By Toni Poling
I am a reader. My house has more books in it than some libraries. I am frequently knocking over a stack of books from the top of my night stand in my desperate attempts to silence my alarm in the morning. I enjoy reading books on my iPad, but if I really like a book I will buy a hardcopy so that I can loan it to others. I read indiscriminately; I read incessantly; I read passionately – just the way I want my students to read.
As the parent of a soon-to-be second grader (he is counting down the days!), I can honestly say that the elementary school teachers do a fantastic job of creating a culture of literacy in our schools. From brightly colored word walls to bins overflowing with books to accelerated reader charts, our younger students are surrounded by a world that revolves around literacy. One of my son’s best moments this year was when he achieved the reading goal he had set for himself. How we celebrated! So, what happens between elementary school and high school that dampens this enthusiasm for reading the written word? Kelly Gallagher has a theory.
In Readicide, Gallagher describes what he calls “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.” Ouch! I must admit that the first time I read that I was rather offended. How could this respected educator blame me for my students’ lack of interest in reading? Then I thought about how I was assessing my students’ reading. Was I assessing for learning? Were my assessments authentic? Did they help students make meaning through the texts we were reading? The answers were all, unfortunately, no. Time to make a change.
For years, my students had been reading student choice books (we can all agree that choice books are vitally important, can’t we?), but my assessment method was lacking. Some students dutifully read the book to get the grade; others tried to fake their way through the assignment. Neither fulfilled my English teacher’s desire to create lifelong readers. I was at a loss on what to do about this, until I started getting subscriptions of The New Yorker for my classroom.
If you aren’t a fan of The New Yorker magazine, you should be! Not only is it a source of entertainment, it’s a treasure trove of contemporary literature! The cover of each issue is a beautiful example of visual text and my students and I spend time each month analyzing the meaning of the cover. I’ve even used covers as visual sources for essays in AP Language. Inside each issue is an original short story, sometimes by a well-known author, and original contemporary poetry. These are usually great sources for AP Literature. Perhaps my favorite part of The New Yorker, however, is the monthly book review. It’s my go-to source for finding new books and new authors and has been for years. When I started utilizing the magazines in my classroom, I also found that my students were reading these same book reviews and making reading choices based on them!
When it was time for our next student choice book, I decided to utilize a mentor text to provide guidance for a new assessment model. My students were going to write book reviews in the style of The New Yorker. Each student received a handout with guidelines and a rubric, along with one of four sample book reviews from the magazine. Students were placed in cooperative learning groups based on which sample they had received and the groups did a close reading of the book review. They were looking specifically for summary/synthesis, analysis, and personal connection to the text. Students used different colored highlighters to identify the three main parts of the book review. As a whole group, we looked at each’s group’s work under the document camera and discussed what was different about each sample and what was similar. Then students wrote their own book review on their student choice novel.
Admittedly, the first try at this was a little...rough. Students wanted to fall into the old trap of ending the book review with “everyone should read this book!” It took a couple of rounds of rewrites before we were all satisfied with the final products, but those final drafts were really good! Not only did students mimic the quality writing found in their mentor text, they also showed true engagement with their book and a depth of analysis that had been lacking from previous assignments. This assessment was truly an assessment for learning.
Since this first round, I have refined the assignment based on needs of individual classes. Some classes need more instruction in the analysis portion while others struggle with the elevated syntax and diction expected in the assignment, but they are ALL reading, and isn’t that the goal?
Perhaps, however, the most unexpected reward from this assignment is that other students are making reading choices based on their peers’ book reviews. They are learning from one another. They are modeling excellent literacy skills for their peers. They are becoming readers.
WVCTE is wondering how you assess for your students’ learning while maintaining a culture of literacy in your classroom. Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!