Monday, October 29, 2018

Reviving Reading: 2018 MCTE and Penny Kittle

Reviving Reading: 2018 MCTE and Penny Kittle
by Angela Hase
October 29, 2018

I am sitting at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, Minnesota, listening to Penny Kittle talk about reading. It is beautiful here. The trees are auburn, gold, scarlet; there are so many of them. And so many pumpkins. They line the roads, form intricate designs and patterns, pile on top of each other to build towers. I can see now why pumpkins exist. It is not to spice our lattes, but to create a fall fairytale in Minnesota. They will live here, the pumpkins, intricately displayed, until they die. A beautiful death if ever there ever was one.

The Slow Death
Penny Kittle is also talking about death: the death of reading. Kittle tells the story of a kindergartener she met, years ago, while she was coaching a kindergarten teacher. The student was so excited to share a story she wrote about a brown dog. Kittle shows us a picture of a little girl,
beaming into the camera and displaying her story with its very own hand-drawn, brown dog adorning the top of the page. Fast forward 12 years to Kittle’s senior English class, and the little girl, all grown up, walks in. Kittle shows us a picture of the same girl, now 17. The first thing she says to Kittle is “I don’t read and I’m not good at writing.”

There it was, in her smirk, smiling boldly into the camera: the death of reading. Reading dies slowly, over years, with the cut of a number two pencil on a worksheet, in the suffocation at the beginning of a classic because it is too difficult to decode, in the slicing up of a good book into yet another task.

It’s an ugly, bloodletting death.
Kittle argues that it doesn’t have to be this way, that we can save reading. And it’s not just possible, it’s imperative. Right now, students who go on to college aren’t prepared for it. Nationally, roughly 46 percent of students who started in any type of college or university in Fall 2010 dropped out or didn’t finish their degree within six years (National Student Clearinghouse, 2017). Almost half of our young people are failing at a higher education.

We must revive reading.

Revive Reading through Engagement
Kittle urges teachers to start with passion. Helping students have a passion for reading isn’t about points and grades; we can’t police them into it. Instead, we must invite them to read by starting where our students are when they enter our classrooms. Sometimes that means starting from nothing. It means starting with those students who come in our rooms, arms crossed, hood up, insisting that they just don’t read. The I’m not reading, and you can’t make me types.

Kittle says she breaks down this resistance with her passion for books. Admittedly, she has read hundreds, if not thousands, of young adult books. But honestly, if we want our students, especially our struggling readers, to invest in reading, we have to read, too. We have to read young adult books, all kinds of them, in high quantities, even the ones that don’t interest us. We have to build our own passion to be able to pass it on and to be able to start conversations with resistant readers.

Kittle also lives by the mantra that there is a book for every reader. If the student isn’t reading, then the book is wrong. Not the kid. Let students abandon books.

The trick is helping them find books they don’t want to abandon. In order to do that, we must be thoughtful about the books we put into the hands of our students. The book has to engage the student through character. Kittle points out that the difference between kids who read and kids who don’t is the protagonist. Kids want a protagonist that is two years old than they are. This is especially true for boys.

Besides character, students need to be able to read the book independently, “In order to read fluently, all readers need text that they can read with a high degree of accuracy and automaticity. When readers are provided with texts that are too difficult, fluent reading is impossible” (Allington, 2009).

Once students find a book that is both engaging and readable, we have to let them read. Read without teacher made worksheets and quizzes. Read without high-stakes assessments. This doesn’t mean no accountability. It means accountability through conferences, through low-stakes writing prompts that help students think more deeply, through self-chosen tracking systems, through peer discussion, through book talks.

Let Reading Breathe
The bottom line for Kittle is this: we need to work on increasing joy, increasing complexity in books, and developing allegiances to authors and genres. We do that with engagement: engagement through character, through independence, through choice.

It’s time to revive reading and it starts with us.

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