Can writing about what they read be an “authentic” experience for students in today’s public schools? I believe it can be, but it’s far from common, given the mandated reading and writing curriculum frameworks in New Hampshire and, I’m sure, many other states.

A lot must change in education for literacy learning to be truly authentic. Right now, it’s difficult for me to create frequent opportunities for my students to read and write with true purpose. When I force my students to “do” all that the curriculum commands, I stifle their enjoyment of literacy.

I want to help kids improve as readers and writers and find pleasure in doing so. To me, authentic literacy learning has two goals: to help students develop a passion for reading and writing, and to help them learn to implement the strategies that adult readers and writers utilize for genuine purposes.

Not only do I think students should choose the material they read at school and home, they should also read like writers and learn how to write well about self-selected topics and in their favorite genres. Writing well about what interests them most in their personal lives helps assure they will become be more successful in the world beyond school.

In fact, I believe that all significant pieces of writing should be written for an actual audience. This way students have an extra incentive to write well because people beyond their teachers and parents will read their work. With the massive and constantly growing availability of Web 2.0 tools, students will always have access to an audience. Today people across the world can view students’ creations and help push their thinking forward through commenting. This truly excites me and gives me hope that education can and will improve.

Blogging can help deepen thinking

Since my students have been “allowed” to blog these past few years, they’ve been demonstrating deeper thinking than ever before, as they master the art of writing and commenting on posts. Recently I’ve been trying to figure out how what they write about their fictional reading might become more meaningful. Through our blogging, we’ve “covered” most of the state curriculum requirements for writing about nonfiction. But the state also dictates that my students write about the fiction they read, and I am bound to follow that dictate because my students are tested on the “skill.”

This is my tenth year of teaching. Every year (except for this one) my students have written a response to their reading about twice a month. For my first eight years, my students were assessed with a rubric that was created by a team of teachers whom I deeply respect. My teammates and I revised the rubric every year in attempt to enhance our students’ learning. But there came a point, for me, where even that was not good enough.

The first incident that had me questioning the validity of the reading response involved a high achieving student who successfully composed writing pieces that met all of our “A” requirements — but he never came close to demonstrating the deep thinking of which I knew he was capable. I believe the rubric deflected him from writing brilliant responses. Why bother when the extra thinking and reaching promised nothing more than the highest grade he was already receiving? I compassionately called him out on this and he laughed. We laughed. How could I blame him?!

Another time, I had an uncomfortable parent/teacher conference with parents whom I respect. They were concerned that the reading response assignments were frustrating their daughter because the rubric made writing an onerous chore. They were right. The rubric-driven reading responses were not making her a better reader and writer and thinker; in fact, they were harming her self confidence and making her detest literacy. That was the opposite of my intention.

Last year, I got rid of the rubric

I had my students write blog posts where they reflected on their reading. At the time, it seemed perfect! Instead of assessing each reading response with a rubric, I gave one specific positive comment as well as a suggestion intended to push each student to improve on the next assignment. Not only were my comments visible for all students and parents to read, my students now had access to the best work — models that could help them improve their own responses.

This was evolving fairly well, although I had a parent imply that her child was not working as “hard” as she should because she was not receiving a grade on every response. I explained that I wanted my students to become eager readers and writers rather than write a response solely to get a good grade. (Grades: another topic for another time!)

At the end of the year, my students and I reflected on the reading response blog posts about their fiction reading. We were honest. They did not enjoy writing them, and I did not enjoy reading them. The mandated responses, even without the grades, remained meaningless.

So what’s the answer?

I have thought a lot about this dilemma. I am an avid reader and writer; however, I NEVER write a response about my reading of fictional books. I do talk about fiction with my book club girlfriends (for about fifteen minutes a month). And I often model my deep thinking about what I’m reading to my students during classroom lessons and conferences. But I NEVER write about my fictional reading just for the heck of it.

More importantly, what do students learn from writing about their reading that they cannot learn from talking about it in book-club style? Nothing! I don’t think writing about their reading makes students better readers or writers (unless, perhaps, they plan to become professional book reviewers).

This year I stopped assigning the reading responses altogether. It no longer felt right. I have been respectfully questioned, again, about whether I am preparing my current students as well as my previous students. Some parents truly miss the reading responses. I clarify that my current students are more prepared than before because they truly comprehend what they are reading through asking questions, making connections, creating multi-sensory mind pictures, making inferences, and finding the author’s message.

I can provide evidence that my students are successfully able to write any message clearly, and with great voice, regardless of the topic and genre. My students love to read and write because they choose their own topics and they read and write often. They are constantly reflecting on their literacy goals and creating new ones, thus becoming excellent readers and writers as well as passionate ones who trust the learning process. All of this is so much more meaningful than making them write about their reading which creates resentment. (Read a little more about this idea here.)

But the tension between what others expect and what I can see is working keeps resurfacing. It’s not so much the parents as the state curriculum, which expects that students will write about both their fictional and nonfictional reading. If I don’t find a purposeful way for them to do this, I’m neglecting my job.

A fresh idea: virtual book clubs

Recently Amy Cantone, a fellow PLPeep who also teaches in New Hampshire, solved part of this problem for me. She asked me to combine our fifth grade classes for virtual book clubs. Our students selected a book they wanted to read. Amy and I have created various groups based upon student choices, and each group has selected the pace at which they are going to read their book. We are both modeling this process to our class during reading lessons.

Currently our students are posting their thinking about their fictional reading on Edmodo, a secure social network made for education. Book club members read and push each other’s thinking deeper through their replies, as well as during live Skype sessions. Such powerful documentation!

This is what I think learning should be all about. Through this book club activity, my kids are having “authentic” experiences and learning skills they can apply in their real world. It’s only fair. It’s the best way I’ve found so far to help foster passionate life long learners who think deeply through collaboration — and avoid breaching my professional obligation.

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Rachel Small

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