Keeping Kids Reading During the Age of Remote Learning
Originally published February 2021
By Daniel Rose
It’s a typical Monday morning in November with two minutes until my first period Language Arts class. I take a moment to look around my classroom, turning away from the glowing computer screen that has become the precarious one-way bridge to my eighth-grade readers and writers.
These days the desks are vacant, hallways empty, and sure, it’s easy to feel lonely right now, unappreciated, tired. Sometimes I wish I could hit the “Escape” key and be done with this tidal wave called Pandemic and the mess it has left in its wake. But none of this is about me; my students are all that matter.
It is my job to motivate and mold them, to keep them engaged, to build reading and writing confidence in all who enter my virtual classroom. I will have time, eventually, to process all of this. Until then, no matter how hard, I must carry on.
I stare into the eye of the webcam and take a deep breath. Time to begin.
Inside the (Virtual) Language Arts Classroom
One by one, students chime their way into the classroom. My practicum student, Ms. Bender, enters as well and helps with welcoming the now-familiar faces and profile pictures, reminding them to have their books or e-books ready because this week we are focusing on reading.
As we wait for everyone to sign in, students ad lib in the chat feature of Google Meet and I launch the poll I’d set up before class. Today’s question: How many books have you read (on your own) since the start of the school year?
Students quickly respond and I encourage them to put the title of the best book they’ve read so far, or the book they’re reading now, in the chat. I call out the titles, commenting on ones I have already read and loved, while drawing attention to new ones and books I’ve been meaning to read. I ask one student, Sydney, to please put the link to the Amazon preview for her book—Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones—in the chat so that anyone interested in it can read a sample.
As I’ve done every week since the start of the school year, I encourage students to paste the preview links for any books that catch their attention into their Reading Conversation Journals (RCJ for short). Ms. Bender reminds students where they can get books these days by adding a link to our school’s electronic library, then we turn our attention to a title mentioned by another student. Jade shared Tuck Everlasting as one of the books she read and loved, so I ask her to unmute and tell us about it and why it was special.
After she finishes, I move the conversation along by asking my students to describe their favorite places to read. The chat explodes: the basement swinging chair, in my bed with my dogs lying next to me, on the carpeted floor of my living room with classical music in the background, I read with headphones on because my brother is LOUD!!!, I need a snack nearby lol!
“Mr. Rose?” Someone else has unmuted. It’s Sebastian, who says, “I have a hammock and I read it in all the time!” He posts a picture of a hammock on a beach and captions it, “MY FAVORITE READING SPOT!”
As I respond with an emphatic “Yes!”, Ms. Bender indicates the results of our reading poll have been tabulated. Our class has read a total of 78 books so far! Wow.
Time to Read
Now it’s time for the reading portion of my virtual Language Arts class. Ten, undisturbed minutes of reading from a book of choice. A simple concept in many ways, but profound in many more.
After twenty years of teaching middle-level learners, I have come to the understanding that if we don’t offer them reading time during school hours, they are much less likely to read on their own. Ten minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but it adds up. And ten minutes in class often leads to more minutes after class.
As teachers, we can predict that none of our students will read during that time, assuming a wasted ten minutes where they hide behind their profile pictures and play Among Us or text their friends or grab a bite to eat. Truth be told, all of those things are a real possibility. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer reading time to our students, who so desperately need it.
So, as a class, we read for ten minutes, often with soft music or nature sounds in the background. Today, we decide to put up Sebastian’s beach scene and listen to the ocean.
We read too, Ms. Bender and I. I am reading Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai and Ms. Bender, Love That Dog. Our books are held high and our eyes move back and forth. This is how we model good reading habits.
Say Hello to the Reading Conversation Journal
For the final portion of class, I direct students to begin their response writing in the RCJ. This journal is an informal writing tool used to capture reactions, inquisitions, successes, and failures associated with the universe of selecting and reading a book. There is deliberately less structure and dependence on grading and rubrics, an approach that I believe garners more meaningful and creative response writing.
The RCJ is also a place for readers to talk goal setting, to voice frustrations and disappointments, to shed light on the misconceptions and myths associated with reading. (“You don’t have to finish every book you pick up?!” “You skip boring parts too, Mr. Rose!?”)
The idea for this journal came from the late-night reading sessions I have with my own children. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that the conversations we have as we read together are all at once precious, meaningful, and inspirational. They also offer up many teachable moments: the questions and reactions, the talks of foreshadowing, endings, comparing/contrasting books in a series, etc.
How could I duplicate these real and unrehearsed discussions in my literacy classroom? Enter the online Reading Conversation Journal.
Within the Google Classroom environment, Ms. Bender and I are able to scroll between student journals quickly, offering guidance and tips as we move. The students write until the end of the period, then share their best response lines in the chat. Ms. Bender reads them aloud as we compliment and react to what the students are saying about their reading, their books, their lives.
When first period bell sounds, I wave goodbye and Ms. Bender encourages students to read some more this evening. “Just 10 minutes or so will do so much!”
The faces disappear one at a time until it’s quiet again, a small reprieve between my classes. I take a minute for myself before jumping back into the world I know and love. A brave, new world that always seems to be changing, adapting, and moving at the speed of light—the world of teaching.
Remote teaching is difficult on any given day, but I’ve found the best way to get my students engaged during lessons is to be super engaged myself. I also try to recreate the fast-paced atmosphere of a live class discussion by encouraging students to mainly use the chat, rather than speaking aloud. (I’ve found that muting and unmuting, waiting for lag, and asking students to repeat themselves takes precious time away from the lesson.)
Students will still read if given regular reading opportunities, plenty of book selections, and time to talk about what they have read. To this end, I make sure to show that I’m genuinely interested in their reading choices and habits, not just as students, but as individuals.
Many of my past students have said that Language Arts class helped them rediscover reading as means of meditation and relaxation, or escape and wonderment. And now, at a time when life is especially challenging, students need that escape more than ever. As long as I can help facilitate that, even within the confines of the virtual classroom, my teaching goals are accomplished.
*Student names have been changed.
Dan Rose lives in Oswego, NY where he continues to teach and write with the support of his wife and three children. He has published numerous articles for magazines like Eureka Street, Teachers and Writers, and for NCTE’s Voices from the Middle. Recently, Dan had his first book published with Dr. Christine Walsh: Talking Through Reading and Writing: Online Reading Conversation Journals in the Middle School.