Sharing Control with High School Readers

Captivated by Kwame Alexander's The Crossover

When I talk about independent reading in my classroom, one question that comes up a lot is, “Have you read everything your students are reading?”  The answer is a resounding no.  The follow up always comes: “Then how do you know they’re really reading and understanding their books?”  Since “Oh, I just know” doesn't seem very professional, I decided I needed to write a post about this topic, which of course forces me to really think through the question.

When I was a brand new teacher teaching in a private school in Tampa, I remember wanting desperately to feel like a real teacher.  I wanted the more experienced teachers and administration to take me seriously, like I knew something and was a real adult; I wanted my students to see me as a real teacher, not a fresh-out-of-college kid; and I wanted parents to accept that I did know something about education and that I was teaching their child valuable things.  Most of all, I wanted to feel like a real teacher, so I felt I needed to be the expert, the professional, the one-who-knows.  I had to be a step ahead of the kids, to be able to answer all their questions, to have every lesson planned so thoroughly that nothing was out of my control.  That, after all, is what good teachers do, or so I thought. 

This lasted about two years, and I was exhausted.  Never allowing yourself to be wrong or not know something wears you out.  It also steals the joy of learning along side your students.  Authentic inquiry and conversation disappears when the teacher has to know all the answers. 

So, I gave up both my first job and that mentality.  I left the world of private school teaching, and with it I left the idea that I had to be the authority figure in the classroom.  Armed with less than 50 books, I headed into my first public school teaching job ready to share the power with my students.  Over the next 15 years, that’s exactly what happened.  I built an ever-growing classroom library;  kids chose their books and read, and I learned how to have a classroom where everyone was an expert.  I conferred, asked a lot of questions, read lots of student summaries and reflections on books, and read TONS of books.  I learned to read body language, eye contact, and voice.  My “How’s it going?” question in conferences lead to so much insight.  “Um” is a dead give away (This is not going well!); excited chatter that I have to pry myself away from while the kid is still talking signals genuine passion and understanding.  We also kept a notebook (in various forms over the years) where there were weekly to bi-monthly responses about what kids were reading.  The writing also told me a lot – who was processing their books and how – were they just summarizing at a literal level?  Was there evidence of deeper thinking or passion? 

Then, three years ago when I moved to high school, that old uncertain feeling crept back in.  I MUST BE THE AUTHORITY.  I MUST BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY.  I MUST KNOW EVERYTHING.  Luckily that feeling only hung around for half a year this time before I kicked it to the curb.  Out with the whole class novels, back to trusting that independent reading was best for my students.  I have had to read a lot (and that will never end!) over the past few years.  Luckily, now I can get online and check out websites with overviews when I need to see quickly what a book is about.  But mostly, I just do what I’ve always done – I talk with my students, I listen intently to what they say to me and in their conversations with others, and I read their words in their notebooks. 

The relationships I have with my students is based on trust and allowing myself not to be the expert all the time (yes, I’m still working on that in some areas – see my post about talk!).  They recommend books to me and I recommend books to them.  We work out confusions together (like multiple narratives or the time structure of a novel – like in Gail Giles’ What Happened to Cass McBride) because my students also know it’s ok not to know everything; we’ll learn it together. 

I think the fact that I don’t know all the books the kids are reading has created an environment of true inquiry and authentic learning.  They’re not trying to figure out what I already know about a book, or to guess what I believe is important.  My students are trying to figure out what they know about the book and what they think is important.  Do I nudge them, challenge them, push them?  Yes I do – daily.  But because it’s in a book they’re personally invested in, they take the challenge and run. 

The energy created by me not knowing all the books is real.  It allows kids to step up and be readers, thinkers, and owners of knowledge.  Yes, it’s a risk.  Yes, I must set aside my need to control everything.  But it is so worth it.


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