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Needed: Honest Conversations about Texts

Two former students visited me today to check out books. They met the same question I ask every former student: "What are you reading?" More often than not, students respond with the title of a whole-class novel. I then follow up with "What are you reading for you?" and I'm met with a completely different response. Sometimes students are able to mention a title; other times they aren't.

These students told me today that they didn't even bother reading their whole-class text. And these are avid readers. My jaw dropped. If our college-bound readers, the students who voraciously devour texts, aren't reading the whole-class texts we assign, then who actually is? As a teacher that uses a whole-class text nearly every marking period, I'm not sure I want to know the answer. As a teacher that genuinely cares about his students' reading habits, preferences, and growth, I feel compelled to do more research to find out. Is the text too difficult? Too hard to connect with? Do they see a disconnect with the text and the world around them or their futures?

I know my colleagues work incredibly hard to make these texts accessible and engaging, but there are still some students that aren't engaged in the texts we ask them to read. (Note: I used "we" here intentionally. I will be the first to admit that I "lose" students when reading common texts.) But there's something seriously alarming when even our willing and likely readers are refusing to engage with the texts we assign.

Today also marked the return to our regularly scheduled lessons and classroom routines. I've never seen students so excited for Sacred Reading Time, where they get to read texts that they choose and that matter to them. While I conferred with students, I asked a "struggling reader" about how many books he's read this year compared to prior years. He responded that this year he's read three. All his other years of high school? ZERO. I've spoken to colleagues in different contexts, and they're noticing the same things, too. If even their college-bound students admit to reading few, if any, of the assigned texts, then how can we adapt our role as ELA educators to meet their needs?

The research is abundantly clear that the more kids read, the better they read. The more texts that kids read at their ability level, the more they improve. The more they identify with the texts they read, the more they understand. And the more students read, the better they write, the more empathetic they are, etc.

So if our kids aren't reading, what can we do? The one thing that I know from my practice already is that choice really does trump nearly every other factor when it comes to reading. And if students aren't given choice, I fear that we're losing our struggling and most advanced students.

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