Written by Hannah Laub, AmeriCorps member serving on the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation Team at Kenilworth Science and Technology School
Since joining City Year, I’ve come to admire my 8th grade students for their aptitude in a skill I could not perfect until college. Although not necessarily a resume-booster, this skill is nonetheless critical for almost all employed adults who want to remain sane throughout the workday. This skill is commonly known as “looking-like-you’re-doing-something-when-you-really-aren’t-because-you-just-don’t-want-to-do-it.” And if you came to DEAR, the 20 minutes a day when students are expected to silently read, you would see just how good my 8th graders are at it.
“Drop Everything And Read” (DEAR) takes place during the first 20 minutes of school at Kenilworth Science and Technology. During this time, students are expected to silently read a book of their choice. In theory, the program generates excitement about reading, as students are able to pick their own books, and have opportunities for rewards if they read consistently throughout the year. Although many of the students do love reading and take advantage of DEAR, many others are not intrinsically motivated to read, and thus spend DEAR sleeping, spacing out, goofing off, or doing pretty much anything to avoid the book in front of them.
Working in an English class, I’ve picked up on a few obstacles students face in reading. Although students are able to pick their own books for DEAR, many of them do not take the initiative to find a book that genuinely interests them, and end up pretending to read a book that they do not care about. This disinterest partially comes from a lack of confidence many students have in their ability to read; although I have heard all of my students read, and I know they are able to work their way through challenging texts, it is still clear many of them do not believe the same in themselves. Unfortunately, some students will project this discomfort with reading on others. Often times when student is called upon to read to the class, another will joke, “He doesn’t even know how to read!” Although usually these comments are jokes between friends, it contributes to the general negative attitudes many students have toward reading. This discomfort and disinterest in reading, compounded with the distracting environment of 30 8th graders in one room, results in a relatively unproductive DEAR most days.
To combat this, my City Year team has come up with a program called Socrates’ Coffeehouse. During DEAR, each AmeriCorps member takes three students out of the classroom, and they all go to a special location to read together. I take three students to the gymnasium, and together we sit in a small circle on the stage. Each of us takes turns reading, alternating page-by-page. The students are all at different reading levels, but they use these differences to their advantage; the most proficient reader gains leadership experience by respectfully helping her peers when they do not know how to pronounce words, simultaneously giving her peers an opportunity to expand their vocabularies. In this small group setting, students are actually excited to come and read, and greet me each morning with big smiles as I come pull them out of class. Then, once a month, all of the students come together to participate in a self-led discussion about the book. This allows them to go beyond simply bubbling in multiple-choice answers, or raising their hands when a teacher asks a question. During these discussions, students become more prepared for high school, as they have to comprehend their peers’ ideas, and construct their own opinion in response. As idealists we hope that they will become more intrinsically motivated to read, and that this new positivity can spread to other minds as well.