Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Coming on May 5! Cathi and Michelle will share more materials:)

Free to Read: A Free Voluntary Reading Program at Livermore Falls High School

Many educators are seeing reading scores (as well as writing scores)  decrease as students enter middle and high school.  In a recent ASCD post, research found as students progress through grade levels, nonfiction reading for content area classes dominate their reading time and leave little for their individual reading - fun reading, or practice.  Cathi Howell, librarian at LMFHS worked with the literacy team and classroom teachers to create the Free to Read program.  Cathi and Michelle will be offering a webinar on this topic in May.  Here is the outline of the program.  For more info, contact Cathi at: chowell@rsu36.net.

What does this have to do with writing?  

The reciprocity between reading and writing does not diminish with the age!


  Improving the culture around reading at Livermore Falls High School has been a primary goal of mine since I spent time there as a practicum student working on my bachelor’s degree over ten years ago.  I distinctly remember being asked to ‘read the shelves’ by the media specialist who was there at the time and as I idled away at that mundane job, I was taking in much more than the condition and order of the books on the shelves.  As I observed student activity in the library it occurred to me that students coming to the library did not appear to be engaged in their school work or reading – two primary activities I expected to see students engrossed in at the school library.  After watching quietly on a few different occasions and being a bit reluctant to interfere, I finally asked a group of students who were clearly there simply to avoid study hall and to socialize with their friends, if they had some schoolwork to be doing.  If not, I told them; perhaps they should consider finding something to read – they were in the library after all.  One young man looked at me in disbelief, as he shook his head and stated emphatically “Don’t you know kids at Livermore Falls High School don’t read?”  I have told this story numerous times and thinking back on it now, I never realized then what an impact that student’s comment would have on my professional career goals.  Of course, I knew better than to interpret this student’s comment literally – that no students at LFHS read, but it was obvious to me that what was happening in the library at the time was not working to create a culture of reading in the school.
Over the next few years, I completed my bachelor’s degree in Library and Information Technology, was hired at LFHS as an educational technician in Special Education, and enrolled in the Master of Library Science program at Southern Connecticut State University.  In the meantime, I continued to observe the culture at LFHS. 
After working in Special Education for a year, I was offered the position of assistant to the media specialist in the library.  As I continued working on my master’s degree, I also began working towards implementing programs I had been thinking about that I thought would improve the culture of reading at LFHS.  I started with some simple ideas like contests for students who submitted book reviews, a school-wide reading challenge in connection with Scholastic Books that provided books for children impacted by Hurricane Katrina, and holiday themed activities in the library.  I offered Scholastic Book Orders to students and organized a Read-a-Thon that allowed students to raise funds for an elementary school reading program while reading and eating their lunches in the library.  I knew then that it was critical to get students involved in this process of change and I administered a survey asking students to identify programs and activities they would like to see offered through the library.  Their survey results overwhelming indicated that a Coffeehouse Night was something the student body wanted to try, so in the spring of 2004 we began a new tradition at LFHS and have held Coffeehouse Night each fall since then. 
These initial activities paved the way for a more significant program I had dreamed of trying out, an ongoing book discussion group that would be open to students, faculty members, and community members.   This group would be free for students to participate in.  I hoped to secure funding through grants in order to purchase books that I could give, free of charge to all participants, and to provide refreshments at meetings.  Considering what I had learned about students and activities at LFHS, I thought our best bet at getting this diverse group of participants together would be in the morning before school.  With a small amount of money provided by the principal in the spring of 2006, Bagels & Books was born. 
For the past five years I have also taken students from honors and AP English classes to our elementary school to visit classrooms to talk about their reading history as a way to promote literacy across our district.  The high school students develop presentations that include discussions of their favorite books from childhood and how reading is important in their high school class work.  They read a book or selection out loud for the class they are visiting and coming up with a related activity.  These visits always prove to be as beneficial for the high school students as for the elementary school classes they interact with.  It is an opportunity for these high school students to serve as role models to our younger students and to reaffirm the importance of reading through this activity.
I completed my master’s degree in the spring of 2007 and I was hired as the school library media specialist at LFHS that fall.  By this time, many of these reading and literacy programs were well established.  Over time, I developed a special interest in free reading in secondary schools and my final thesis work was focused on this topic.  As part of my research, I examined the curriculum at LFHS and discovered that only one course included free choice reading in the curriculum, and that was limited to a free choice novel as part of a summer reading requirement for an AP English course.  Even so, by this time I was beginning to notice a change in the culture of reading at LFHS and there were teachers who expressed an interest in a free reading program for our students.  Some English teachers also began building in free choice reading as part of their classroom routines and curriculum over the next few years.  In the spring of 2009, I met with a group of teachers interested in improving our academic advisor program and we discussed the possibility of implementing a free reading program through the Advisor/Advisee program. 
Fast-forward to 2010-2011, a transformative year at Livermore Falls High School.  Changes included a new administration and the support and constrictions of a federal School Improvement Grant.   Working with an incredible group of talented teachers as part of our school’s literacy team, we set two goals for the year as part of our school-wide transformation.  The first goal was to implement a standardized lesson plan format and the second goal was to develop a free reading program. (Sejnost 2009, 20)  Our administration had decided to implement Reading 180 with funds from the SIG, and while we recognized that this was an important program for a select group of students, we felt it was critical to do something that could help all students improve their reading abilities.  With the approval of our administration and literacy consultant and $1500 from the SIG, we started planning.
Based on my past research using resources including Janice Pilgreen’s SSR Handbook, and Ivey and Fisher’s Creating Literacy-Rich Schools for Adolescents, I knew that in order for students to see improvement in their reading, they need to have opportunities to read freely at least 2 to 3 times per week.  I also knew that this must be sacred time, dedicated to free reading on a regular basis and never pushed aside for other meetings and activities.  Finally, I knew that to help students improve their reading skills, we also needed to help them practice having conversations about their reading.  (Marshall 2002, 103)  The literacy team agreed with these three basic premises.
Based on experience, I also felt that it was critical to involve students in the planning of this new program and I decided to create a personal reading interests and habits survey for students.  The survey was designed in Google Documents and I linked it to our library webpage.  I scheduled every English class, from grade 9 to grade 12, including special education classes, to come to the library to take the survey and to participate in a book selection activity using Scholastic Book Club order forms.  As each group came into the library I explained that the literacy team was working on developing a free reading program for all students because we believe, based on research, that the single best thing students can do to improve their reading abilities is to practice reading materials that they choose for themselves – that are right for them and interesting to them.  I also emphasized that we wanted their input on how to set this program up to best suit their needs, to select books for their classrooms based on their interests, and to provide some prizes that were appealing to them.
As we began planning, I met with our literacy team leader to review the literature on free reading programs.  We agreed that it was important to base our program on research based methods and best practices.  We also continued meeting as a team and reviewing our progress as this free reading program began to take shape.  We established a mission statement (see attached) for our program and we began assembling teacher training materials and student folder components.  Student library aides helped process the student book selection forms and I ordered books from Scholastic Book Clubs based on the most popular choices.  Based on survey results, we identified food, movie and book certificates as the most popular student recommendations for incentives and we discussed the protocol for selecting monthly winners in advisor groups.  The more the more the literacy team worked on developing this free reading program, the more our excitement grew.  Likewise, the more I talked with students about implementing a free reading program, the more I realized how excited they were about having this opportunity to read for themselves during their school day.  With a desire to build off this mutual excitement, we decided to plan a school-wide assembly to kick off our free reading program as a celebratory event when we were finally ready to roll.
In the process of planning, we also revisited Scholastic’s Reading Bill of Rights.  The statements that comprise their Reading Bill of Rights are aligned with and support our mission and their online PowerPoint presentation inspired us to create our own version, using pictures of LFHS students to illustrate each statement.  (Scholastic Inc.) This idea blossomed into creating a multimedia presentation for students and staff members that would be used as an introduction to the program, and as part of our kick-off celebration.  As our free reading program continued to take shape – our program’s name began to solidify; we decided to call this program Free to Read. 
As our start date approached, we assembled teacher folders that included a laminated copy of our mission statement to be displayed in each room, a copy of the summary of results from our student reading interests and habits survey, copies of the bookmarks that would be included in student folders, a simple checklist for teachers to monitor student engagement, and a selection of ideas for starting discussions around reading.  (Preddy 2007, 132-133)  We also included blank copies of the teacher monitoring form and the student response to reading form in the back of each teacher folder.  Student folders included a Free to Read bookmark, bookmarks that include tips on finding a book that is interesting to you and tips on knowing when a book is right for you, a copy of the Free to Read mission statement, and reading response forms. 
Critical components of Free to Read:
·      Meets twice a week for 25 minutes each time – school wide
·      Teachers read with students
·      It is not a time for homework
·      Students may read newspapers, magazines, and books
·      Students may choose to read from novels and nonfiction pieces they are reading in class as long as it is their choice to do so, but not from text books
·      Students record their reading in their workbooks and write a short response or prediction based on their reading – causing students to think and write about their reading
·      Teachers and students wrap up each session with a 2 to 3 minute discussion about what people are reading – causing students to make connections between their reading, themselves, their teachers, and their peers
·      Students may not use laptops during Free to Read but they may read from an e-book reader if they have one
·      No grades are assigned for Free to Read
·      Teachers were provided all necessary materials and trained by literacy team members
·      Easy for teachers to monitor student engagement
·      Prizes awarded by random drawing in each advisor group; eligibility for drawing based on two criteria – student must be on task each time and must record what they read and a short response each time
We are in our fifth week of Free to Read and the feedback I have received to date has been overwhelmingly positive.  Teachers have indicated that their students are settling right down to reading; they hate to interrupt their reading at the end of each session; students have been excited about the choices of new books in their Free to Read baskets; and students and teachers alike have already come to relish this quiet time for themselves in the midst of their busy school day.  Observations by administrators, our literacy consultant, and a representative from the Maine Department of Education corroborate that students and teachers are engaged in reading during this time. 
I believe the success of our Free to Read program can be attributed to two things.  First of all, the time was right to implement a free reading program at LFHS.  We had already seen a major shift in the culture around reading with the numerous programs and events implemented through the school library and with English teachers beginning to incorporate more free choice reading in their classes.  Add to this our recent designation as a low performing school and our need to try new ways of helping students improve their reading skills and test scores and the funds available to us through the SIG.  Secondly, the research, planning, student involvement, staff training, general attention to detail, and positive ‘can do’ attitudes of the literacy team members, helped ensure Free to Read’s successful development and implementation.  In particular, the level of student involvement was critical to student engagement in this new program.  Students were surveyed, allowed to help choose books to purchase, identified appealing prizes, helped create the PowerPoint presentation used for implementation by creating voice-over recordings of the Scholastic Reading Bill of Rights, and were featured in numerous photos in our presentation that showed LFHS students engaged in reading activities in our school library. 
Next steps to ensure that Free to Read continues on its path to success include soliciting feedback from faculty members and students and responding to it, monitoring student reading scores and attitudes toward reading over time, and maintaining student involvement in selecting new books, soliciting suggestions for prizes, and creating promotional materials to sustain the program.  Challenges include re-engaging students each year and developing a new kick-off program as well and developing a plan to implement Free to Read at the second campus of our high school program as we move toward consolidation in our new school district, RSU 73 for the fall of 2011.  Additional concerns include maintaining funding to continue to infuse new, student selected books into the program and purchasing necessary support materials and supplies, as well as training and supporting new staff members and those who need assistance with implementing or managing Free to Read time in their classrooms. 
There is nothing more exciting than to witness the calm, quiet, peaceful and productive time that is Free to Read in our school!

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