I was sitting with my colleague, a fellow reading specialist, in our empty classroom one summer. We were donating time to planning, as many teachers do, and wanted to think through what our classroom environment would be and what our instruction would look like for a brand-new high school reading intervention course we were going to be teaching that fall.

We knew high-interest classroom libraries were ordered. We had all kinds of shrink-wrapped reading curricula materials we needed to go through (we did not choose those). We were getting ideas together for some bookshelves, rugs, pillows, and comfy chairs we were planning to purchase from IKEA (we were lucky recipients of a grant). And we had paint swatches for the bright white concrete wall (we needed to get approval from our administrator once we chose our color.)

I remember diving into the curricular materials and feeling overwhelmed. We had bright blue reading textbooks with units on comprehension strategies, test-taking tips, and active reading practices. I remember thinking, I am not so sure that students who are striving to be better readers and find out they are going to be in a class devoted to what they struggle in the most are going to be super jazzed about diving into a textbook. We also had strategy placemats, big binders with continuum charts, and guided reading lessons. The more we dove in, the more overwhelmed we got.

As we stepped away from the pile of teacher materials and textbooks, and revisited the list of young adult books that were going to be arriving any day now, we reminded ourselves of all the researching and reading we had done over the past year on the science of student engagement in literacy. We knew we needed to focus on getting kids to read, and luring students into experiencing the joy and wonder of reading for pleasure. So, we began to plan the launch of our year with that one goal in mind. What occurred was relief for us and excitement for our students.

When they arrived at our classrooms that fall, we let our freshmen unpack boxes of books and set up displays. In doing so, we were able to informally assess their understanding of genre and books that come in a series. They got creative grouping books by “cool covers” and “love and war” —because “maybe then boys and girls would browse together, after all homecoming is only a few weeks away.” Unpacking the boxes also provided the intrigue that comes with holding and browsing books. Knowing they could pick any book they wanted to try and that if they didn’t like it, they could choose something else, created energy.

Once our students were into their routine of reading for a minimum of 20 minutes each day in class, were comfortably writing about their reading (so we could see their comprehending in an authentic way), and were talking about their books (both in a structured way as well as informally in the hallways and lunch), my colleague and I dove back into the teacher materials. We started to develop guided reading lesson plans and more structured instructional activities based on what we were learning by reading their writing, listening in reading conferences, and eavesdropping on their authentic conversations. We found that when we overplanned, we would get stuck in our own goals and not lean into being responsive to students’ needs. So, we were careful to use the teacher guides as just that—guides. Not scripts. Not rules.

Ultimately, we learned that when we just let students read, and read a LOT, they gained much more growth than when we tried to control their learning.

So, if you are feeling overwhelmed, take a gander at Johnston and Ivey’s study where they just let 8th graders read, whatever they wanted. The results speak for themselves!

And if you are looking for some young adult books to read, may I recommend some of what I have read over the past few months:

  • Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
  • Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
  • The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
  • Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

Also, I am just starting Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. I was not a reader of YA until I had the opportunity to watch young people get so engrossed in reading during their class. It was contagious.

Jen McCarty Plucker
AboutJen McCarty Plucker
Jen McCarty Plucker, Ed.D., lead literacy consultant for Mackin Learning has more than 20 years experience in public education. First, as a middle school English and speech teacher, then High School English, Speech, and Literacy Intervention teacher. She spent 5 years at the district leadership level integrating inquiry, project based learning, and rich classroom libraries across secondary English, social studies, and science. She is most energized when seeing learners of all ages engaged...totally in their zone.
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