A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 17 2010

Overheard during Independent Reading Time…

“Come ON, Mr. K!–you’ve got a room full of black kids begging you to read and you’re going to deny them?!” – Student, utterly amazed that teacher would cut off independent reading block at 30 minutes.

My students clearly know about stereotypes. The implied stereotype that this student refers to is that black students don’t like to read.

In an ironic twist, it appeared as though I was preventing students from reading in the first instance in which our classroom had shown a genuine interest in sustained reading (their freedom to choose books clearly affected their interest level).  I was the “literacy oppressor” today (only because we had bigger and better things to do during the lesson).

Coincidentally, we will soon begin our next unit, “Literacy as Empowerment,” which will focus on the power of literacy and education, particularly as it related to African-Americans during the Civil War Era.  I will be drawing some of the historical context-establishing passages from Heather Andrea Williams’ Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, a fascinating study about the great lengths to which many ordinary slaves went to gain an education (frankly, I’m excited for this unit, which was the product of the Catherine B. Reynolds Civil War Washington Teacher Fellows program, which I participated in this summer).


I forced myself to reflect on why or how independent reading went so well today, not only in this period, but in every one. Each period sustained pure silence for almost 30 minutes each.  Students were alert, pencils were tracking words across the page, and faces were contorting in reaction to text. I’m tempted to believe in three explanations for this tremendous success (relative to last year’s IR, which, although worthwhile, was not completely convincing at times):

First, I’ve done a better job of reading investment. I’ve bombarded students with messages about the importance of reading and how it affects their life paths.  I joke with students more and more about how “books are like babies.” In my journalism class, I like to cite Ernest Gaines’ six words of advice on how to become a better writer (“read, read, read, write, write, write”). They know it is important.

As another way to increase investment, in a moment of pure inspiration, I filled a gridded poster paper (these are a teacher’s lifesavers) with colored dots, slapped on some milestone numbers and–ta da!–I had a “500 Book Tracker.”

Now the goal in my classroom is to read, collectively, 500 books. With about 65 students, this comes to about 8 books per student, or about 1 book per student every two weeks–challenging but feasible.

In order to fill up our chart, students must read a book and then fill out an IR book review form.  If the book review meets my standard, the student receives a large dot sticker with a color that corresponds to his class period.  I let the student give a quick 30-second pitch on the book and the review goes in the book review binder. The student then writes his initials on the sticker and covers up one of the colored dots on the Tracker (there are 3 students from 3rd period who have earned stickers so far, but I expect that this chart will ramp up with colors soon).

With this system, students can see how they are working towards the goal as (a) individuals, (b) a period and (c) all of Mr. K’s students.  It promotes healthy competition and helps students visualize their progress towards their goals.


Second, in a new twist, I am focusing our over-arching dialogue in class around the idea of “stamina.” The rationale here is that students can be as smart as Einstein, but if they can’t stay focused for a long period of time–well, what use is intelligence then?  In fact, I tell them, those individuals who do great things in society often attribute more of their success to their work ethic than to pure intellect alone.

An easy way to get students focused on building reading stamina is to measure how long the classroom is able to read without showing signs of frustration or fatigue.  The time element is concrete.  To increase motivation, I’ve set up a board that shows how each period stacks up relative to the other periods. Each period has tried to “out-do” the others.

Finally, with my trusty new HD Flipcam, I’m able to record my students in “perfect” IR mode. I can then take this clip and show it to the next period as an “exemplar,” which that period then attempts to beat.


Third, I’ve messaged the importance of practice. I think most teachers assume that students already know that  “practice makes perfect,” since they see people in other realms practicing until perfection.  But I believe that students see learning as an exception to this rule regarding practice.  Students need explicit reinforcement that this is not the case.

Coincidentally, Kathleen Cushman sent me her new book, Fires in the Mind this week. It’s all about “motivation and mastery,” two key concepts in any classroom.  It’s fascinating, and I wish I had the time to sit down and read it in one go.  I’m seriously considering squeezing in the “Practice Project” 5-day mini-unit that Kathleen has included in the appendix. I think explicitly teaching students the value of school-based practice (i.e. “work”) will motivate students in new ways.


Doing something again helps in many ways. In my second year, I feel that I now have a base case with which to compare my development as a teacher.  Though the bar that I set based on my teaching last year may not be high, I at least have something to compare myself against.

It seems like I’m using the same principle of competition (my first-year self vs. my second-year self) to motivate myself as I did with my students earlier today. How ironic. But how sweet.

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4 Responses

  1. Wess

    … you are so cool. I can’t WAIT until I can think about something other than tomorrow’s lesson! I hope I can be this intentional about investment sometime soon.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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