At the beginning of this year, I was asked to teach a Reading Enrichment class for students who were having trouble reading. Their Language Arts teachers had labeled these students as troubled readers who needed extra support. While I have an ESL background and have taught a few enrichment classes in the past, I am by no means a literacy teacher. I know how to teach students the elements of literature, or how to write effectively, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to teach them how to read. To this day, I am not really sure how that is done. So I started to think about what reading actually means. I came across definitions like this:
Reading is a multifaceted process involving word recognition, comprehension, fluency, and motivation. Learn how readers integrate these facets to make meaning from print.
Reading is making meaning from print. It requires that we:
- Identify the words in print – a process called word recognition
- Construct an understanding from them – a process called comprehension
- Coordinate identifying words and making meaning so that reading is automatic and accurate – an achievement called fluency
Sometimes you can make meaning from print without being able to identify all the words.
These definitions, however valuable, seemed academic; they did not seem to really answer what reading is. This research was great and I spent a lot of time looking for ways to motivate my students to become active engaged readers, but I still had to design daily lessons and activities.
I had no idea which direction we were headed. So I took the easy way out and decided to “enrich” what they were already doing in their Language Arts classes, which was reading Where the Red Fern Grows. I figured it would simply be enough to slow down the text and spend time learning how to be more active readers by: questioning the text, taking notes, visualizing imagery, connecting to personal experiences, and asking questions for comprehension.
Because of my own frustrations with adjusting to a new curriculum and a new school, I had a hard time getting into Where The Red Fern Grows. I was coming from a place where I had nearly complete control over the books I taught, and it was difficult to teach a book that I had never read. We started to examine the text looking for ways to apply basic literary criticism. I found it to be a very sexist book; that made it easy. We tried that angle. We then looked at it historically, socio-economically, but we finally chose to cling to one of the main themes- working hard and being persistent.
We decided that we would start a gardening project to try and better understand what it means to be patient and work hard for a delayed reward. The students themselves were aware of their generation’s need for immediate rewards and felt that a slow moving project like growing plants would prove to be educational.
So we started planting. We brought in pots and plants and seeds and away we went. We journaled. We read stories about plants and seeds. We talked. A lot. We took photographs. We documented growth. We shot video and answered questions. Things started to grow. We started to grow! We explored the idea of the seed as symbol. We made connections. We constructed meaning. Were we reading?
This brings me to my point-
I felt a bit guilty about this project, because I wasn’t sure if raising plants had anything to do with reading enrichment. What if someone would come in and ask me what I was doing? What would I say? So I decided to take the safe route and look at my Benchmarks. I know that proper assessments should be built backwards from benchmark to activity, but this project lent itself to work the other way. I noticed that while it seemed like we were only having a great time planting and tending and discussing, we were actually covering lot of curricular ground:
- Generate interesting questions to be answered while reading (we generated many questions to be journaled and discussed)
- Recognize the use of specific literature devices (we talked a lot about figurative language and symbolism)
- Summarize and paraphrase complex concepts in informational texts (substitute informational texts with plant cycle and we definitely paraphrase complex concepts)
- Use new information to adjust and extend personal knowledge base (seeing their own growth reflected in the plants added to their knowledge base)
The others are pretty self-explanatory.
- Use descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas
- Use a variety of pre-writing methods
- Ask questions to seek elaboration and clarification of ideas.
- Listen in order to understand a speaker’s topic, purpose, and perspective.
- Convey a clear main point when speaking to others and stay on the topic being discussed.
- Use explicit techniques for oral presentations (e.g., modulation of voice, inflection, tempo, enunciation, physical gestures, eye contact, posture).
I also started to compare the skills that are required while one reads to the skills necessary to be a good gardener, and again there were striking similarities.
Both reading and gardening require:
- Patience and dedication
- Seeing it through
- Not giving up
- Enjoying each word like it is a tender new leaf
- Need to make sure you have sun(proper reading area), soil(vocabulary/dictionary) , water(support or place to ask questions)
- You have to do it everyday
- Be aware of growth
- Start small and read more complicated books later
- Don’t rush the process
- Takes time to learn and grow
- Not very exciting, very little action
- The rewards come later not immediate
- Communicate with the text and/or plant (give them both attention)
- Check in daily and make sure that you don’t stop taking care of the plant or your book.
In the end, I feel this was a worthwhile first draft of a project. I would like to do it again. The connection that the students made with their plants was a very organic way to engage them in something they would otherwise seldom do. The plants connected them to nature in a very real way, while at the same time giving them a rich source of material to write about, reflect on, and read. Yes, I said read. We spent the last semester reading plants looking for meaning and this is what we found:
Music by Ben Harper and Jeff Nesmith. Please be patient while video loads.