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Independent Reading: The Meeting of the Minds

Years ago, Steve Allen (the original host of The Tonight Show… yes the show existed before Jimmy Fallon took the reins) hosted and moderated a terrific television show titled Meeting of Minds. Steve resurrected some of the greatest thinkers from different eras to discuss a wide range of ideas and issues. I thought I’d use this format to respond to recent posts on the subject of independent reading in the classroom. I’m sure I’ve managed to set up a few straw men, but here goes…

Steve: The subject of independent reading in the classroom certainly provokes passionate advocates, as well as assorted debunkers.

Plato: Yes, we can’t really see the subject as it is, but we can see it as a reflection of educators’ presuppositions regarding the purpose of education.

Yoda: Right you are. Many are they who assume that teachers should be inculcators of knowledge and skills. Others are they who assume that teachers should be provokers of unfettered thought.

Kerouac: It’s time to get out of your cave and off your planet. It’s the how, not the why that’s important.

Steve: Okay, Jack. Let’s discuss the how. Some teachers assign novels for independent reading; others insist upon free choice of reading materials. Some teachers assign written response and/or assign grades; others do not.

Sartre: Yes, only in the act of freely choosing is one’s humanness truly affirmed. Any procedure designed to produce accountability, such as response journals or grades are counterproductive and coercive.

Tom Cruise: Scientology is the answer.

Plato: Um, okay… We are talking about empty vessels here. Students do not know what they do not know. It is the teacher’s job to manipulate what and how students should read. For example, The Republic stimulates the mind far better than that trashy Twilight or that manga pulp. Most of our students are not philosopher-kings. They will simply stare at pages and live within their dreams, if the teacher does not demand accountability and guide them in their choices.

Dr. Phil: Accountability in class takes time away from exploration. If independent reading is the purpose, what better method is there than free-choice reading itself?

Yoda: Balance is the answer. Of the force, two sides there are. Freedom and responsibility students must learn. Happy and motivated must they be.

Kerouac: It’s the have-to that turns students off to reading. If teachers were really being consistent in their educational philosophies, they would let students choose to read or choose not to read.

Plato: That would be anarchy-mob rule. We need good readers to maintain freedom and democracy. Force-feeding serves a utilitarian purpose. We are a connected community, not individual islands. If students practice reading the classics, they will learn to appreciate their value and be motivated to become life-long readers. Reading has intrinsic worth and attractiveness.

Sartre: Certainly true from the perspective of an English teacher. However, many children and adults are happy without reading.

Tom Cruise: I’m happy without reading. Happiness is Scientology.

Dr. Phil: Happiness is highly overrated. Who has a better life perspective, here—the teacher or the student? Even though most children hate vegetables, they should still eat them. Vegetables are important for future development. Students don’t have to like books to benefit from them. It’s the doing that is important. The present attitudes of children are largely irrelevant in the developmental scheme of things. Most children choose to eat the same vegetables as adults that they were forced to eat as children. Attitudes can and do change; impoverished reading skills rarely do so. Only one in six below-grade-level readers in middle school ever catch up to grade-level reading.

Yoda: Books they don’t like and books they do like, students must read. Very important is teacher judgment, I see.

Sartre: So, less than complete freedom now could produce more freedom later. The more reading skills that are mastered now, even at the expense of student choice, the more options will be available to free-choosing adults.

Steve: What about the issue of teacher modeling? If the teacher spends class time doing independent reading, some would argue that this time commitment teaches students that reading is a priority. Also, some would insist that teachers must read along with their students for proper modeling.

Yoda: A master a servant must have. A model a painter must have. A—

Kerouac: Stop with the direct objects you post-pubescent puppet! Why is conformity so highly prized in our schools? Modeling is overrated. Students will not develop reading skills or learn to love reading because the teacher stops grading papers and reads silently for fifteen minutes a day. There is no causal connection. In fact, rebellious teenagers may be more turned off to reading because they will never identify with some old guy sitting at his desk reading On the Road. Worse yet, some adult reading one of their teenage books… Bob Dylan said, “Don’t follow leaders; watch your parking meters.”

Sartre: And no student would ever think or say, “Ms. Jones, I would really enjoy reading more and realize its true value, if you stopped emailing during SSR.”

Plato: If amount of class time signals educational priorities, why wouldn’t a teacher spend fifteen minutes a day, three times a week, on say morals and ethics? Surely developing kindness and compassion should be equally as important for the good of our society as developing life-long readers. And if teachers must do as the students, to show that they truly value the activity, then why stop at reading along with the students? Should we not study vocabulary when students study vocabulary, do grammar worksheets when students do grammar worksheets, practice our own sentence combining when students do sentence combining, take the standardized test when students are forced to do so, eat a nutritious meal in the cafeteria alongside students?

Tom Cruise: I feel like jumping on your couch, Steve.

Steve: Try to refrain, Tom. I’d like to bring up one more issue for debate: why not read independently at home and save class time for other instructional priorities? After all, students cannot learn how to write an essay at home, but they can read at home.

Tom Cruise: No problem, Steve. I get so excited when Katie lets me out on my own.

Dr. Phil: It seems to me that although students may spend their independent reading time in school just staring at pages, with or without accountability, it is more likely that more students will actually read in school then at home. Countless studies have shown that students, by and large, read very little at home. They are conditioned to read in the school environment. You don’t need Doctor Oz to help you figure that one out.

Sartre: Ah, a logical fallacy. Teachers frequently assume to be true what has not yet been proven to be true. Just because most students do not now read at home, does not mean that they can’t read at home. Those studies that you refer to reflect how things are, not how things could be.

Yoda: Wise you are my philosopher friend. But, all is not light in our homes. Much darkness I see: few books at home, single parents with no time to read to children, illiterate parents, language issues.

Plato: This is especially true with the brass and iron of our state; these students just don’t have the home support that the gold and silver of our state enjoy. Schools have to accept this reality.

Dr. Phil: Yes. The Matthew Effect… Good readers from literate homes tend to become better readers, while poor readers from less literate environments tend to improve less. Teachers want to be released from guilt by blaming illiteracy on parents and the culture.

Yoda: Blame they may be misplacing, I feel.

Sartre: Teachers can become the radical change-agents, not the reinforcers of the status quo. Teachers give up on students and parents too easily. Instead of micro-managing, teachers should be macro-managing. Teachers could be creating literate families. What has happened to Family Literacy Nights? Home visits? Book Give-Aways? Family Reading Incentives? Parent Reading Seminars?

Kerouac: It seems to me that independent reading at home would go further in creating life-long readers than reading that is solely dependent upon teacher control within the class. Since when has dependence ever fostered more independence? If we are, indeed, talking about creating the habit of independent life-long reading, we need to encourage students to read on their own, apart from the teacher’s watchful eyes.

Yoda: Truly. A wise master a servant must become.

Sartre: And the master must become the wise servant. Teachers have an important role in teaching reading skills. Students don’t learn these skills exclusively through independent reading.

Plato: More reading skill instruction in the classroom and required independent reading at home = more reading practice. A perfect tautology.

Yoda: Integral to reading success are both sides of the force.

Tom Cruise: Scientology has all the answers. Trust me on this one.

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  1. Alicia Britt
    August 29th, 2009 at 22:18 | #1

    Students value what we teach them to value. Getting absorbed in your own book all the time is not an effective way to manage a classroom, but modeling with conferencing can be powerful. I teach 8th grade and I seen many students begin to read independently because I was able to help them find something they would actually enjoy reading. Being knowledgeable about what kids are reading is also a form of modeling. I have a large classroom library and I use Shelfari with my students. They look at and comment on what I have read/am reading. They borrow my books and start talking to each other about what books are cool at the moment. If we don’t value reading, and show our students that we value it, they will not.

  2. September 3rd, 2009 at 07:03 | #2

    Funny! Nice way to make some great points.

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