I have been thinking about this topic quite often since this summer. I spent a lot of the summer studying the standards and spending time getting to know them better. At the Learning Forward conference this summer, I attended a session with Timothy Shanahan. His session really helped me to understand the structure in the standards and how this structure really relates to close reading and shows the connection between writing and reading. I know there are some critics out there of his ideas and I can see why because some of what he said could be controversial. However, the essence of what he was saying about text complexity really made sense to me. We need to spend time figuring out what makes text complex so that we can help students learn about those potential roadblocks. We also need to give our students a chance to tackle short passages that are complex so that they learn how to do this.
I don't understand what the problem is with the Common Core State Standards. It seems that there are a lot of people out there that really do not like the standards. Why? Having standards that demand that we set high expectations for our students is not a bad thing. These standards define a course of action for teachers and give us a way to make sure that the students read deeply. I love it that there is a Range of Reading standard that asks us to ensure that students are reading a variety of texts and that there is emphasis on both literary and informational text.
This summer I discovered the Nerdy Book Club and the many amazing educators that are on Twitter and share my same passion for reading. Being a reader, I have read many books about literacy education and I wholeheartedly agree that the Reading Workshop is the best way that I have ever taught reading. I work hard to match readers to books and get every student in my classroom reading and enjoying books. This is no small feat seeing as how I teach 8th graders and they have decided that reading is "uncool" by this time in their lives. It takes patience and quite a bit of stubborn tenacity to win over every student, but every year I get them all. Most become readers and learn to enjoy reading. Some still would choose pretty much anything besides reading to do in their spare time, but they have read at least one book during the time with me that they admit was a good story. Many of my students come into my classroom unable to answer the question that I pose about what the last good book they read was. Many have been fake reading for a few years now and think that they will be able to fake their way through our reading conferences. That is, until they realize that I have read almost all of the books that are in our class library and they aren't going to get away with that. Being able to have conversations with my readers about what they enjoy and what they don't enjoy while reading helps me to get to know the amazing young people that I am working with. I love being able to bring a book into school and put it in front of a student because that is who I was thinking about when I found the book. I love reading workshop and I love teaching kids to love books.
I say all this as a preface to my next thoughts, because I don't want anyone to get the wrong impression. I absolutely want to create independent, thoughtful readers who know what they like to read and I think it is incredibly important to match students to books they can read on their own so they don't become frustrated. However, I do not think there is anything wrong with asking students to stretch and read some things that may be too difficult for them. It is my job as a teacher to make sure that my students move from where they are to where they need to be. If I have students who are reading at a fourth grade level, that is absolutely the level of books I will give them to read independently. But I will also work on texts at the 8th grade level and beyond with them to help them get there. If I never expose these readers to tough text, they will never get a chance to learn how to tackle it. I want to be able to scaffold reading so that my struggling readers can approach it. I want them to be able to feel that sense of accomplishment from reading something that challenges them and getting it. This maybe happens only during my mini-lessons in reading workshop, but it has to happen. I agree that we need to expose students to differing levels of text complexity so that they can learn the strategies we all use to get through texts that challenge us. As an adult, I would so much prefer to read books that are easy and enjoyable, but I also sometimes am confronted by challenging text that is outside of my comfort zone. I can't choose to ignore it and I have developed ways of dealing with that type of text, but I know my students do not have this set of tools in their toolbox. It is my job as their teacher to provide opportunities to fill up their toolbox with all kinds of tools. Are they always going to love the things they are asked to read? Absolutely not, and it is ridiculous to give them that false sense. What we can do for our students is to give them the tools necessary to be able to tackle tough texts without becoming frustrated. If they never encounter difficult texts, how will we do that?
Providing my students with a place in which they can learn to love reading is my first and most important goal. Giving them choices about what they read is important to me as well. But I must also provide my students with experiences that prepare them for the challenging texts they might encounter in their lives. Part of my job as an 8th grade teacher is to prepare my students for success in high school. This means helping them have the tools they need to be able to read complex informational text or to be able to read the required literary text that might not always be their choice.