Reading more–is it possible to con students to do it?

by Mr. Sheehy

I am focusing on a few goals in my classroom this year and primary among them is that my students will read more. Every day I  inventory what is working and what is not, and many days I have to turn off that internal voice of criticism, that realist in me that continues to observe how little my students are learning and how much less I provide for them than was provided for me when I was a student.

I am aware that I do not teach AP classes or college prep, but I marvel at all the books I read when I was a junior in high school, and how even with that experience behind me I have never felt “well-read”:

  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • The Crucible
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Tempest
  • Cannery Row (independent but assigned)

I try to encourage myself by remembering that If I really wanted the truth I should contact some of my former classmates–the ones who weren’t in the top 15% of the class’s ranking–and find out how many of those titles they finished. But even then, when I consider what I get through in the American literature classes I teach . . . I am still too self-conscious about it to share online.

I have racked my brain for ways to provide more to students who are motivated and potentially still ambitious. I considered contracting for grades, where I would require students to read a certain number of books a year beyond what we are studying in class in order to earn an A. I have also considered opt-out units where students could essentially skip a unit that the rest of the class is doing and instead read something meatier and longer and receive credit for the novel as a substitute for the other unit. But somehow each of these ideas snagged in one place or another, including that they all create a bit too much work for me.

Instead, I have chosen to head into the land of extra credit, and I’m going to see where it leads me. The way I figure things, if students read an entire book and respond to it intelligently, it’s no big deal if that effort earns so much credit that it jumps them up to a higher grade. After all, it means they’re reading, and isn’t that a biggest part of the curriculum I’m teaching? I have designed a page to describe the opportunity and for my 9th and 10th graders I will leave the option open for the entire year. If they choose to take on the reading of one of these books, then they can get the extra credit. For my juniors I will probably amend the assignment and possible titles to focus on a few of the major American novels. The credit, I should note, is substantial. I am willing to offer students up to an extra 8 or 10% on their grade if they read a novel from the lists provided and respond to it intelligently and insightfully.

The way I see it, negative grades are not motivating many of my students. If I assign reading homework, too many (often a majority) are more willing to take a failing grade than read. The threat of failing obviously is not working, and I am convinced that models that rely on this (for example, assigning reading homework and following it with a reading quiz) are part of the reason why many of our high school students make it through high school claiming they never read a book–they’d rather take the hit on a few grades now and then than push themselves through the experience of reading. Or, worse yet, I suppose, enough of them have chosen this method that teachers provide crutches that help them fake their way through (summarizing the previous night’s reading, for example).

Instead, then, I am attempting to use the hope of an A, or perhaps the hope of a full grade promotion (like a C to a B) to ignite interest in reading. Hopefully I will not spark a revival of cheating, (I am counting on my own street-smarts to block much of that), but we’ll see how it goes. Whichever way, I suppose, the thing at risk here is a grade, and I figure I might as well see if I can use that to my advantage for once.

Thanks for reading.