The bookshelves in Becky Bicksler’s classroom resemble those you might find in a bestsellers section of a bookstore, with titles from fiction writers such as John Grisham, Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King.
Bicksler, who teaches English language arts at Comstock Park High School, is introducing a new method of teaching called reader-writer workshop. The method lets students choose what they will read in their classes rather than being assigned what to read by their teacher.
The goal is to combat a trend in which students read less and find it hard to identify with the characters and plots of classic books that were traditionally assigned, says Bicksler, who introduced the reader-writer workshop methods to her 11th graders this year. She recently attended a training on the strategy, which is introduced in the book “180 Days”, by teachers Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle.
The new reading and writing approach — which includes setting aside at least 10 minutes for reading during each class — will become part of the high school’s overall ELA curriculum over the next five years.
“You can assign ‘Romeo and Juliet’ all day long,” Bicksler said. “But if they don’t actually read it, they don’t really benefit from it. Historically, that’s been the English teacher’s struggle.”
Seniors Colin Veldman and Tori Toren, who are reading a book about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and a fiction thriller respectively, are fans of the new approach. They said they are more likely to pick up their books and read because they want to, not just for class.
“I can relate to what I get to choose more. I don’t really relate to ‘The Great Gatsby’,” Tori said.
“With a book we choose, it’s usually on a topic we like, but with books in class it’s usually for education and not entertainment,” Colin said.
Bicksler says she and her fellow teachers show students how to find books they will enjoy reading and train them to identify different forms of literature. Students who learn the joy of reading by reading books they enjoy will become better readers and writers than the students who once sought out CliffsNotes and other classroom crutches.
Students also are encouraged to read the books on which their favorite movies were based. “Anything that’s been made into a movie, they love,” said Bicksler.
Students will not be entirely on their own when it comes to choosing their reading material. Some books will still be read and discussed on a group basis, she said. “We are still teaching classics to them.”
Students also are taught basic storytelling techniques and are encouraged to tell stories about themselves and their families. Said Bicksler, “I think everyone likes writing about themselves.”
Erin Albanese contributed to this report