The Fragonard painting pictured at left is a favorite of mine. Not just because I love Rococo art, which I do, but also because I love the dignified repose of the young girl as she reads. Who sits and reads like this anymore, blessedly alone, propped up by overstuffed cushions, captured by the pages of a book held aloft? For many of us, reading is an on-the-fly pursuit now, a few precious pages in bed before sleep overcomes us, or a chapter stolen during a lunch period. And what do we read? What does reading mean now? It means staring at a screen as often as turning the smooth paper of a book page. It means ebooks on our Kindles or navigating through digital text snippets on Twitter.
Oh, how lovely she is, this girl, her life so lacking in chaos and complexity that the simple joy of reading enfolds her. No distracting background to speak of here. She's lost in the world of her book.
I want my students to experience that joy, too. And it's hard nowadays, for so many reasons, to keep them engaged in reading. First of all, many of them have the attention span of fruit flies. Second, a lot of kids today don't read much because they're watching, watching a TV or a computer screen. Not much is asked of them when they do this, and passivity has become their activity.
Many schools have institution-wide SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) time. We used to have this time in our middle school: one advisory period a week, the whole middle school engaged in SSR. But it didn't really work as an advisory activity. It's not an activity that's meant for advisory, is it? Other activities often took precedent over SSR during that time- an inter-advisory project, a birthday celebration, a make-up test. We ditched SSR in favor of more flexible advisory time, and I think that was wise. But then, there was no time devoted specifically to independent reading anymore.
I decided that language arts class was the place for SSR. Revolutionary thought, huh? Well, it was pretty progressive here at my school; no one else was doing it! I began devoting 20-25 minutes of class time, one or two times a week to silent, independent reading. At the beginning of the school year, I set it up for the students. The expectation is that each of them will be reading a book independently at all times throughout the year. The SSR book is one of their choosing, and it can be fiction, non-fiction, a graphic novel, a collection of short stories- anything that's NOT the book we're reading for class at the time. I remind them many times at the beginning of the year that SSR is sustained (meaning you don't stop) silent (meaning you don't talk) reading (meaning that's the only activity you're doing at the time).
For the first couple of days, the kids didn't know what to do with themselves when I said it was SSR time. "You're really just giving us time to read on our own?" a particularly perplexed student asked. I told them that they could find a place for themselves anywhere in the room, as long as they were not distracting others. Kids nuzzled themselves into corners. Kids flattened themselves out on the floor. They took off their shoes.
And they read.
I have a pretty good selection of books in my classroom library, and of course, they can always go to the middle school library to check something out. Soon, SSR became time that they looked forward to, that they asked for and enjoyed. And I am convinced that part of what makes SSR so wonderful for them is that there's no reading log involved. They don't have to read a certain amount each week. They just read at their own pace. If they don't like the book they've picked up, they can put it back on the shelf and choose another. If it takes them a whole semester to read one Harry Potter book, that's fine. Many of them tell me that because of their incredibly hectic schedules, they don't have any time to read for pleasure outside of school, and SSR becomes the only fun reading outlet for them.
I am anticipating your questions and doubts. How do you have time in your curriculum to devote to SSR? The answer: I make time. Nothing is more important in a language arts classroom than getting the kids engaged in reading. How do you keep them from talking? The answer: They keep themselves from talking! Well, that's not entirely true; sometimes there's some whispering here or there, but it's easy enough to put an end to that. And your big question: How do you know they're actually reading anything?
This is where literature letters come in. I wish I could recall the text that introduced me to lit letters. It was long ago, that much I remember. Literature letters are friendly letters that the students write to me once or twice a quarter, telling me about their independent reading book. There is a very specific format that the students must adhere to: Download Lit letters. And I grade the letters on a rubric (Download Rubric- lit letters). Yes, the letters do get grades, which means the kids are more invested in the writing. It's really the only time they get to be informal in their writing. In addition to grading them, I write a short comment on every letter, something that connects us through the book they've chosen.
In the final paragraph of the lit letter, I ask students to tell me what I can help them with as far as their reading is concerned. The answer that I receive 90% of the time: Can you give us more SSR time?