“Read a book a week” is the assignment I finally came to for all my literacy and ABE classes. It was Debbie who got me there. I don’t know about you, but when I started teaching, I used the same ways of doing things that my teachers had used. I had watched teachers for 12 years in school, and then for four years at university. Talk about on-the-job training! A year in the Faculty of Education did very little to dull the impressions made by watching teachers teach, year-in, year-out.
So when I began teaching adult literacy, I used a familiar format for “free reading.” I made sure everyone had as much help as they needed to find a book in the classroom library or the college library, gave some time in class for silent reading, and every once in a while asked for a book report.
Debbie showed me the error of my ways. In September, when I took her class to the library to find free reading books, she showed me a copy of Gone with the Wind, a very fat book with a bookmark about a third of the way through it, and asked me if she could read this book from home instead of getting a new library book.
I said of course. Free reading meant she could read any book she chose. I made a mental note to check on her placement. Surely someone who was reading Gone with the Wind didn’t belong in the very basic literacy class!
As I worked with Debbie over the next few days, I discovered that her placement in the basic literacy class was correct. She could not possibly read the book she was carrying around. Yet I got nowhere with gentle conversations about giving up on Gone with the Wind, or finding a new book that would be easier to read. It was her grandmother’s favourite book. She would not admit it was too hard, and refused to move on to another book until she had finished it.
Debbie pointed out that she was complying with the assignment I had given–she had a book, she sat with it open in front of her during class reading time, and if I wanted her to write a report on what she had read so far, or on the movie, she would be glad to.
Debbie was an extreme case, but as I looked around, I saw other students who moved very slowly through their free reading books, picked books that were too hard, didn’t know how to pick books that were comfortable to read (indeed, didn’t believe there were any such books) and dragged them out far too long. Many dropped out of the class before they finished their first book. Many, though, shared Debbie’s reluctance to give up on a book once they had started it–a trait I recognized from my own early reading days. In sum, nobody was much enjoying “free reading.”
I wanted them to enjoy free reading. More than anything in the world, I wanted that. So I changed the assignment.
“Your assignment is to read a book a week,” I said to the next incoming class. Many groans. Shrugging of shoulders. Mutters of “How do you expect us to do that?” and “I never even finished one book yet.”
“Pick a short book,” I said. “Of course, you’re welcome to read a longer book that takes more than a week, and the week you finish it, it can be your book of the week. But in the meantime, your assignment is to finish a book a week, so find a short one to read on the side.”
For students who don’t like to read, and who doubt that any book can be interesting, picking a free reading book is a chore, not a pleasure. They don’t see the point. This assignment gives them some new criteria. Pick one that is easy to read. Get through it. They don’t have to pretend to like it, and if they really pick a short one, the pain doesn’t last very long.
The benefits I saw after I introduced this assignment were many. Students who had never finished a book were able to finish several in a few weeks, which was a big accomplishment. Because of the need to finish it in a week, they picked books well within their comfort zone, and so, sometimes, they enjoyed them. They got used to reading at a comfortable pace.They talked to each other about books, something they rarely did before: “Here, pick this one. It’s not too long, and it’s easy.” And, sometimes: “It’s funny.”
I think of myself. What if I had to read Dostoyevski on my own, all the time (or even once?) and never got to do any “light summer reading”?
Usually my class spent some part of the last afternoon of the week summing up, making sure things were completed and handed in, and noticing the progress made during the week. Often that turned into a time for people to find and finish a book for that week, so in fact, they read a book in an hour or less.
They enjoyed pulling a fast one on me (so they thought) by choosing a book so short and easy that they could read it quickly; they enjoyed the thought of manipulating the assignment to make it easy to do; they enjoyed the accomplishment of finishing a book, and maybe sometimes they even enjoyed reading.
It often takes an extreme case for me to see what’s going on all around me, in less extreme cases. So thank you, Debbie.