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Reading Matters



Published March 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

In a fourth-grade classroom at Barre City Elementary and Middle School, a small blonde girl named Emily is reading a poem about how homework stinks. "What's the rhyme scheme?" asks her teacher Karen Heath, a slim, energetic 43-year-old woman who stands in front of the class wearing a loose red jumper and white turtleneck. "What is aabb?"

"Rhyming pairs?" a girl suggests. "Rhyming couplets," Heath corrects her.

Next, she hands out photocopies of the William Wordsworth poem beginning "I wandered lonely as a cloud," warning the kids that this will be a harder read than Shel Silverstein. "It has more poetic devices."

But the kids don't seem fazed by Wordsworth's musings. After Heath asks rhetorically, "Is there a word here I don't know?" one boy raises his hand to ask what the poet means by a "host of daffodils." Another correctly identifies a simile in the poem's first line.

"'Fluttering and dancing in the breeze' -- what is that?" Heath asks without missing a beat. "Are the daffodils really dancing?" This silences the children for a moment. But when Heath starts to answer her own question, a dark-haired girl in the front row interrupts triumphantly: "Personification!"

On one level, this scene is classic -- most of us studied poetry in school, and not a few of us were given Wordsworth's "daffodil" poem to memorize. On another level, Heath's classroom is noteworthy -- and, some might say, endangered. Last summer, the National Endow-ment for the Arts published a study, "Reading at Risk," that reported a 10 percent drop in the number of Americans who read literature -- novels, plays and poems -- between 1982 and 2002. Among young people, the drop was 28 percent.

Given these figures, the level of comprehension in Heath's fourth-grade class seems impressive, as does the kids' palpable enthusiasm. And indeed, this classroom isn't average. It's part of the Reading Renaissance program, a language-arts class for high-level readers in grades three through six. Heath started the program here six years ago and now teaches four daily classes of 20 students each. She was recently named Vermont's Teacher of the Year by the state's Department of Education. If there's such a thing as a lab for producing the readers of the future, this is it.

Sitting down with Heath between classes, I ask her how she goes about fostering the reading habit in a world of shiny technological distractions. "My big thing with kids and books is just getting them engaged. Having them make connections," Heath says. "Think about what the character's doing: How does it relate to them? How does it connect to another book?"

Another key strategy is keeping the class fast-paced. "My goal is that every single kid, the entire class period, is involved," Heath explains. "Instead of just one person raising their hand and answering, they all have to think." She tries to avoid traditional approaches such as "round robin" reading, where students take turns reading aloud and "you've basically lost 18 out of 20 of the kids."

Instead, Heath herself reads aloud to her classes, stopping frequently to deploy what she calls "during-reading strategies." "Why does Mary want to listen to this gossip?" she asks her sixth-graders, who are reading a historical novel about Henry VIII's notorious daughter "Bloody Mary." One page later, Heath stops reading again, instructs the students to talk in pairs, and passes out a series of cards with headings such as "Make a Connec-tion," "Make a Prediction" and "Ask a Question." Below these are a series of statements for completion: "This is good because..." "This is hard because..." "This reminds me of..."

In some classes, such small-group discussions devolve into chat about vacation plans. But Heath isn't one to drop the reins. She gives the students a few minutes to compare reactions, and then the class races on again.

"The big thing in teaching is meta-cognition -- becoming aware of your thinking," Heath explains. "As [students] get into seventh and eighth grade, they don't want to admit anything they don't know. It's too embarrassing, and there's that whole peer thing." By asking repeated questions, inviting reactions, and even admitting her own ignorance, Heath says she's trying to "model" habits of flexible, critical thinking that kids can take with them into the difficult teen years.

Another key to creating avid readers is "letting kids choose what they read," Heath says. Her syllabi include classics such as Winnie the Pooh, The Secret Garden, Tom Sawyer and Homer's Odyssey, together with "really good new stuff" such as Vermont author Karen Hesse's The Music of Dolphins.

Still, Heath says, "When they have a totally free choice, most kids, even these kids, who tend to be motivated, will go for something a few grade levels below that's just kind of junky. But I also want them to do that, because that's what I call the pure pleasure reading."

The kids in Heath's fourth-grade class are specific and articulate about their reading preferences. Aaron Roberts, who likes "fantasy stories and funny stories," says reading helps take his mind off worries about his dad, who's in Iraq. John Reese, a fan of young-adult novelist Brian Jacques, calls himself a "very picky reader." He says Heath "opens doors" to books he wouldn't have tried on his own.

This inspires Julia McDannold to interrupt with her own tale of ambitious reading. "I started Julius Caesar," she says, noting proudly that she's reading on a seventh-grade level. "I don't understand a word."

Several fourth-graders mention that they like the creative options Heath gives them in their free reading projects -- they've made book-themed board games, mobiles and pyramids; they've memorized poems and acted in skits. Last month, for a "night of international reading," the kids made foods corresponding to a country they'd read about and presented their efforts to a group of 100 peers and relatives in the school gym. "One boy made a gigantic chocolate mousse costume," says Heath.

Heath's sixth-graders, on the cusp of junior high, are a bit antsier than the fourth-graders. But they express the same excitement, albeit in more polished, self-conscious terms. In this class, "If you can't do the reading. . . you can't slide through," says Reese's older sister, Samantha, who's eager to discuss the relative merits of the Harry Potter books and movies. "Other teachers should take a page out of Mrs. Heath's book."

A serious boy named Dakota Woodworth says the reading load can be heavy -- as much as 40 pages in a night. But he likes the class because "people are right with you. Most schools don't have high achievers' programs."

Heath seconds her student: "A lot of school districts would not allow a program like this." She acknowledges that ability tracking, which makes Reading Renaissance possible, is "totally not politically correct."

Still, could Heath's approaches be transferred to average or struggling readers? Or to high school students who think being a bookworm isn't "cool"? Or to adults, with their crowd of real-world demands and distractions?

Heath thinks so. Before coming to Barre, she spent 13 years as a teacher at Maplehill School in Plainfield, a high school for kids who are having trouble with public school work. "It was the complete opposite population" from her Reading Renaissance students, Heath says, but the two groups have enough in common to convince her that people just innately love stories. "You go to any party, and someone tells a story, everybody stops and listens. That's just inside us. Kids at Maplehill would say 'I hate books, I hate reading' -- but if you told them a story, they would listen."

How can we raise the next generation of readers? Perhaps it's as simple as listening to them. "Ask kids what kind of books they like," advises fourth-grader John Reese. "Some-times it takes a little digging."

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