High schools add to reading lists

By Meg Dickinson

The News-Gazette

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Feb. 7, 2012, A.J. Orsted, a fresshman at Centennial High School, in Champaign, Ill., holds the books he has read so far for language arts class. At Centennial, freshmen and sophomores are required to read one core book each quarter, and then they choose from a list of books.

The News-Gazette, Robin Scholz, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — You'd probably recognize many of the offerings students are required to read in high school English classes. After all, "Romeo and Juliet," ''To Kill a Mockingbird" and other literary classics are still a part of high school.

But local teachers are increasingly adding other offerings — books students choose themselves and discuss with classmates.

At Centennial High in Champaign, freshmen and sophomores are required to read one core book each quarter, and then they choose from a list of books.

At the Champaign school district's alternative high school, the Academic Academy, every student reads the same book every year and students can discuss books over breakfast at a weekly book club.

And at University Laboratory High School in Urbana, teacher Suzanne Linder has students read books of their choosing and tell their classmates about them.

This social aspect of reading is crucial to turning today's high schoolers into readers, said Carol Jago, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, whether that means teachers providing easy access to books or students discussing amongst themselves.

At a time when studies show kids are consuming 7.5 hours of entertainment a day, the quest to develop readers is an important one.

"It's so much about relationships," Jago said. "It's not about, 'Take this, it's good for you. You'll hate it now but thank me later.' It's about developing enthusiasm and energy. Kids are going to have to choose to read over choosing to play 'Grand Theft Auto.' ... You help them to make those choices by demonstrating again and again how intellectually satisfying reading a great book is."

She also advises that teachers give students some choices when it comes to reading for class, but to require it.

"Kids are kids. If you don't require reading, it's not going to happen," she said. "Give them choice within control. If you don't, they won't make the progress. Summer reading should be required. We have all this data about how students, children regress over the summer. One way to fight that summer slump is to make sure they're reading."

She said that should be true of all students, not just those in honors or Advanced Placement classes.

Joanne Nielsen, the content area chairwoman for the English department at Centennial High School, said the school this year updated its freshman and sophomore curriculum. The framework it uses has a group of teachers setting goals for students, and then choosing the books that will help students achieve those goals.

The system allows students to choose from a range of books on a common theme.

For example, in freshman English classes at Centennial, quarters are divided into units on how the topics of family, race, gender and class affect identity, said freshman English teacher Ryan Carlson.

Each of those units has one core book or text, and then students can choose from a broad list of other books that vary by topic and reading level, as well. They may choose between eight and 15 books, depending on the topic, Carlson said.

They have time to read independently in class and get together with other students reading the same books, where they develop questions to ask each other, Carlson said. Those are used in a larger class discussion the next day, he said.

"They're so excited to have that choice and have that authority" to choose their own books, he said. "They've formed a community of independent readers."

As they leave his classroom, he said, he often hears students asking each other what page they're on or if they've gotten to a certain part of a book.

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