Sunday, 24 January 2010

"Boys and girls, it's called SILENT Reading!"

So for our very first peek into "a day in the life of a supply teacher" I've decided to stick with something light and fun! We'll get into the dark and dreadful stuff a little later :)

Just this past Friday I was covering a Yr. 6 class at a school that gives me quite a bit of work. In the big scheme of things these are the youngest looking (and acting) Yr.6's I have ever encountered, but don't worry they make up for it in other ways... After lunch is my absolute favourite part of the day - Silent Reading! I pick the students up from the playground all smiles, and as we climb the 6 flights of stairs to their classroom I'm sure my class wonders why I am positively glowing with excitement. Please understand - for 30 full minutes these 28 preteens must sit at their desks and not say a word while I get to read a book... hello? (And if I'm being honest, I usually give them an extra 5 minutes or so to read... because I'm just that nice)

Anyway, there have been a few times when, for whatever reason, I don't have a book in my bag, or I've finished the book I was reading and I'm forced to simply sit and enjoy the 30 minute silence. It's during these rare moments that the observational part of my brain begins to run full steam and I start to have some very bizarre thoughts, I will share some with you now:

Why don't we trust students to choose their own reading material?
I have been in classrooms where the students must choose books during Silent Reading - BOOKS as in novels. No comics or newspapers! No non-fiction books with glossy pictures! No books about football facts or magazines with short funny stories! Don't even think about it kids! And when I'm in full-swing unquestioning teacher mode I say, "Yes! You must learn to read novels even if you HATE them - it just makes sense. If we make the students read them enough they may even grow to appreciate them for goodness' sake. Reading novels = high class society, end of conversation." And as I become even more righteous I may think - "I don't need to give a reason for this. Choose a book children and stop asking silly questions - is this your classroom or mine?" Hmm, I shudder at the thoughts now.. But when I sit back and really watch these students, and I drop the 'know-it-all' teacher act, I see some holes in the plan.

If a student is reading - does it matter what they are reading? Is it more important for us to teach them that novels are somehow the highest form of literature (even though most of the novels available to their age group couldn't stand up to the classics) or would we rather teach them the importance of looking over a selection of reading material and choosing what they would like to read - something important to them. Because, and I know this may come as a shock, in the real world people read what they WANT to read. Gasp! Don't tell the children!

There are different skills associated with being able to read well: skimming and scanning, summarizing and internalizing information, being able to navigate different reading materials, and so on. Yes, there are students who are able to pick up one novel and sit for 30 minutes and read it. I am one of those students - and guess what, if our society had decided that Sports Illustrated must be read for 30 minutes everyday? I would have been one of the students that I see during these periods who opens their book and never flips the page: because they're not reading - because they're bored.

The beauty of supply teaching is that I get to try things out and my classes don't realize it but they are often my little guinea pigs for experiments in my head. Crazy, but I digress. During another Silent Reading session in a different school I did not specify to the students what they had to read. Today's newspaper? Be my guest, and fill me in while you're at it. Guinness Book of World Records? Go for it! And you can probably guess exactly what I discovered while I wandered around the classroom that day. An entire range of skills being used that would not have been present if every student in that room was reading a novel. Students learning how to use a table of contents in a book about sports facts, others navigating non-fiction books about Egyptians or car mechanics - and don't forget the glossy pictures, complete with captions underneath! Do we even consider the complex and highly technical reading style required for comic books? Why do we undervalue these types of media?

One of the other things I've noticed during Silent Reading is actually something about myself. I apparently have a big problem with students who missed out on the word SILENT. In my Yr.6 class on Friday (where the students were allowed to choose their own reading material) two girls had sat down beside each other with a Ripley's Believe It or Not, another group in the corner seemed to be drawn towards a Simpsons comic book like it had its own gravitational pull and yet another group of boys had taken notice of their friend reading a book about football (soccer) facts. Needless to say they could not contain their excitement about the fattest woman in the world/the hilarities of Bart Simpson/who scored the most goals last year - and as this was a day that I HAD remembered to bring my own book, I was really favouring independent reading. "Find your own book boys. If you cannot read your own book I will find you somewhere else to sit. Katie I know that must be exciting but this is SILENT reading - do I have to take the book away?" I had a sudden thought that this must be why we make them all read novels - because nobody is going to say, 'Oh, look at this line in my book isn't it great?' I laughed to myself, but then I stopped laughing.

Are we stifling our students? It's called Silent Reading so that everyone can focus on their books, but if they whisper, why is it blasphemy to allow them to share something amazing, or hilarious, or interesting that they've read with their peers? Isn't this the whole point of the classroom community? I think we often act as though we know the exact moment when learning takes place, but unless I missed a lecture in Teacher's College I'm pretty sure we don't quite have it down yet. So my plan this week is to put a little more trust in the kids. Once again the beauty of supply teaching is this opportunity to purely observe students - without prior knowledge of their grades or their behaviour, I get to just watch them learn. It's a pretty amazing thing, and I'll keep you guys posted :)