Under-Rated Teaching Strategy: Read Next To Them!

It was fifth period, sometime last week (it’s late May), and students should have been reading quietly.  Generally, I would be using this time to have conversations with individual students about their reading, check over their reading notes and give some quick feedback, or read aloud with a small group.  But on that day, I hadn’t gotten into a groove with any of this. That was because at one table, a group of students had gotten themselves into their own groove of striking up a conversation every time I didn’t have my eyes on them.  They did so quietly–sneakily, I dare say–but still noticeably.  I spoke to them about it, and they nodded, not putting up any fuss; but when I moved away, they were at it again! They stopped when I looked at them. Then, a different table started up a quiet chat of their own.

Hmmm… I now gave them a look, and they stopped, but I was sure that at any moment, someone would start whispering again, especially if I moved away from them. It felt kind of like a game of cat and mouse. The issue was not so much about compliance, nor was there a struggle to access the text (knowing these students), but one of non-commitment to reading. 

In retrospect, I might have told the handful of students to go take a minute in the hallway, get their chatter out, and come back ready to read.  (There are usually several avenues available with middle school students and behavior. Anything that either makes sense, takes them by surprise, or both, could be a winning strategy.)

At that point, I felt strongly that I was done talking about the matter, done reminding and cajoling, done enabling, and I had no interest in escalating the situation, which would have created an opportunity for the entire class to veer off course.

Instead, I did something that felt, actually, more drastic. I quietly pulled a chair up near to the table of chatterers (though not “in their space”), took out my book and started reading right along with them. I didn’t speak or look around to see what everyone else was doing. I demonstrated what I expected them to do, and I sent a message about what was most important. It worked almost instantly. The chatter was done, everyone was reading, and no one lost face.  

I didn’t make up this strategy. It’s a well known good practice for teachers of reading. Some schools even have special periods during the day for whole-school silent reading, and all adults join in.  Recently, though, I had quite forgotten about using this in my classroom.  I started trying it out in different classes, especially at moments when I felt myself getting into a conversation with a student about “not reading” behavior that didn;t feel productive. It changed the tone of the classroom, especially for specific students. Of course, this is just one of many ways to guide students to read, but I was happy to rediscover it.

Today, I spent the day at a conference on Middle School Literacy at Teacher’s College, home of The Reading and Writing Project.  I smiled when Mary Ehrenworth said in a session about Creating a School-wide Culture of Literacy, “One of the best lessons a teacher can ever bring to students–though it shouldn’t be done often–is the one where you come in and tell the students that you’re ten pages away from finishing an awesome book, and the lesson will have to wait. You need the next ten minutes to read, and you hope they understand. Everyone take out your books.” 

Later, it occured to me that the way many teachers are being observed and evaluated lately might preclude a snap decision like this. In a session about aligning the workshop model with the Danielson Framework, which NYC is using for observing and evaluating teachers, I asked facilitator, Cornelius Minor, what he thought about that. He said if he observed a teacher making a move like that, he would just ask the teacher later to “put me in your mind when you made that decision.” He would be looking to see if the teacher made the choice in the interest of the students or because it felt more comfortable than what had otherwise been in the plan. I thought that was a fair and interesting response.

What do you think? Do you have the freedom to make a spontaneous decisions in your teaching, or are you dstringly discouraged from departing from your lesson plan? Is reading beside your students an accepted practice in your building? Is writing or solving math equations beside students equally as powerful? 



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  • ScottEDiamond

    Joining in adds autheticity

    Great story, Ariel!

    “Joining in” is applicable in all content areas (as is reading, of course). It adds authenticity to any activity.


  • ScottEDiamond

    Under-rated leading strategy: empower not control


    I had a second thought when reading your post.

    Like you, I am fortunate to have the freedom in my current job to “to make a spontaneous decision.” I was trusted and valued as a professional to make autonomous decisions during all of my scientific training: undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and then as a professor.

    Sad that many (if not most) teachers are not accorded that level of professional regard. I certainly was not in my first two teaching positions!

    Most of my previous administrators practiced management through intimidation and control rather than management through empowerment and respect.

    It is revealing that  the facilitator in NYC felt that you should ” “put [him] in your mind when you made that decision (emphasisi mine).” Not the kids, mind you, but him.

  • Jill Barnes

    Lesson Plan

    Thank goodness I am the master of my own ship and can make any and all decisions regarding lessons and decisions to keep, change, or throw out. Honestly in today’s atmosphere of education if I did not have this “power” of doing what is in the best interest of student learning I would have a hard time staying in the classroom. We have to be given free reign to make lesson decisions as we are the ones with these kids every day right? Thanks for the great reminder of reading with kids as I often use this as a tool to keep my middle school kids focused–which yes can be challenging with this age group.

  • ArielSacks

    Masters of our own ships

    Scott & Jill, I totally agree. I could not teach if I didn’t have professional autonomy in my classroom. It’s amazing how many teachers are stuck where they don’t, and how easily unsound policies can chip away at teachers’ autonomy.  I was inspired to create a slide. Posting it in a new post.