Encouraging Lifelong Reading in 7th Grade English Class

The twelve seventh graders sit chatting in a semicircle of tables while Zoe Tarshis, veteran English teacher at the Middle School since 2011, stands at the central table adjusting her computer so she can project the day's agenda on the board. "Today we have a new tradition," she says. "It's FRF, or Free Read Friday. But first, let's practice our other Friday tradition: Friday Breath." Tarshis reviews for the class that Friday Breath is a routine. "We do this so we can be our best selves."

There is a palpable shift in energy in the class as Tarshis moves to the back of the class with her phone, which functions as Basu bell, music, and timer. Students find a spot on the floor or put their heads on their tables. Tarshis turns the lights out.

But first, there is one last gesture from a boy in the corner before the bell. Tarshis says, "Whatever is being thrown is not for Friday Breath. If you feel you are too close to a pal, please move." Tarshis cues the bell then three minutes of quiet guitar music. Students become nearly silent with eyes closed.

After three minutes, Tarshis asks students to wiggle fingers and toes, to "come back to the room." They are clearly ready to focus. Caroline says, "I wish we could do that longer." Aris asks, "What is the homework for the weekend?" Tarshis smiles and says, "It is to finish your green screen photographs for the Yearbook Project." The Yearbook Project is the culminating project for their reading of The Outsiders. They had been crafting their essay for their yearbook pages, and now it is time to finish the photographs and page layout.

Tarshis says, "We just finished The Outsiders, which I'm glad people really liked. FRF is a chance for you to choose your own books and follow your own reading goals. I want to make sure you enjoy reading as much on your own, for fun. Just as we honor our three minutes of calm breathing, we will honor our half hour every other week for free reading. Let's take a minute to write down your hopes and dreams for FRF, maybe trying different genres, or reading more of the same."

Tarshis clearly defines the class culture she hopes to foster. "I want students to feel comfortable and excited to share ideas about literature, especially poetry. FRF gives opportunities for sharing and learning from each other. I'm inspired by the work of Nancie Atwell and her reading workshop and giving choice. I hope to encourage lifelong reading and to build excitement and buzz around reading, and FRF gives students in their crazy schedules time to slow down and enjoy a book. We hear often from students that they used to love to read, but now are too busy."

The students begin to fill out the chart Tarshis has handed out. Once they've had a chance to reflect, Tarshis asks them to share their ideas with the class. "What will you hope to get out of FRF?" Almost all hands shoot up.

"I want to read more exciting books."

"I'll get to share with others and others share with me."

"I plan to read some non-fiction because I don't like to read."

"Can I finish The Selection series?

"I want to find new books to read."

"Ok," Tarshis directs their attention to the practical way this new routine will work. "Write down on your sheet two or three things you need from me or yourselves or each other to make FRF the best it can be." The students offer their ideas. They reach consensus quickly.

"I need a quiet room." Many classmates make the hand sign for "I agree."

"Keep a log to see how much I've read."

"Stay focused."

"Outside of school I don't have much time for reading, so I like this, but I might be slow."

It's time to start choosing books and sharing ideas for the first FRF of the year. "I want to hear about your books. Can someone go to the Stowe room to get Ms. Brooks? Selected student Aris runs out the door. "Did anyone bring a total favorite today?"

Holding The Mother-Daughter Book Club, Caroline offers, "This is the last of the series, and it's awesome. It sounds like it's for little kids, but it's about our age. I suggest this mostly for girls."

Simon just started Enders Game. "It's like Sci Fi."

Just as Beth Brooks, the Middle School librarian, enters the room, Timothy suggests Lord of Opium, the sequel to The House of Scorpion. "People make clones, and they're harvesting for organs."

Brooks agrees. "The House of Scorpion is one of my favorites, too. Brooks sets up seven books on the table in a quick display. "Many of you have read I Am Number Four," she explains with brief synopsis. "How many of you know Eleven Seconds?" It's about a player who suffered a serious hockey injury."

After Brooks provides a brief explanation of her selection of books, she suggests students come to the LLC (Library Learning Commons) for more choices. "We also have a pamphlet of suggestions, and Literary Club starts today, if anyone wants to show up."

Meanwhile the rest of the class is eager to share their own suggestions and favorite reads: Diary of Anne Frank, Paper Town, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Magyk, Lovely Bones.

Tarshis sees the direct benefit of FRF to her students in their English class. "Generally, there is lots of excitement about it. And," she adds, "there always are some squirmers, but pairing with Friday breath creates a culture of relaxation and pleasure around reading. And the students keep track of their own progress as they update their reading log. Some will have read many books. Others will have only our class time to read, and these kids may not read at all without FRF. I have recommended books that students take home and read with family, and kids learn about new reads from each other. In this way, they will all read an extra book or several per year, and there is a direct impact on their work in English class.

"After all, the best way to become a better English student is to read. Any reading will build that reading 'muscle' as well as vocabulary and facility with syntax. FRF encourages them to be real readers in addition to school readers. It is an opportunity to stretch interests and open eyes."

The students are eager to begin this new class tradition. "You can get into your chairs or get comfy on the floor," Tarshis says. Some students approach the front desk to peruse Brooks' selections. Others find a cozy corner, while others stay quietly in their seats. The students, one by one become silent at their desks or on the floor curled up with each other, but all are absorbed in the world of the novels in front of them.

Tarshis has one last instruction for this class. "Let's honor this time. Get FRF-ing."

Written by Betsy Canaday, MS English Department