Student Choice: Independent Novel Reading

This post was written by guest blogger, Madeline Anderson, English Teacher at Gilmer High School in Gilmer ISD.

STAAR has come and gone – now what?

Once the STAAR test has finally passed, my students in English 1 (and I’m sure other classes as well) inevitably ask, “Are we going to do anything for the rest of the year?” Well, of course! I explain how I’ve saved the best for last after all. Keeping students (and teachers) involved and actively learning after the state assessment does not have to be a chore. In fact, my freshmen are more engaged now than ever.

Studies show the strong link between student choice and student motivation but cautions that that doing projects for the sake of projects is not good teaching; however, when guided by a driving question and limited choices, the results are promising. A study of high school students confirms that “providing students with choices among homework tasks effectively enhanced motivational and performance outcomes and that choice is an important component to creating a classroom environment supportive of autonomy and intrinsic motivation (Patall, Cooper, & Wynn 2010).

In high school English, spring is the time for independent novel reading. My choice novel unit encourages student engagement when some students are ready to just write the countdown on the board. I start with what’s available in the bookroom and the backroom of the campus library, but for times when students will go out and get a book, lists are all around us of the choices – I usually use “101 Great Books” adapted from College board or the New York State Recommended reading list, but I’ve found others too:

As an English teacher, I want my students to read the “classics”; but, as a realist, I just want them to read. So, I ponder the necessity of supplying THE LIST, but students do need guidance, simply because many of them don’t know what’s out there besides Captain Underpants or Hank the Cowdog. This year, before we started, I went to the book room and gathered up about 10 titles that we had multiple copies of. I set samples on the chalk tray and just left them there for a few days. Students started asking questions. When their appetites were sufficient, then I gave a brief talk about each one. My co-teacher prepared a “SpeedDating” activity in which students spent five minutes with each book and rated it on a little chart. Then they chose their book. By this time, students are engaged.

I also give them a week to change their minds and switch books. I don’t overwhelm students with project requirements yet, but they plan their own reading schedule – (we do a little math in English when we divide the number of pages by the number of days we’ll be reading.) My students refer to their bookmark reading schedule regularly. I’ve noticed better engagement in the books than when I assign a book; also, students tend to keep up with the reading better. On any given day, I can ask about their progress and students will tell me, “I’m four pages ahead” or “I’m ten pages behind, but I’m reading this weekend.” It’s exciting to see them managing their own time.

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After a week or two, I pulled out the book project choice list along with project samples I’ve saved over the years. Howard Gardner would be pleased, I think, to see a wide variety of options, from songwriting to performing, to mapping, and writing. Students select how they will show what they learned from 24 project options; they also choose how many they want to do. I show the scoring rubrics but don’t emphasize grades too much. The focus is on enjoying the book and really learning about author’s purpose and choices. Today our writing warm up asked students to explain why a minor character was included – what that character (flat or round?) would do for the novel. To supplement the lessons, another English teacher has shared online his videos about literary elements Mister Sato 411. These short, animated videos are simple, clear, and full of examples. We learn about characterization and write for a few minutes, then students are given lots of class time for reading. The more reading they do in class, the more they actually read outside of class because they are hooked.

As for assessment, it’s simple. One day I ask students to summarize the exposition, another day perhaps the major conflict. After learning about theme, we all write about the themes of our books. So even if students are all reading different books, it doesn’t mean the teacher should make 20 different tests. Then, on the day of presentations, students are excited to share their creations sparking other students to want to read.

So, in the end, we are reinforcing the required knowledge and skills, but more importantly, students have an opportunity to read what they want and find enjoyment in it. Perhaps next week after Math & Science STAAR, books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or biographies of mathematicians would fit right in!

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Patall, Erika A., Harris Cooper, and Susan R. Wynn. “The Effectiveness and Relative Importance of Choice in the Classroom.” Journal of Educational Psychology. 102. (2010): 896-915. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

This choice-based opportunity in Mrs. Anderson’s high school English classroom exemplifies many aspects of the Visioning Document.  From student-choice fostered in the book selection to the 24 project options given as ways to demonstrate understanding, Mrs. Anderson is developing a transformed learning environment for her students.

Within Article II: The New Learning Standards we recognize the premise related to providing student choice as development of the whole child:

IIc. Learning standards should embrace development of the whole person to build students’ capacity to shape their own destiny as individuals and as contributing members of society.

Within Article III: Assessment for Learning we know students should be encouraged to demonstrate understanding in ways beyond scores on standardized tests:

IIIe. Assessment should not be limited to nor even rely substantially on standardized tests that are primarily multiple-choice paper/pencil or on similar online instruments that can be machine-scored.

For the latest in Mrs. Anderson’s class, follow her on Twitter: @MAnderson_reads.


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