Can A College Classroom Be a Reading Zone?

I’m reading Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone, and it’s inspiring my pants off, but I’m feeling very frustrated.

In this book, Atwell describes her middle-school English classes, where students spend a majority of their class time just reading books they have selected from her library, and then recommending those books to one another and discussing/writing about their reading experiences.  The underlying premises are that “the single activity that consistently correlates with high levels of performance on standardized tests of reading ability…is frequent, voluminous reading,” that “children who choose books are more likely to grow up to become adults who read books,” and that “no child ever grew to be a skilled, passionate, habitual, critical reader via a fat, bland textbook.”  If children are given the opportunity, support, and motivation to read for pleasure, Atwell insists, reading skills – and academic success – will follow.

To me, this seems intuitively to be true, and I’m hoping to find more research that shows it empirically to be true.  But I have a problem.

Most of my students went through primary and secondary school without being in Nancie Atwell’s “reading zone” workshops, and without receiving any other opportunities to become “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers.”  And I’m wondering if it’s too late for them, or if there’s anything I can do to help.

I have fantasies of proposing a research project to my college in which they give me a classroom (my own classroom!), money to start building a library (a library full of inviting, exciting books!) and permission to run some remedial intro courses as “reading zone” workshops.  There are all sorts of reasons such a project will never be approved: there are no free spaces where I can set up a “library classroom,” there are “competencies” to be met in 101 courses that can’t be covered by students sitting around reading, and there is no money for books.

But maybe there’s a way for me to start introducing some of these principles into my courses.

For example, I’m revising my Personal Narrative course for the fall, and I’m trying to set it up as a kind of “book club.”  We’ll all look at one memoir together – I’m thinking of either Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle or Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.  Then the students will be given a list of 8 or 10 memoir titles and first chapters (I would love some suggestions), asked which three they would most like to read, assigned one of their preferences if possible, and placed in groups according to the book they’ve been assigned.  They will be given the task of “selling” their assigned memoir to the rest of the class.  For their third and final reading, they can pick any memoir they like from the list and will have to write a comparative analysis of it and their second reading.

Not the same, I know, as sitting in a room full of attractive books and deciding, based entirely on your own taste, ability, and mood-of-the-day, which you’d like to read.

But maybe some of you have suggestions as to how you try to inspire your students to read and to love reading?  Maybe you know from experience that young people who don’t care for books can – or cannot? – learn to love them when they’re seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old?  Because I have a feeling that everything else I’m trying to teach them would take care of itself, if I could just teach them that.

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7 responses

  1. I do so hope that a college classroom can be a reading zone! I would like to dwell in the possibility that any space can potentially be a reading zone and anyone can discover their “reader” self at any age!

    I like the idea of so many possible memoirs and the “sales pitch” aspect of your plan…..I see the possibilities for students to become engaged with their choices and inspire others!

    • Tara:
      The “sales pitch” slant is based on something you told me…I was trying to figure out a format for oral presentations, and that seemed like a good one….So thanks for that!

  2. I really enjoyed Denise Chavez’ Taco Testimony. It’s an eclectic collection of recipes and family stories about mostly her parents and her life with them. I don’t know if that would take it out of memoirs. But it’s a Chicano author and I found it interesting. People who like food, or whose cultures emphasize food, would enjoy it.

  3. Siobhan,
    Your post has had me thinking for two days now about what this could mean for my own classes–how it could change it and make it better and empower my students and maybe even broaden their horizans in a less artificial way (as I think that almost all classroom experiences are innately artificial, even when we attempt to make them less so). Last night, while trying to go to sleep and thinking about what to do differently next semester, I had an epiphany. I know it’s not your OWN classroom or your own self-selected library, but there is a place where you have a space to gather and access to a large collection of books that your students could choose from–the library! I’ve been thinking about this and I think it could work as long as you have library personnel who are willing to work with you–allow you to use a conference room or sitting area (I’ve actually seen a professor holding a class in a sitting area before). Not only would this give your students access to whichever books take their fancy but it would also teach them how to use the library (they would need to understand how to use the catalogue to find books on the subjects they are interested in and then use the catalogue info. to locate the books). Also, this would give them access to popular magazines and scholarly journals and all kinds of other materials (our library has a great music collection and a listening area).

    • Tanya:
      This is a great idea, and in many library settings I think it would work beautifully. I’m not sure it would in ours. Our library is woefully ill-equipped; there’s very little on the shelves in the way of contemporary literature, and very little money for new acquisitions. Most of the books that are available are in dusty old “library editions,” and so aren’t very inviting to young eyes. There are few closed areas, and the open areas tend to be extremely noisy; I’m appalled every time I walk in there – how does anyone get any work done? In a different library, though, especially one with available space and funds for new books, this would be a very feasible suggestion.

  4. I’ve done something similar with students in a course on multicultural literature. They had to go to the library, pick a book (from a list of about 50), and use it to write a major essay and put together a portfolio on the author, journal entries on the themes etc.

    It worked quite well. It’s a logistical tap dance for the teacher, but worth the effort. It also prevents you from reading 45 essays about the same two texts.

    Easing the students into the major assignment by giving them several prep activities–journals, a short essay about the author’s life, research on one of topics covered in the novel, etc. really helped.

    Good Luck!!!

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