Choice, Access, and Relevance: Reading Workshop in the High School Classroom
By allowing my students choice, access, and relevance, we became a community of readers.
by Kimberly Payne
April 1, 2008
Talk to most students in high school English classes and you will begin to hear many of the same complaints. “I don’t like reading that old stuff.” “The stories I have to read don’t have anything to do with my life.” As a high school English teacher, I can recall all too often rolling my eyes and saying something akin to “You need to read the classics. They have been around a long time for a reason.” I do still believe this, but after nine years in the classroom, I began to realize other things, too.
Students need to have choice in what they read. As much as I love Great Expectations, my students found it very hard to relate to Pip and Estella. They needed modern tales to help them fully understand themes such as right of passage, family abuse, and unrequited love. How do I give them choice in the classroom and still save time for the classics? The answer for me was a weekly reading workshop. Students were allowed to bring any novel they chose, and we devoted our Friday class time to independent reading and discussion.
At first the students were less than enthusiastic about the weekly reading workshop. Many times students entered the room with nothing to read. Luckily, I had anticipated this and began to stock my classroom shelves with books and magazines. The students were given access to classics, adolescent literature, and contemporary magazines. Once everyone picked a text to read, the next hurdle was to actually get students to read.
Each Friday I brought my own paperback from home. When I asked the students to read independently for thirty minutes, I read too. When I asked them to respond to what they read, I wrote too. When I asked for volunteers to share what they read, I shared too. Soon my students realized that I was really serious about independent reading because I modeled the behaviors I expected from my students. Sure, I could have graded many papers on those Fridays, but what would that behavior say to my students? Reading is important for high school students, but not for adults?
I chose to make the weekly reading time relevant for my students and myself. If my goal was to create life-long readers, I had to prove that I was a life-long reader. Many teachers operate on the “Do as I say, not as I do” principle. However, when teachers do this, they send the message that the assignment is not really meaningful or relevant. Modeling the behaviors we expect from our students is the one sure way to prove that these behaviors are relevant to their lives.
By allowing my students choice, access, and relevance, we became a community of readers. Students began to ask each other for recommendations. Also, as the school year progressed, our discussions began to deepen while students began to make connections between their independent novels and the texts we read as a whole class. Best of all, I began to see my students anticipate the Friday reading workshops and their “alone time” with their current favorite novel.
Kimberly Payne is a former high school English teacher at Nettleton High School in Nettleton, Mississippi. She is currently the assistant project director for the Mississippi State University Writing/Thinking Project.
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