Should I read with my students during independent reading or not?
You've committed to the idea that students need choice in books they read. You're growing classroom library. You've carved out a chunk of reading time each day for students. The only question you're struggling with is what to do with yourself during this time. Do you model what readers do by taking out your own independent book and reading with the kids? Or do you grab your notes and head out to confer?
Before you take advice from others, step back and define your own purpose for having independent reading time in your class. The choices we make in our classrooms for our students are important and should not be made just because we read someone's book or were persuaded by a compelling presentation at a conference. Our choices must directly relate to the students we teach and the learning we have designed. This ownership allows us to answer the question of what we should be doing while our kids read.
So, what’s my answer? Do I read with kids or not? The clear answer is sometimes no and sometimes yes. Here’s a closer look:
There are times during independent reading when it is not in my students’ best interest for me to read with them. They have needs bigger than just having independent read-alone time. Here are some reasons I don’t read with my kids:
· Fake readers: It is my job to get everyone reading, so especially at the beginning of the year, after breaks and when we get new students, I help students learn how to choose books, how to get into books, how to stay in books, where to sit, and other important factors. Sometimes this is a quick process; sometimes it takes small check-ins quite over a long period of time to get all students reading.
· Coaching: Sometimes my job is to be an active, hands-on coach, especially when we’re learning something new. I sit with kids and talk about what’s going on with them while they are reading and give suggestions to help them become stronger readers. This requires me to interrupt their reading time in a meaningful way that helps them grow as a reader.
· Kid Needs: This is a wide-range of things from confusions that kids need help sorting out, to a book that’s not working, to a question that needs answering. It’s a good sign that my kids trust me and let me know that they need help instead of going to sleep, getting their phones out, or talking to others. Especially with kids who lack confidence and those don’t see themselves as readers yet, I must build their trust that I will help them and that I believe in them. This helps them relax and start becoming readers faster. Other kids are on a mission to be off-task, and I must thwart their efforts. I must create a culture where everyone reads, and that means I must be aware of anything that's getting in the way. Kid needs is an area that must gradually diminish if we want students to become authentic readers.
There are also times that I consciously choose to read with my kids. These are times when the best coaching I can do is to shut up, grab my book, sit down and read (or look like I’m reading – teacher faking is an amazing skill). Here are some reasons I choose to read with kids:
· Quiet: Often my goal for independent reading time is to get kids into what Nancie Atwell calls the reading zone, “the place readers went when they left our classroom behind and lived vicariously in their books” (The Reading Zone, 21). To get to this level of engagement, kids cannot be interrupted by me or by others. It must be quiet. Dead quiet. Me tiptoeing around the room, whispering to kids is too much. We all need to enter the zone. My placement is always strategic. I sit next to whoever needs me most. Rarely do I get to fully enter the zone like I want kids to do. My teacher radar is on and I often move around to various locations in the room.
· Trust & Boundaries: Eventually in our classroom I want students to answer their own questions and fix their own problems with their books. Michael needs to stop asking me questions every three minutes and trust himself. Tracy needs to learn how to hang with a book through dry stretches and see if it gets better. Imani needs to tuck a few tissues in her pocket. They need to read. My annoyed look from behind reading glasses perched on my nose says, “Not now. This book is too good for you to bother me now.” From this, kids learn that they too can set boundaries. I have been told more than once, “Go away. I can’t talk to you right now.” Others might think this is rude, but I don’t. These students are learning to value reading more than talking, and that I will always respect.
· Modeling: A tiny part of my modeling is a human ignoring all distractions around them and staying in a book. My bigger modeling happens with the real, emotional stuff that comes up while reading. Students need to see the emotional impact reading can have on people. I discovered this by accident when I cried in front of the kids one day. Big surprise: a dog died in a book (I know, shocking, right?). This made me cry. I held it together with a tissue and some deep breaths, but the kids saw it. I got looks of concern and a lot of quizzical expressions. “You really cried from a book?” Yousef asked me. “For real?” So, I explained that this happened a lot to me. Because I enter my books deeply, I feel attached to characters, and I feel real loss when something bad happens. Kids began sharing emotional experiences after this, so I made it a regular part of what I do. Another time, I sat down to read with about 5 minutes left on the timer and almost finished my book. I marched to the front of the room and exclaimed, “I’m sorry. We cannot end reading time right now. I have two pages left, and I just can’t stop here.” Heads nodded in agreement as I set two more minutes on the timer. They had been there. This modeling let students know that it’s OK for them to do this too. Reading is central in my room and if I want us all to live that, I must model real emotional reactions to kids who have no idea that readers do these things.
· Community Building: There have been times in my classroom – snowy days, rainy days, after the kids have completed a big project, or on a beautiful spring day that is too perfect to stay inside – when we all just need to read. We grab our books, find a comfy spot and dive into the worlds between the pages. These days are few and far between, and typically occur well into the school year when our classroom reading is valued by enough kids that it’s a real thing. I want us to live as readers together, to be people who can sit quietly, happily enjoying our books.
In Reading in the Wild, Donalyn Miller says, “A reading workshop classroom provides a temporary scaffold, but eventually students must have the self-efficacy and the tools they need to go it alone” (xviii). Those times when I choose to pull out my own book are times when I need kids to go it alone. They need to know that they can read books without a teacher hovering over them making them do it. And once they know they can, we have a chance that they will choose to read independently long after they walk out our doors.
The biggest thing to remember is that if you are providing students time and books to read, you are doing so much right. Beyond that, being responsive to what your students need more – your support or the chance to be independent – is the best thing you can do during independent reading time.