What should you do when your class of sophomores tells you they HATE reading? Read on to find out!

I have always been a huge fan of Nancie Atwell’s, and I was delighted when she was awarded the Varkey Global Teacher Prize.  In Nancie’s school, The Center for Teaching and Learning in Maine, students in the 7th and 8th grade read an average of forty books each year. The school makes time for students to read on their own, and engage – as it states on the school’s website – “in the single activity that consistently correlates with high levels of performance on standardized tests of reading ability. That is frequent, voluminous, self-selected reading. A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t as flashy or marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone ever became a reader.”

I agree whole-heartedly with Nancie’s approach, and this year I really wanted to increase the number of books that my students read in class and on their own. I was teaching a sophomore college prep class, and the students continually told me they did not read and – worse – that they hated reading. It became my mission to change that.

I researched the best young adult literature for high school students, and I began creating DonorsChoose projects to get books for my classroom. I started with tried and true high-interest selections like Recovery Road, Eleanor and Park, and Speak. Teens have always enjoyed these books, which explore important and relevant issues in an authentic and realistic way.

I faced a huge problem, however, engaging some of my boys, who did not find my book selection particularly compelling. So I asked them what kinds of books they wanted to read. They told me they liked reading about sports and about survival. So after a great deal of internet exploration and conversations with older male students, who made excellent recommendations, I filled my shelves with books like Tears of a Tiger, The Cay, Heart of a Champion, Payback, Gym Candy, and Night Hoops. It worked. Few things in my career have been as rewarding as having a bunch of boys run into my classroom, desperate to discuss the book they are reading.

I’m happy to report that this year my students read six extra books in addition to those already on the sophomore curriculum list. Every student read, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, Michael Patrick MacDonald‘s memoir of life in South Boston – the neighborhood which had the highest concentration of white poverty in America. My students could relate to the issues the book discussed, including violence, drugs, and crime. They learned about busing in a way that no history book could ever teach them. After the students finished reading, many of their parents asked to read the book, too.

As a special treat for my students, I did a DonorChoose project that brought Michael Patrick MacDonald right into our classroom. My students were thrilled to meet the author of the book they had connected to, and they barraged Michael with questions. In their thank you letters to DonorsChoose donors, my students articulated what the experience meant to them. One student wrote: “Michael Patrick MacDonald never conformed to the “norm” in his society, which meant drugs and violence. He taught me a great deal about the history of Boston, but he also taught me to be my own person.”

My students also read A Doll’s House, a play, which many of them found extremely useful when answering the Long Composition question on our state test. They also read, Fences, another play, which resulted in some of the best classroom discussions we had the entire year. Reading plays in class definitely helped my students become better and more discerning readers.

Most importantly, at the end of the year, I discovered that my students’ attitudes towards reading had changed. Several told me: “You turned me into a reader!” Others bragged to their friends about all the books we read. But perhaps the best evidence that I had achieved my goal came when the students began asking me to give them books they could read over the summer. I knew then and there that my students had become lifelong readers.

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