This post was originally written as an outline of my talk at the Teachmeet Brisbane #tmbne hosted by Steven Kolber and Courtney and made public as part of the Teachers Education Review podcast. The video of my talk is at the end.
Our school, like most schools I suppose, is working quite explicitly to improve the literacy of their students. This has had many different forms over the years, but I feel as though I had an accidental win – or a win on a level that I didn’t expect – over the last week.
The death of DEAR
I don’t know if every school has tried DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) but every school I’ve been at has. I hate it. I love it in principal but I always end up hating it. Nothing quite like forcing students to read a book to ruin their love of reading. In fact, I’ve always found the students who love reading will do it, but those who don’t will resist it incessantly and there’s even the chance that they’ll shame those who are big readers to at least being secret readers.
The million word gap
I’m skeptical of the ‘Million Word Gap‘ . Or I should say, I’m skeptical if it’s simply because of the gap in exposure. The Million Word Gap is the idea that children whose parents read to them from an early age are exposed to a million more words in text than those who don’t. I mean that’s pretty obvious and not what I’m a little skeptical of. It sounds true and as though it is the most obvious reason. That truthiness is why I think it’s worth looking into that claim a little.
One of the claims often made is that students with books in their homes are more likely to do well at school. The more access a student has to books the better they will do. This is actually pretty well documented BUT I think it’s a little more complex than that. Study after study show that students from wealthier families perform better academically. I think the actual link here and the way this should be stated is less about books and more about luxury items. The more luxury items (which books are) you have growing up the more likely you are to be academically successful.
However, does this mean that students are more likely to love reading? I’m not so sure. Here I lay my progressive/liberal cards on the table. Students should be encouraged to read, not because it makes them more academically successful but because it makes their lives richer. It’s the students who we are in service to in our profession, not soley their academic outcomes – that’s only part of the job. No, actually, students should be encouraged to engage with the arts, not because it makes them more academically successful but because it makes their lives richer. It just so happens that literature is one of the easiest and cheapest access points for all students.
OK, so let’s get one thing straight. My tastes are many and varied but I’m sure as hell no book snob.
In fact, I remember very clearly carrying some dog eared version of Cujo around the school at one point. Clear as day I can still hear my Year 9 English teacher who’d noticed it pointing it out to the class (thanks for that, definitely increased my nerd status) and then eviscerating the book as “trash”. Now, this didn’t kill my love of genre books, but Ms Warton never got to hear my wildly sophisticated views as to why I thought the book was so amazing nor how scandilised I was by the anemic ending in the movie compared to the deeply unsettling finale of the book. In fact, Ms Warton never got to hear about any book I was interested in again.
From a curriculum stand point, I was so put off and defensive around what I was reading, that there is no way I was engaging in the literature that year. If students are reading, regardless of whether it’s the Bell Jar or the Dark Knight Returns, encourage it.
In my senior year of High School I had a different teacher. Mr Corke. Now Mr Corke had a special tallent of paying attention to students. He had some high falutin tastes and encouraged us to delve into some texts that we thought were out of our league, but he was more than that. He would talk to us about Leonardo DiCaprio in Basketball Diaries, he would talk to us about the dumb stuff we were reading like the R A Salvatore books or George RR Martin books without the need to tell us why they were lacking and that we should be reading other high fantasy. Instead he dropped on my desk his copy of National Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings for me to read.
Actually, in writing this I remembered that Mr Corke wasn’t even my actual classroom teacher. He was in charge of the other senior English class and, I think, our teacher would sometimes co-teach/share rooms with him? But isn’t that amazing, not even my classroom teacher and still …
My accidental book club
So that was my role model in this. A teacher who took the time to be interested in his students for no other reason than they were interesting to him. I was lucky in this regard. I can name a few teachers who were interested in me purely because I was a person in front of them. That’s pretty special.
This year at the Teach Meet Brisbane I got to talk about how I was lucky enough to get to know a bunch of my students by accidentally starting a book club with them. It’s only short (the Steve had us on the clock), but give it a watch below and I’ll tell you about the most important thing I’ve done this year in the classroom.
My main takeaway is this though – share who you are with your students and be interested in who they are.