The Clark County Schools District in Las Vegas, Nevada is the 5th largest school district in the country. The district houses 350,000 students in over 350 schools, spread out over nearly 8,000 square miles. It is known for being vast, but it is also notorious for consistently being at the bottom of the United States rankings academically, 49 out of 51 according to the latest statistics. The district is also known for having one of the largest dropout rates and one of the highest pupil-to-teacher ratios in the country.
As educators in Nevada, we are always hearing negative noise about the district where we work. Even though there are some wonderful educators doing fabulous things in the schools within the district, their efforts are often times engulfed by the overwhelming demands upon them to have the district look better statistically. When it’s all about numbers, numbers, numbers, the continued scrutiny and negativity surrounding the district can be exasperating and taxing on an educator—and, furthermore, on the students.
As I reflect on the upcoming 2016-2017 school year, I wonder how this negativity has affected my own 5th grade reading classroom. Students are inundated with information and visual stimulation at a rapid pace, and their stamina for reading lengthy pieces of text needs to be cultivated. But how can I both help them do well academically, and foster a lifelong love for reading while doing so?
I begin to ponder: Have the rigorous demands of the Nevada Academic Content Standards and my extensive evaluation system decimated my learners joy of reading? Instead of creating lifelong readers, have I made reading a chore in an effort to bolster academic statistics?
It’s Not All About SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) Anymore
I was fortunate to have a Summer Reading Camp for three weeks back June, and this gave me an opportunity to try out some new ideas. My main focus was to help my students, who were all English Language Learners, to enjoy reading as much as I do. I started by taking a good look at the books I had available—only to find that my physical classroom library is filled with outdated, “dog-eared” books that are expensive to replace and are a minuscule sampling of the many thousands of books available in the world. My learners needed choices that my physical book collection could not provide, and I need a way to bolster my library and give students more choices.
In order to do this, I tapped into the valuable resources available to educators free online.
Many people feel technology hinders reading, but I was going to try and make technology enhance my learners experience and to help foster reading enjoyment by opening up a world of choices—without running DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) sessions. My students and I were going to have discussions about what they read, but I wasn't going to make it traditional reading assignment.
Instead, I integrated a cyber reflection time where students could blog, create a podcast, make a video, or utilize another medium to express their thoughts about what they read.
Finding Free eBook Platforms for My English Language Learners
Ebook platforms can provide scaffolding that English language learners need, such as audio enhancements and highlighting features that help support the reluctant readers. So, I found a few platforms that worked better than others: Epic!, Capstone Interactive, Lerner Digital, and Teachingbooks.net. Although there are numerous reading resources available online, I chose these based on a few criteria:
- What is free?
- What is available to my learners at school and at home? Most learners have access to a tablet device, iPad, or some other form of smartphone device, but many don't have physical books at home. The idea was to get my students to learn that books are an enjoyable form of entertainment and to do so by giving them choices.
- What offers a wealth of literary resources? Instead of the few hundred books I had available in my classroom, my readers now had over 100,000 books available to them in my summer reading program through these online resources.
Not About the Grade: Challenging Students and Encouraging Reflection
Once I had platforms picked out, it was time to identify some guidelines. The books they chose had to be something they could read and something they wanted to read, but in order to challenge them, I asked that students also had to choose books in the middle range of their reading level. I had one-on-one conferences with each student to discuss their book choices, and to encourage them to challenge and push themselves to have high expectations, yet still enjoy the books they chose. This really wasn't a difficult process because the students were excited by the endless possibilities and freedom of choice.
And there’s another crucial piece to all of this: bringing in reflection as part of the assessment, instead of succumbing to that age-old need for numbers and multiple-choice. We set aside part of our Reading Camp to read, and then we set another part of the time to reflect, where I had students use digital portfolio platform Seesaw to submit their reflection pieces. The reflection pieces were an amazing experience for me as an educator because they allowed me to really empathize with the students and to get a grasp of who my students were as readers. The goal wasn't a grade, but to build the confidence in these learners and to help them understand that reading can be a joy—and not a task.
Overall, we had a very successful reading camp and I know my students will continue reading over the summer. Why? Because I gave them choices, I helped them develop confidence, and I gave them a chance to express themselves in ways no test can measure. Our reading program re-instilled in them a love of reading, guided by technology.
There are a few things I need to tweak for the fall, but I will utilize this type of read-and-reflect process with my incoming 5th graders. And by the way, the kids aren’t the only ones who benefit—I had the chance to read a truly amazing book A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. What a summer.