How to Engage Student Readers – Make Memories and Magic

Ever since I can remember, I have loved to read and effortlessly created entire worlds in my head filled with characters and settings.  I was able to hook myself into reading.  I remember thinking in fifth grade, while reading My Side of the Mountain, that the life outdoors as described in the book was so enchanting that I just had to experience it for myself.  It wasn’t long before I was traipsing through the woods in back of our house with my dad’s hammer, a blanket, some string, and a few snacks.  I love that fifth grade self – so full of spirit and determination, but somewhere along the way I lost my enthusiasm for school-assigned texts.  I would spend whole weekends reading for pleasure, conducting research, engaging in comparative analysis of texts, but when it came time to read Romeo and Juliet or The Scarlet Letter, I skimmed through and sometimes (gasp) didn’t even do the reading homework.

In retrospect, this leads me to an important realization about the readers in my classroom, many of whom respond to survey questions stating that they “didn’t read” the assigned texts completely or “didn’t enjoy” them.  I have to figure out what will fill the gap, and I think that we, as teachers, need to help students discover what is “magical” and “memorable” about school assigned texts.  I owe this tip to Ron Clark and his book that I’ve been listening to called The End of Molasses Classes.  

I have to get beyond the perfunctory day or two that I dedicate to “pre-reading.”  For example, students in my sophomore class always LOVE a pre-reading activity which asks them to rate societal norms, behaviors, and rituals as “civil” or “savage.”  They debate, engage, and want to spend more than one day discussing.  But when it comes time to start reading Lord of the Flies, they get lost in Golding’s rich descriptions and symbolism.  They don’t find it interesting or relevant, and in an effort to help students understand the book and all of its rich meanings, and introduce the skill of “close reading,” students end up hating it.  The magic dies if not continued and fueled throughout the reading of the novel.  Also, teachers can kill magic by over-analyzing a text and getting too caught up in assessing students in order to meet standards, get done “in time,” and provide grades.

So, this year, my goal is to create memories and magic for students throughout the reading of The Power of One.  

I have a few ideas:

  1. Students love music.  They could compile a playlist of motivational and “powerful” songs that we can use to create energy during transition times.
  2. Students love food.  Students could snack on suckers, sandwiches, and strawberry milkshakes like Peekay as we read about his time with Hoppie and introduction to the “equalizers.”
  3. Students could research a modern day or historical person and his/her “power of one.”  Then, I will stage an “award” ceremony to which students will arrive in character as their person and give a brief speech.
  4. Students could create their own “power of one” experiment to see the influence that one word, action, thought, change, message, etc. has on them and others.
  5. Students could create an “aphorism” narrative and share how one of their own life experiences illustrates one of Peekay’s life lessons.
  6. Students could create a “life map” of people who have made a difference in their lives.
  7. To introduce the book, students could work in groups to figure out what a collection of items in a bag has to do with the message of the book:  head, heart, gloves, moon and stars, letters, angel, picture of a young boy on a rock, chicken, aloe, blood, Bible, handcuffs, etc.
  8. Students could be invited to “go on a walk” like Doc and take meaningful pictures of what they see.

I’m still brainstorming.  I don’t feel like I spend enough time creating memories and magic for students that can connect to the texts we’re reading.  It is my hypothesis and my hope that Ron Clark was right when he said that the “magic” has to come back to readers. Then, and only then, will everything else (assessment, engagement, learning, etc.) fall into place.

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