We all know that kids need to learn to read to succeed in life. It helps if they love reading. Unfortunately not everyone does. Teachers are constantly trying to come up with ways to encourage their students to read independently, usually at home. For years, reading logs, book reports and quizzes on what they read have been the norm. I was one of those who did all of it. Recently, I have discovered that not only were the kids to not loving reading, but for those who weren’t motivated on their own, these methods actually killed any desire to read on their own.
This year I tried something new. First, I ditched the idea that students had to read books within their own level. If the goal was to get the kids reading, then why did it matter if the book was too easy or too hard for them based on a test they took once? Second, I got rid of the idea of what types of books they read. No more “this month is (insert genre here)” ideas. Students are now reading graphic novels, short stories, picture books, and great novels by their choice. The point is that they are reading! Next I got rid of how long/how much they read each night. No more log meant I had no idea if they were reading for 5 minutes or three hours. I just want them to read. (Comprehension and vocabulary increases throughout the year would prove to me who was reading for longer periods.)
Last, I changed HOW they showed me they have read. “Book reports” now come in the form of Flipgrid videos (and responses to other student’s books!), posters, quizzes (some kids actually LIKE taking these!), tell me about the book (of course I was going to ask a few pointed questions!) or anything else they could think of. The level of student enthusiasm has increased dramatically over books being read. AND more students are reading than in the past where they felt the pressure to earn so many points in so many months. I found that students who were “failing” their reading quizzes were now reading longer books and were able to share about what they read.
Because I teach both a 5th grade class and a 6th grade class this year, I decided to create a competition between the two classes. Here’s the basics. First, read ANY book. Then complete an activity (see above). Create a flower for our bulletin board for every 100 pages you read in the book. For example, any of the Harry Potter books could earn 5-7 flowers for the student and class. Any book less than 100 pages still got 1 flower. Each class would put their flowers on their side of the “Garden” bulletin board. Since flowers had student names and book titles/authors, everyone could see what was being read in both classes and I had a record of the books. (This concept could be done with any interactive bulletin board. I spent WAY too much time this summer trying to think of the best one that would be easiest for the students to create an object for and would create buy-in by the kids.)
At the end of the quarter, flowers on both sides have been counted. The winning class (whichever side had the most flowers) is getting a prize. They get to find out which class gets it on Monday, and it’s going to be a pretty big deal. There were days in the 8 weeks we did the first competition where one of the classes would be way ahead. Since the students hate to lose, the other class would always do more the next few days. When it came down to the last week, suddenly many different students were finishing their books, completing activities and adding new flowers. The winning side came down to the last day.
It really doesn’t matter in the long run which class won the competition. (In my opinion they all did.) What mattered is that once the flowers were counted, the students had read over 12,000 pages! They were reading and enjoying it. Two of the students had taken quizzes and not passed them, one of them getting 0 questions correct. They were both defeated. However, when I explained to them that I was more thrilled that they had read such great books (Harry Potter and Frankenstein) and they were still able to contribute to the class competition, the looks of pure joy on their faces was exactly what teachers want when kids are talking about books. One of the boys decided to do a Flipgrid for the second book he read. The animation and details he was able to bring to his video were something that a quiz could never have measured.
My students are now more engaged and all it took from me was a little creativity and competition for the love of reading.
For the past month, my classes have doing history simulations. The 6th graders have become hunter-gatherers, early farmers and are now creating early civilizations. The 5th graders are learning what it felt like to be explorers in the time of Columbus and Vasco de Gama. I’ve always known that hands-on, real life experiences make the learning more relevant and interesting. What I forgot, though, is how much more fun they can be for everyone.
This week the 6th graders had a competition to start off their new early civilization unit. Each group was given the same directions, but different materials. The goal was to get the students to figure out how to trade for the correct materials, while creating laws, architecture, and a written language. Once a group had all of their materials, they were allowed to get the “secret plans” that would allow them to create their “weapon”, a catapult. Adults in each group stepped out of the action and just observed. The “winning” group made their catapult first. The other groups had to stop what they were doing as soon as any group had it made.
As adults it was very difficult to NOT get involved. We wanted to re-direct, remind them to read the directions more carefully or work better as a team. The reward of us staying out of it was seen in the class discussion afterwards. Teams figured out that the group that read ALL directions and split up into even smaller groups to accomplish their tasks was the only group to even come close to finishing. Many of the students were frustrated by the activity, not because they lost, but because they realized what they had done not so well as a team.
The 5th grade simulation was very exciting! Students were broken up into crewmates and were sailing to the New World from Spain or Portugal. They took their chances with supplies and navigation skills. Some of the ships even encountered diseases. Sadly one ship has already “lost” 4 out of 5 of it’s crew members due to disease. (Those who have lost their lives are now part of the Royal family and help the teacher!) Cheers and groans went around the room regularly as ships discovered their fates. I kind of felt sorry for the teacher next door who was testing her students, but not enough to stop the fun we were having. Students also got bored as they were waiting for others to determine what was happening next. While this is not a good goal normally, it helped to demonstrate what life on a ship would have been back before we had modern technology!
As we continued I noticed that some of the groups were starting to strategize more in deciding which child did what part of the action. This helped since each crewmember had different strengths and weaknesses. I look forward to see how they do with day 3 of our travels west.
Those of you who have read my previous posts know I am a big proponent of staying away from worksheets and textbooks. Using the simulations to learn history made it much more relevant to the class than if they had read a book about the topic or if the teacher did all the work. They are strengthening their communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills while having a LOT of fun. Isn’t this what school should be about? I can’t wait to see where our simulations are going to take them for the rest of the year. I’m also betting the students are going to be just as curious.
20+ year teacher, mother of 2 kids and 2 dogs, wife, lover of all things M&M, interested in tech in the classroom, and changing up my teaching