In the February issue, I wrote about better coordinating our reading and writing programs with the PARCC goal of “career readiness.” I discussed the need for us to encourage “deep reading” of topics, which I defined as reading several genres on the same topic to enrich the knowledge base of that topic. Since then, I have further researched the principles I mentioned hoping to find some nuggets of gold – instructional support I could share in these pages. And, as it most often goes with research, trying to uncover information just led me down a yellow brick road of deep reading topics. Alas, the bad news is that I did not discover any pre-made lesson plans – I believe because the concept is very new – but was encouraged to see that there is ongoing research on the idea of deep reading, with the consensus also appearing to be in favor of helping our students sort through the huge buffet of data in the information age.
At the basic level of my suggestion lies the option of student choice. Incorporating student choice in assignments is a painless way to differentiate for your classes, and goes a long way in boosting motivation and student ownership. Obviously, the level of choice is scaffolded for grade-appropriateness, but research has shown that even at the primary levels, giving students a simple choice between two texts can lead to increased engagement. In my original lesson plan, my classes and I dissected a meaty article from our Scholastic News on whale hunting. We brainstormed topics that could be related to the text, and came up with over a dozen ideas, ranging from the obvious (poaching) to the not so obvious (Antarctica). From there, I guided my students to think carefully about whether they wanted to read more deeply the topic on which they already had some background knowledge, or a topic that was almost completely foreign to them. We also discussed all the different sources of texts they could use, from our district’s online leveled reading subscription to newspapers, historical fiction, biographies and so on. I had insinuated that this type of deep reading is certainly a springboard for the career readiness goals the Core Curriculum has established.
My own research for this month’s column has broadened my horizons even more by leading me to the realization that not only could the students choose singular topics, but, in literature and history, they could choose over-arching themes to read more deeply, such as “heroic stories,” “tragic stories,” “man vs. nature,” “geographic conflicts” or “breaking cultural boundaries.” This method opens up the lesson plan to be a cross-curricular strategy, especially for our high school students. As my students began this venture last week, I smiled smugly to myself when I heard them asking each other on the way to our media center, “What are you reading deeply about?” I was on cloud nine for the rest of the day.
Onward we go to tackle the ever-growing obstacle of information overload that our students experience almost 24/7. I am often the odd man out when discussing this topic with fellow educators. It feels like everyone is jumping on the “app” bandwagon – there’s an app for this and an app for that.
At a recent committee meeting, a new handwriting app was up for discussion – handwriting on an app? “Isn’t that an oxymoron,” I asked. People rolled their eyes and treated me like a young child who just couldn’t understand. They were partially right; I don’t understand why everything needs to be digital. I still lay in bed thinking, “Handwriting? Really?” It turns out I wasn’t just being lazy or old fashioned. Neuroscience has revealed that our brains actually work differently when reading information from a screen versus paper.
Digital reading has been described as “non-linear” reading, meaning our eyes skim, scan and jump all over the page, like consuming a Twitter feed or an Instagram page. Concentrated, deep reading simply isn’t done online. We have to add to our curricula the strategies of sifting through the massive amounts of information, deciding what we really can utilize, then printing that information to read deeply.
We already have added recognizing both “bias” and “reliable sources” through Core Curriculum; now we need to address the elephant in the room: internet searches. I don’t know why we have to try to modify so much of our curricula to make it digital.
Don’t the children have enough screen time outside school? Although we certainly have developed and taught fun and inspiring lessons using digital software and devices, I worry that we strive too much to entertain our students, leading them to believe that if they are not being entertained, the lesson is not worth their time. This worry was realized recently with a boy in my class who has done no independent reading at all this year. He is extremely bright and articulate, and so this glaring lack of interest in literature – any kind of literature – is dismaying. When I asked him to write down why he wasn’t engaging in independent reading of his choice, he wrote almost a page about how boring it was and that he should be spending his time doing other, more important and entertaining things like playing video games. I saved the paper. I think I will use it next time I get an eye-roll at a committee meeting for (gasp!) not jumping immediately on the digital bandwagon.
As a reading teacher, I need to stay true to my philosophy that reading good literature and informative texts really does open new doors. And combining that philosophy with the element of student choice is a win-win situation. We need to immerse ourselves and concentrate to nourish our interests and passions. Deep reading is only one of many ways to reach this goal.