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Love...Lost in Translation

Debbi, ELA Teacher - Clarksville MS

What do you do as an English teacher and lover of books and yet is somebody who has made thousands of students hate books?

Video Transcript

I’ve been teaching sixth grade English for 26 years. In that time, I’ve taught some beautiful young adult books that I love because they make me feel… and make me think.

Obviously I want my students to fall in love with them too.

Sadly, in those 26 years, I’ve made thousands of students hate these books.

Just ask them which novels they enjoyed in sixth grade. They’ll tell you, “None. They all sucked.”

This fact made me absolutely crazy. I blamed my students. I didn’t understand how they could hate all of my novels.

Over the past year, I’ve been trying to figure out why. Why do they hate my novels? It’s made me notice soccer coach dads who raise kids who despise soccer.

And how some music teachers, who love music, have kids quitting music? Why do adults, who try to share their passion, instead end up killing it? How does that love get lost in translation?

Upon reflection, I concluded: It is my fault.

I made my students hate my novels. Did you hear that? I’ve been making my kids hate books. Me, a lover of books, an experienced English teacher.

How have I done this?

Well… I’ve killed the joy of reading because I torture novels.

I’ve stolen my students’ chances to fall in love with novels because I torture their novels instead.

What do I mean by torturing? Let me explain…

In my attempts to make my students understand what they read and engage in it, I had kids write skits and essays, do projects, do reading checks and quizzes, answer questions, maintain reading journals, scavenger hunt for figurative language then explain the figurative language, record vocabulary, analyze everything from character to plot to setting to language.

Honestly… I even forbidden kids to read ahead because I was afraid they’d spoil my future lessons.

I chopped every book into tiny pieces.

Planning every discussion.

Punishing my least motivated readers, by taking points away when they fall behind in reading, forcing kids to fill novels with countless post-its.

Ignoring their complaints of, “Posting is awful, it’s like when I’m watching a show and someone keeps interrupting. It ruins the story.”

I’ve tried to control everything about every novel. That is what I mean by torture.

Here’s a clear example… the audiobook for Out of the Dust, my favorite sixth grade novel, is 2 and half hours long, but it takes me about 3 months to teach it. 3 months!

That’s ridiculous. That’s torture.

I knew I needed to try something new, and I heard about this strategy called Notice and Note.

I don’t have time to explain the strategy here, but TRUST ME… it’s amazing. I’m a true believer because the strategy allows students to develop their own relationships with books, to enjoy getting to know a character and to care about what happens to the character, to wonder how this book connects to their lives. With this strategy books are no longer mine - they belong to my students

Here’s the beauty of the strategy: There are no correct answers to questions about class novels, which is great because right and wrong thinking limits our students. With this new strategy, I am not telling my students where to stop, what to think, or my opinions about the novel. I may be the teacher, but I’m taking the journey with the kids.

After I switched, one student wrote, “In Ms. Holihan’s class I want to read instead of being forced to read.”

Now: Our discussions show my students that I am a reader. My vulnerability with my students allows them to be vulnerable with me. We read the books straight through, only stopping when my students notice something we, as readers, want to talk about.

In these discussions I get to share with them my passion for the literature, my excitement about it, the words, the images, the author’s purpose, craft, and resonance, but our discussions about the text are 100% student-generated.

Students start conversations that lead to deeper literary analysis, they think critically without being told to. Their daring thinking and ownership helps them grow the most.

And the best part?… I’m falling in love with our novels all over again through my students’ eyes.

One student thanked me for “Letting him actually enjoy our last book, instead of repeatedly trapping him into in analyzing a set number of pages.”

Another student said, “I love just reading books in English class. The old way caused me to stress out about books.”

Do you see the difference? I just let books be books. I just let kids read.

I allow the natural process of falling in love to happen. Knowing I can’t force it.

I’m here today to celebrate my new goal – having students fall in love with reading and become lifelong readers.

I’m bringing the joy back to reading.

I hope if you are their parents, or when you come across them as their future teachers, that you too will nurture that love of reading.

I’m proud to report I’ve not just stopped torturing books.

I’ve also stopped torturing my students and myself.

Thank you

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