appropriately challenging

A reading program for the future?


The 21st Century Learning Skills (distilled into 3 key categories)

The whole point of school, I believe, is to wake up students to the treasures and passions they have within themselves.

If this is true, then these “21st Century Learning Skills” are not merely to ensure that our future students find amazing jobs, or make our nation more impressive, or ensure that our children don’t fall behind some international standard, but these progressive learning skills should be in service of our young people becoming more human. We are moving beyond a factory model of education, churning out obedient little widgets, to a student centred, innovative, and connected model that nurtures the inherent potential in young people.

So with this in mind, I want to share with you some thoughts about one way I am trying to cultivate this within my students. This is my attempt at a personalized / progressive Grade 7 reading program:

  • I started the year giving my students a personal reading log, where they can track and record the books that they read.


    One student’s reading log in Grade 7 English

  • My students choose their own books and the only requirements is that they have read at least 5 different genres and 30 books through the whole year.
  • While many students had mini-cardiac attacks when they heard the benchmark, my stance on this is firm: you have to constantly be reading. Big books (over 300 pages) count as 2 books and shorter books are valid. Just read. Read more than you thought was possible. Choose books that you are excited about and you will be shocked at how quickly you will WANT to finish them.
  • While we have different kinds of assessments attached to their reading(writing letters to friends about their reading, book talks, letters to authors) most of this reading is not attached to grades, rubrics, or marks. Separating
    evaluation from reading actually gives some space so they can enjoy the process of reading. There is a time and a place for assessment; when cultivating a passion and a love affair, grades can often have a deterring effect.
  • This approach is largely inspired by Nancie Atwell’s approach to literacy instruction and her personalized workshop instruction.


    Four classes worth of reading logs!


What I have noticed is working:

  • My students are reading. Other teachers are commenting on how they are reading in the hallways, before their classes start, and for the first time, they are going into the library to take out books.
  • My students are challenging themselves. I have a collection of students that are hungry for bigger reading challenges and will willingly take on more adult / mature reads (“To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Bell Jar”, “Prayer For Owen Meany”, “Cats Eye”, “Catcher in the Rye”, “Girl Interrupted”), because there is incentive to do so now.


    A table strewn with books: just a typical reading workshop in Grade 7.

  • My students are developing their tastes. So many of my students don’t know what they like to read, because they have always had teachers tell them what to read. They are actually articulating now what they like to read, which I believe is a step towards these students understanding themselves more as learners and as human beings.
  • My students love coming to class. We start every class with at least 10 minutes of reading to ourselves (and I join in). It’s not a new idea in education, but it is for my students. Our classes are calmer when we begin our session together. It allows my students to transition their thinking to English learning. It gives them a quiet space in a frenetic and chaotic world (many students actually come in early to get more time to read).

 And this is what I am pulling my hair out over: 

  • What is the right balance between “un-evaluated” and “evaluated” reading work?
  • How do I ensure that the students are actually understanding what they are reading? While I diagnose, support, and scaffold comprehension with other activities, it is possible that some of the texts my students are reading (especially the students with IEPs) are going under-appreciated or misunderstood.
  • How do I ensure that the developing readers still feel successful when they are “falling behind” the reading benchmarks?
  • How can I keep my students reading actively outside of school? Other than assigning little homework and giving time in class for some reading, I’m often pulling my hair out with some students who just don’t engage with their reading at home.

What can I do to address these challenges in my program?

Re-reading through those struggles, it actually sounds like more of a challenge that I am having between control and freedom. Allowing for space to ensure that my students can take risks, explore new territories, and yet also be accountable to their own learning is a tricky balance for any classroom. What have you done in your own progressive classrooms that help to nurture this delicate balance?