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At a Joint District 65/202 School Board Committee meeting on Nov. 15, Committee members expressed concerns about the alignment between District 65’s eighth-grade reading curriculum and Evanston Township High School’s freshman reading curriculum. They focused on whether the complexity of books used in the middle schools is preparing students for the new, more rigorous standards for freshman year at ETHS, where all students read Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens and other challenging authors.

On Dec. 2, the District 65 School Board considered the same issue. See link below.

Susan Schultz, assistant superintendent at District 65, said one way in which District 65 is aligning with ETHS is that the District “dramatically changed” the way in which it is managing independent reading.

 In a group interview, five middle school teachers, two literacy coaches and the District’s literacy coordinator told the RoundTable that significant shifts in the program last year have increased the number and the complexity of books read, engaged students, and motivated them to take responsibility for their own reading.

An Overview

Independent reading is one part, but an important part of the overall reading curriculum, Demetra Disotuar, the District’s literacy coordinator, told the RoundTable. It is “woven together” with the core curriculum, which also includes a writing program that was revamped in 2011-12 and reading lessons that were redesigned in 2012-13. The curriculum is aligned with the common core state standards, she said. 

“One of the things the common core state standards speak to specifically is the volume and depth of reading,” said Ms. Disotuar. “The complexity of the texts needs to be developed incrementally.

“We will never be able to reach those standards if we don’t allow for and encourage and create a format for students to read a lot. One of the ways to get students to read a lot is to engage them in the process. … They choose the books. They articulate what’s interesting to them. … We help them negotiate what’s appropriately challenging.”

For independent reading, time is set aside each day for students to read a book of their own choosing in the classroom. Teachers use that time to meet individually with students and to work with them to set their own reading goals and to nudge them to increase how much they read, to expand the genre of books they read (e.g., fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, classics, contemporary, etc.), and to increase the complexity of the books they read, said Ms. Disotuar. The time is also used to provide one-on-one or small group instruction to students, to reinforce the lessons taught as part of the core instruction.

The model is built on “managed” student choice. 

 “All the research shows that kids need to feel a sense of control in setting goals,” said Elizabeth Fox, a sixth-grade teacher at Nichols. “The more ownership they have, the more likelihood they have of sustaining that engagement and motivation.” Conversely she said, “If we send them home with a book that’s frustrating for them, research shows that sends them backwards and they’ll hate reading.”

Setting Goals

At the beginning of each trimester, teachers meet with each student to set a reading goal.

 Sarah Nichols, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Bessie Rhodes, said, “Typically the plan is the number of books a student plans to read. I also like them to set a secondary goal, like ‘I want to read different genres’ or ‘I want to try to read a classic’ or maybe they haven’t been reading every day so they want to make sure they’re reading every day.”

Students sign the goal. It is sent home to parents, so parents know what they need to do to help their child meet his or her goal, said Ms. Nichols.

The goals typically do not list the books a student will read during the trimester. Instead, students select the books in meetings with their teacher during the time set aside for independent reading. After a student finishes a book, he or she chooses the next one, again in conversations with their teacher. The goals remain flexible.

The Set-Aside Time

Teachers view the time set aside for independent reading as “sacred” or “protected” time, and some seem to view it as a game-changer. While some teachers had students do independent reading in the classroom in prior years, it was not done every day or on a consistent basis.

Elizabeth Fox said the independent reading time provides time for teachers to confer with the kids, sometimes individually and sometimes in small groups. It gives teachers “an opportunity to really get to know them and build relationships with them through the books that they’re reading.”

Simone Larson, a sixth-grade teacher at Haven, says one thing she does during that time is monitor what students are reading, “so I can recommend for them what to read next, and that’s a huge piece I’ve been working on. I try to encourage them to vary their texts. If they’ve been reading Utopian then I suggest they try a historical fiction novel next.”

Ms. Nichols said she asks students what books they are thinking of reading next or what genre of books they have not tried, so she can think about recommending other books that might challenge her students.

The time also allows teachers to help kids, in small groups or individually, to apply all the nitty-gritty analytical skills they are being taught in the class-wide lessons, said Ms. Disotuar. The goal is to help them develop strategic thinking – things they can apply to any book put in front of them – so when they get to complex texts, “they now have a bank of strategies to employ.”

Nancy Lutton, an eighth-grade teacher at King Lab, said the time enables teachers to meet with students in small groups “to really work with them to challenge them at their level, and push them beyond where they are because that way you can reach the really high kid, the really struggling kid and everyone in between.”

Teachers might meet individually with high performing readers once every other week, and struggling readers two or three times a week, said Ms. Disotuar.

The time also allows students to say they are confused about a text and to ask for help, said Daisha Fox, a sixth-grade teacher at Chute.  “A big part is they self-assess whether they are meeting their goal and if not why not. They’re really honest,” she said. The openness and the self-assessment “is a huge change that I’ve seen.”

Another outgrowth is that students are becoming a “community of readers,” said Ms. Larson. She says she hears students tell friends, “I read this great book and I want to talk to you about it, and I want you to read it.”

Ms. Nichols said some students who would normally talk about football are talking with their friends about what they are reading. “Kids are asking their friends what books they’re reading so they can get a recommendation. Or they will tell their teacher they need a new book and say they want to try something different,” she said. “This isn’t something they did in the past, but they’re into it because they have this opportunity and they’re reading in class during independent reading time.”

The reading time also gives students a quiet place to begin reading a new book without distractions, said Ms. Nichols. “When they have 10 to 15 to 20 minutes of independent reading time they can get into it and then there’s motivation to continue reading it later,” she said. “Before, we could say you should be reading more challenging texts, but if they weren’t reading them in class we couldn’t help guide them with the texts.

Upping the Ante

 Sometimes students who started out reading easier texts ask for harder texts because they want to challenge themselves. “It just kind of happens naturally in some cases I’ve seen,” said Ms. Nichols.

Often, though, teachers, encourage or nudge students to increase the number of books or pages they are reading, to expand the genre of books they are reading, and to increase the complexity of the books they are reading.

Ms. Larson said when they do a genre study and list books as “beginner” level, “medium,” or “advanced,” students are often motivated “to go for the advanced.” If she tells a student, “I really want you to try an advanced book this time, nine times out of 10 they will go for it.” But she added, “It’s hard to have that balance between ‘you have to read an advanced book’ and ‘I think an advanced book would be a very good choice for you.’ If you frame it in that way, they’re more likely to go for it than saying you have to do this.”

During the conferences, “you can say ‘it’s not about the number of books, it’s about let’s pick a book that’s really going to challenge you or that you’re really going to get into,’” said Nancy Lutton, an eighth-grade teacher at King Lab. “If they get that guidance to pick something more challenging, they like that you feel they can be challenged, and they read something harder.”

Some of the kids need a little push, said Elizabeth Fox, “but as you set more goals, more frequently, they’re able to set goals on their own. Sometimes they’ll volunteer that their parents want them to read something more challenging, or that they want to read a classic novel or ask for a recommendation. I think that’s a really important part of it because that helps them to support the goal as well.”

A lot of recommendations come from other students. Kristina Utley, reading/language arts coordinator, said, “Kids are discussing all the time what they’re reading, and so it almost becomes part of the community.” They make recommendations to each other. They ask friends to read a book so they can talk about it. Sometimes they see a friend reading book and say, “This looks amazing, I’m going to try it,” said Ms. Utlely. “A lot of times it’s a harder book.”

Students also post reviews about what they are reading on or, and other students post comments. Students use this as a source for new books. Some students create “a someday list,” where they list books they hear about.

Peer recommendations are “a huge tool,” said Ms. Larson. They’re “a huge piece in all of this.”

Measuring Consistency and Progress

Ms. Disotuar said last year 2,100 sixth- seventh- and eighth-graders read 35,000 books in the independent reading program (an average of 16.6 books per student). “It’s not so much about the number. The point is to celebrate the power of choice and the power of engagement,” she said.

“We know that volume of reading impacts student achievement,” said literacy coach Lori Youngblood. “But the volume of reading is not going to happen without engagement. This independent reading has brought the engagement back and this engagement trumps all.”

Ms. Disotuar said teachers collected reflections from students. “Every single child in some shape or form said, ‘I love this,’” she said. Teachers said they received “very positive feedback from parents” at parent teacher conferences.

Teachers also said students in their classes increased the complexity of the books they were reading during the 2012-13 school year. Some of the more advanced readers, they said, were reading “Oliver Twist,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “The Hobbit.”

While the teachers interviewed are positive about the results, there does not appear to be data that measures the increase in text complexity for an entire sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grade class, and it may be difficult to ferret that out. Ms. Disotuar said, on a big picture basis, results on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test and the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) may have to be relied upon to assess growth in reading skills. The School Board is scheduled to consider MAP and ISAT data in January.


Text Complexity, Contemporary Literature

“”We spent time as a middle school group to unpack what it means to evaluate a text for its complexity,”” said Ms. Demetra Disotuar, literacy coordinator for District 65, “”and we’ve done a lot of work trying to understand the three components identified in the Common Core State Standards: 1) the quantitative, such as word frequency and sentence length, often reported as a Lexile score; 2) the qualitative, such as the theme, the levels of meaning, the use of flashbacks, the background knowledge necessary to understand the text; and 3) the student’s knowledge, motivation and interests.

Teachers said a lot of rich literature is being published for middle schoolers and young adults. “”The literature that’s available for our children to read is very different from what maybe all of us grew up with, even 15 years ago,”” said Sarah Nichols, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Bessie Rhodes.

Some young adult books, such as “”The Hunger Games,”” “”Divergent”” or “”The Book Thief,”” are popular among adults as well because they are well-written and contain complex themes, said Kristen Utley, reading/language arts coordinator. The structure of many contemporary books are complex, she said.

“”We do recommend classics when a student is ready for it, and they’re excited about it, but there are more than just the classics,”” said one teacher. “”There’s a lot of contemporary classics too.””

“”Teachers work closely with librarians,”” said Ms. Disotuar. “”They’re blessing the latest stuff, greatest stuff, or maybe they’re resurrecting the tried and true.””