Learning How to Love Classic Novels in Middle School

I successfully encouraged over 120 seventh graders to independently read classic novels this year, and it wasn’t really that hard.

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These were not advanced students – they were typical students with a variety of abilities and backgrounds. When I took over a classroom in late March to “fix” a little problem the principal was having with a first year teacher, one of the first things I did was implement silent reading at the beginning of every class. Not only is it soothing to a roomful of jittery tweens to be in a calm, quiet environment for extended periods of time, it also increases reading stamina. Ever taken a middle school end-of-grade reading test? It is three fun-filled hours of tense, silent reading and question answering; it is not easy, and it requires focus and stamina.

But seriously – how can we expect these students to survive the lengthy reading exam if they can’t sit still for ten minutes and independently read a book? Require them to read, and everything will work out perfectly.

Sounds easy, right? Ummmm… no. See, these seventh graders think they’re so smart. According to the logic of a thirteen year old, if you do not bring a book to class, then you have nothing to read. If you have nothing to read, you get to sit at your desk and whisper to your neighbor or try to play games on your laptop. How can the teacher possibly argue with this? No book = no way I’m responsible for doing this silent reading crap, right?

Yeah, right. Of course, this classroom (like most classrooms) has a small bookcase full of a variety of softcover books of which the students who do not have books may select one and read it during silent reading time.

But again, you gotta think like a seventh grader – having no ownership or personal motivation to read these random books, it becomes a daily joke for them to just grab any old title off the bookcase and hold it in front of their faces for the 10-15 minutes of silent reading. After all, holding an open book in front of you without ever turning a page or reading a word of it counts as reading, doesn’t it?

Like all older, wiser teachers, you just have to take the bull by the horns. At this point, I have no choice but to become Supreme Orchestrator of the Structured Classroom. Say good-bye to all of those tattered classroom books – enter specific novel titles choices.

When the students entered the room on the third day, they were greeted with an empty bookcase and 3 small piles of novels. The idea was simple – if you cannot manage to consistently choose a book, bring the book to class every day, and read that book from start to finish, well then…. Here are your three options. It’s still a democracy – you still have choices. I can offer differentiation while laying down parameters and attainable goals.

In the back of the room I had laid out the abbreviated versions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, and The Call of the Wild, then I simply told them to pick the one they intended to read. My only rule was they that had to finish the book – there were no book reports due, no notations to jot down, no questions to answer or projects to complete. Just read the book at your own pace until the entire book had been read.

The students huffed and puffed, but that first day when 5 of them had not brought their own books to read to class, they had no choice but to choose one of the classics and begin reading. I monitored, but only from a distance. Just read, I assured them in my kindest voice. Just read.

Over that first week, we were practicing silent reading for 10 minutes a day. When they started to get wiggly or antsy, I just brought that to their attention and said encouraging things like “Great job – you’ve been reading for 11 minutes. Some of you are starting to lose focus – take a deep breath and refocus and keep reading.” Within three weeks, the class was averaging 20-25 minutes of silent reading with minimal re-focusing.

And those classic novels? They read them like wildfire. Without having to be prompted, the seventh graders were gravitating to the stories and reading them every day. They managed their own chapters and place marks, and although they were not aware of it, I was monitoring that they were reading the same book every day. On average, the students could finish one of the abbreviated novels in about a week or ten days. As they finished one and moved on to another, I even heard some positive comments among the kids, including a girl encouraging a boy to read The Call of the Wild. “It was really good!” she said, not because anyone made her say it but it was her own honest opinion.

Another positive thing I noticed was that several dozen boys who had never shown any interest in library books except the dreaded Guinness Book of World Records devoured Treasure Island. Even after I signaled that it was time to move on to another activity, I noticed 2 fourteen year old boys hunched over the novel, refusing to put it away. They wanted to keep reading. Can’t beat that, can you?

As the year drew to a close and we prepared to take our end of grade tests, I quietly added abbreviated versions of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Jekyll & Hyde to the choices in the back of the room. Our main library in the school was winding down for the year, and everyone was required to turn in all of their library books for final inventory. Those who did not own their own books joined the group of students in picking one of the classics to read. Suddenly, I had a roomful of tweens independently reading and enjoying classic novels.

I made sure that the books were available and did not make a big deal about them. No probing questions, no written work associated with the titles, no group work. I was satisfied to know that 4x a day this classroom was filling up with students with a variety of backgrounds and reading abilities, and those students were purposefully choosing to read a classic novel.

In today’s education environment, the Common Core demands that teachers introduce more complex text and encourage deeper understanding of what they have read – I think that I have successfully planted the seeds for future reading involvement. After all, as I add A Christmas Carol to the library in the back of the room, and ask myself when was the last time I wanted to read Charles Dickens just for enjoyment?

Exactly.

About S.L. Schmitz

S.L. Schmitz lives in Indian Trail, NC with her husband and son. There is an ever-changing menagerie of cats who graciously allow the family to share the house with them. In addition to reading and writing, she enjoys scrapbooking, drinking martinis, and making snarky comments about a variety of topics. Feel free to email her at thedeadgirl25(at)yahoo(dot)com

Posted on May 29, 2013, in About Me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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