As an English teacher I must sometimes act as a gatekeeper. I care deeply about engendering a love of reading in my students, and I work diligently toward that end…but I also create situations where I just try to determine a very basic answer to a very basic question, “Did you read it or not?”
This step seems obvious, but many teachers leave this fundamental question to chance. They believe their students will read because they were told to read, but I argue that this kind of trust is actually a disservice to the learners in our classrooms. I am a very optimistic man who believes in second chances and basic human decency, but as an English teacher I am also a crusty, pragmatic troll guarding a bridge. If you didn’t read the book, you’re not getting by me. Let me explain…
I always give a reading quiz the day before I want to discuss the book. This simple step allows me time to determine who has read, and it gives unprepared students a bit of time to catch up. With these quizzes I check for basic reading completion one of three ways:
METHOD #1 – 50 words of concrete detail
I choose a key event in the reading (e.g. Daisy tours Gatsby’s mansion for the first time) and give students five minutes to fill a blank sheet of paper with every detail they can remember from that event. They must write in complete sentences, and they must focus on that one moment. If the reading covers many chapters, I choose two events or characters and let them pick one. The students must refrain from giving their opinion or analysis. I just want to know what happens. These quizzes are incredibly easy to check. The students either convince me they have read or they don’t, so I either assign full points or a zero. If a student receives a zero, she can still earn points back…more on that later.
METHOD #2 – Add to Sparknotes
Now, I only use the 50 words of concrete detail method for newer books that have no online resources. For a book like The Great Gatsby, I copy the chapter summary from sparknotes (or the like), and give this summary to the students. I then ask, “What else happens in this chapter?” [Sample Sparknotes-style Quiz] The students fill in the margins with words and phrases not listed in the online summary. In both methods, students might make minor mistakes, forgetting a name or mixing up chronology. These errors aren’t important to me. If they produce a series of details they could only know from reading the book, they always earn full credit. Again, these quizzes are only about answering the question, “Did you read?”
METHOD #3 – Grade the Annotations
Some of my colleagues love this idea and others think I’m nuts, but I actually grade the annotations I require students to make. I carefully explain my expectations for annotating and provide examples. After they have a good sense of my expectations, I collect their books at random points during the unit and assess the patterns of their notes. I use this feedback form, give them reminder bookmarks, and provide sample annotations as guides. In addition, during this method of assessment I do look for their analysis; it is no longer a matter of “Did you read?” but “HOW did you read?”
I have developed these methods over the years because I want everyone to begin class activities at “the same level.” I feel it is my responsibility to do some extra work to ensure students have finished the reading. This step, in my humble opinion, is essential in establishing an effective English classroom.
Of course, I don’t check for reading completion at every deadline, but I do so 80% of the time. Students quickly learn it is far simpler to do the reading, the first time it is assigned.
Some additional points about my not-so-crusty-after-all-Troll-bridge-guarding:
- Always let them practice. I never count the first quiz when introducing these methods. I always check the work and provide feedback, and then the subsequent quizzes count toward the term grade. Students really respect that I give them a chance to know my expectations before I hold them accountable.
- Let them convince you they have read. If a student receives a zero on a reading quiz and has actually read, I simply ask her to see me before leaving class. I might look at annotations or conduct a quick interview to allow her a second chance to convince me she has read. If I am convinced, I enter a 17/20 in the grade book.
- Encourage students to be honest. I value honesty above work habits. I expect my students to tell me beforehand if they enter class unprepared. I never lecture them or make them feel guilty in these cases. Typically, I simply say, “O.K. Just read during the quiz time and finish by tomorrow.” If a student admits to not having read before I give a quiz and then proves she has read by the next day, I enter an 18/20 in the grade book. Yes, a student who is unprepared and honest gets one more point than a student who is prepared but vague. I know it seems weird, but that one point (which has no real bearing on the term grade) is a symbolic gesture. I care MORE about their honesty.
- These reading checkpoints are not weighted heavily in the term grade. I use them to determine patterns in my students’ process, but I don’t factor them very heavily in their term grades.
- If a student is STILL not finished with the reading by the next day, she typically goes into the hall or an empty classroom and reads until caught up. I contact parents and any missed class work is unexcused. My school also has a late work study hall where we send students at the end of the day in such cases. They miss after school activities or sports practice when they have not completed their work, and this intervention is very effective. I rarely have to send students to late work study.