenges related to nonfiction reading and to develop solutions  that would help them successfully navigate non fiction text. My students indicated that technical vocabulary, text organization, blandness of content, length of text, handling raw emotional real content and having to read text being written at reading level above their current level all presented challenges for them.

Some of the strategies that were suggested to overcome these challenges were generated by both the teachers in the room and the students. They included pre-reading passages and highlighting unfamiliar vocabulary, looking for topics within selected text that sparked interest and do research that goes beyond the text, rewriting summary passages in their own words to help improve comprehension, taking breaks that allows you to walk away from the text, using text features provided, write questions that you have prior to reading and then look for the answers, and finally make connections with the text and reread material that was particularly challenging.

After sharing and discussing these strategies the apprehension of my students toward nonfiction text appeared to ebb. They appeared ready to implement these strategies and I was excited to see how they would tackle the nonfiction text that we had prepared for them on the "early human ancestors" and their achievements." They listened intently during the introduction of a "text markup strategy" and upon conclusion attacked the text with both readiness and enthusiasm.

In an effort to motivate my students to move their reading beyond their comfort zones, I vowed to read a book that would move me out of mine.  I revealed to them that I had never read a "fantasy" novel or any of the Harry Potter Series. I pledged to read my first Harry Potter novel and challenged my students to read a type of literature either fiction or nonfiction that would take them out of their comfort zone. Currently I have completed about a third of the novel and communicated this to my students. They reacted enthusiastically eagerly wanting to know how I enjoyed it so far.  I look forward to future conversations that allows for a deeper level of interaction regarding the book.  On their end some of the students have made great strides already. Some have chosen their novels and some have even finished them. This has definitely created a new and noticeable level of excitement within our classroom community.  

When we take the time to "get a read" on our students interests, the potential exists for significant learning for both the teacher and the student.  If we are to facilitate a love of life long learning, taking their temperature regarding various approaches to learning is an absolute must.

(This post is dedicated to my longtime friend and teammate Kathy St.John. Her contributions throughout these discussions provided valuable insights, strategies and feedback. She continues to push student thinking and causes me too reflect and grow on a consistent basis.)

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