Outside Reading: Don’t Let These 2 Negatives Derail All the Positives

Earlier in the week we looked at the why and the how of assigning your students outside reading. For this post, I would like to directly address the top two reasons I avoided giving this assignment for as long as I did. And I will tell you why they are poor excuses.

Lately, I have been listening to the audiobook The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz, Ph.D. The message I keep hearing over and over is, “If you believe it can be done, you can find a way. But if you do not believe it can be done, then you will not look for a way.” This is the kind of thinking that led me to shake those excuses and move toward creating a meaningful assignment for my students.

Years ago, I decided to stop letting the reasons “not to” block my students from the possibility of becoming lifelong readers. Instead, I tried to work around the problems I was anticipating. And I showed you how I do it, but now I want to help you think around the two negative arguments that kept some of my past students sidelined from developing a habit of reading. 

Negative # 1: Student Don’t Want to Read Anymore. Speaking from personal experience, this was true for me when I was a pre-teen. Then I turned 16, And that’s when my sophomore English class read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Up until that point, I didn’t like reading at all. Thanks to Bradbury and my sophomore English teacher I discovered what people were putting in books, and I was hooked.

For our students these days, the competition is fierce. Young people in developed countries are bombarded with media left, right, and center. It is inescapable. And each media outlet is fighting tooth and nail for teenagers’ attention, for their engagement. In contrast, a book just sits there. It doesn’t disrupt your day or send push notifications. It waits for a reader to pick it up, to fall into it.

I contest the idea that students don’t want to read anymore. They do want to read, they just haven’t found the right kinds of books yet. And they are constantly distracted from ever reaching the point of getting one in their hands. As their teachers, we must join the fight for their attention. We must get the students to see what lies in the pages they have yet to read. Don’t quit on your students. Make them read!

Negative # 2: The Students Cheat on the Assignment. I understand this one. They will. I did. In 8th grade, one option I had for a book report was to make a comic of the first 30 pages of a novel. I chose the book War of the Worlds, and since I had seen the movie, I decided that all I had to read was 30 pages. I did a rush job on the comic, but I got full credit.

Here’s the thing, though. There were plenty of other students in the class the completed the assignment faithfully. They did the reading, and they completed the work. Many of them enjoyed their book because they choose it. At the time, I thought they were suckers for doing all that work, especially since I found a way to get the credit with a fraction of the effort. Really, I was the one who was suckered because I missed an opportunity to let myself really experience reading a good piece of literature.

After spending years refining how I assign outside reading to increase engagement and reduce cheating, I am now of the belief that if only 10 percent of my students did this assignment faithfully–and the other 90 percent cheated with no way for me to prove it–I would still give the assignment. I have stopped worrying about those students that are hell bent on doing less than the minimum. Instead, I focus on the students who will rise to the occasion. It is far more satisfying to catch students doing well than it is to catch them trying to pull a fast one on me. I believe that students can, under the right circumstances and guidance, rise to the occasion. And that’s how I approach outside reading.

If you believe students can’t do this or that, or that you can’t do this or that, you will keep yourself from attempting it. But if you believe that it’s possible, that it can be done, and that someone should find a way, then you can make it happen. Don’t mistake me for saying “believe in yourself and you can achieve anything.” Believe that the thing you think isn’t possible not only can be done, but that it should be done. And since you’re the one that notices, you are the one who needs to do something about it. Even if it is not outside reading, but something you know will benefit students, find a way to make it happen.

Have you let the negatives keep you from trying something that might be hard? How do you get around the negatives, the roadblocks, that stand in your way? Let us know in the comment section below. If you know anyone who needs a pep talk, share this post with that person and maybe on social media.

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