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Are These Students Really Doing the Reading?!

group work, in-class activities, student behavior

While I have been all-in, intellectually, on the single-text model that we promote at this site, there have been some frustrations in practice. Namely, I couldn’t get students to actually do the reading.

This is a bit of an exaggeration. There were always some students who would do the reading, but as class went on, it became clear to everyone who those students were, and the burden of carrying the class discussion continued to fall on their shoulders week after week in a way that wasn’t equitable to them or particularly effective for anyone else. I ended up spending a lot of time giving “reviews” of the reading knowing full well that for a lot of students there wasn’t much “re” in the “review.”

I hated it. I was basically lecturing over material that a fourth of the class didn’t need to hear (they’d already read it) and the other three-fourths of the class didn’t really understand (they hadn’t read it at all). I couldn’t quite figure out how to fix this problem, and readings were a small piece of the total class activities for the course as a whole, so I just sort of powered through, hoping to find solutions as I went.

READ. graffitiI had incremental successes through some activity revision. I added group quizzes. I included more in-class writing prompts. I even gave time in class to read. On a few occasions, I even read aloud to the class as a whole. Even the successes, though, served as a constant reminder that the reading was often a peripheral part of a course where I wanted it to be a central foundation.

I did some integrated reading and writing professional development this summer. Most of the information was familiar to me as someone who has spent a lot of time researching and working in developmental writing, but some of the specific activities were new. Having a summer to think about the course while I wasn’t actually teaching it also gave me the space to really plot it all out and think through my choices. I was also starting with a whole new book (John Hudak’s Marijuana), so I had a fresh start. I ended up making some radical changes to the way that I handled the reading assignments.

Change 1: Make the Expectation of Reading Clearer

I think that, in an attempt to not intimidate students with the reading expectations, I had accidentally made it seem like I didn’t expect them to read. This semester, I made an intentional effort not to downplay the expectation, but I also didn’t fear monger about what would happen if they didn’t do it. I just simply stated the expectation and then walked into the room on the day they were supposed to have read with the assumption that they had read. It was a subtle attitudinal shift, but I think it made a difference.

Change 2: A “Flipped” Model for Review

I know that students benefit from some review of the reading, so I wanted to make sure that I still gave them that. However, I didn’t want to spend valuable class time lecturing at them over something they’d already read. Instead, I started adding short (under 10 minute) video updates online. These give background information on ideas that weren’t covered in the book and spend some time closely examining key passages.

Change 3: Graded Guided Notes

I had previously given students “reading guides” that they could fill out as they read and then use on any class activities (like quizzes or in-class writings). Most students never even opened them. I now give “guided notes” sheets, which often include a “graphic organizer” like a table for students to fill out with main ideas from the chapter. On the day the reading is due, I start by checking for guided notes and giving all students who completed them credit for doing so. If they have them done, they get access to the day’s reading activities.

Change 4: Dynamic Reading Activities

This is the most important change. I no longer come in and lecture on the reading. Instead, the reading day has active group reading assignments planned. I’m mixing these up. Once it was a group pop quiz. The next week students were put into pairs and made responsible for filling in a portion of a timeline on the board. I’m planning to do vocabulary activities, have students make informational posters, really anything that gets them talking to each other about what they read.

Students are only allowed to participate in the reading activities (which are worth a small amount of additional points) if they completed the guided notes. Those who don’t have the guided notes can work on them during class and still get partial points for the day (as well as the benefit of hearing their classmates discuss the reading in more depth).

What have all those changes meant? Students are reading. They are really doing the reading. Sometimes they are confused about it, sometimes they misinterpret what they’ve read, and sometimes they complain that it was boring, but they’re reading it. And most of the time, they’re understanding it, engaging with it, and coming into the classroom with dynamic ideas far better than anything I could have come up with if I had just planned a lecture for the day.

Photo: CC from RJ

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