At the end of January, many of my students were well below grade level in reading. I decided it was time to hit them hard with the reality that their reading future was in their own hands. I gathered the students around my rocking chair. When I asked how many of my 23 students actually read outside of school, about 4 hands went up. That’s what I thought. I talked with my students about the importance of reading and explained that I was very concerned about their success in middle school.
Together as a class we developed a Reading Challenge. The students committed themselves to reading at least 30 minutes 6-7 days a week outside of school, in addition to reading in every spare minute at school. In order to document their reading, we instituted a new classroom job: the police officer. Every morning, the police officer walked around the room with a clipboard and pen to document whether or not students had read their 30 minutes. Why a police officer? Because you cannot lie to the police officer.
The class Reading Challenge had a rough start for some students. Isaac, in particular, fought me on it. He never reads outside of school, he said. He doesn’t have time because he has to watch his little brother. He doesn’t even like reading. What’s the point if he works hard while he’s at school?
He was so upset, in fact, that his mom called me (on my birthday) and yelled at me for making him feel humiliated. “He has an A in reading. Why are you telling him that he’s below grade level when he has an A in reading?!” I calmly explained that Isaac is a very hard worker and does very well on his assignments, but he is not reading at the level he should be at this point in the year. He needs to be reading every single day outside school.
“Miss Agee, do you read 30 minutes every day?” Isaac challenged me one morning. I told him that yes, in fact, I do. I read every morning. “Oh, you can read in the morning? That counts?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Any reading outside school counts.” Suddenly, this task seemed more feasible to him. He began to read his 30 minutes every day, meeting the reading challenge nearly every week.
My class never let me forget about “rocks” on Thursday mornings. This was when I would look over the chart from the week and see how the students did. For every day that the students had read 30 minutes, they got to come up and put one rock into the glass jar on my desk. When the jar was full, I brought in a special treat for the class: brownies, cupcakes, cookies, candy… All the while, the students kept reading.
This afternoon, May 24, my students took the end-of-the-year reading test. Before taking it, I had a talk with my class. I reminded them of the day we looked at our reading levels and created the reading challenge. I reminded them how much they have been reading and told them that today we would get to see the results of all their efforts for the past 4 months. At the end of 5th grade, which is now, the students should be at least at level 700.
“Miss Agee, I’m so nervous!” Isaac said to me as we lined up.
“Isaac, why are you nervous? You have worked so hard since January, and you have been reading so much! Just do your best. Even if your score increased a little bit, it will be worth it.”
It was a computerized test that gave the students their reading level as soon as they finished. I sat in the corner of the room with a list of the students’ January reading levels. As they completed their tests, they came up to me to share what their new score was. I wrote it down next to their old one so we could see how much they had improved. One by one the students came up to me, and one by one, I was amazed. Their scores were jumping 100-200 points! I congratulated each one, and their faces lit up with pride in their accomplishment. Not every student reached 700, but every student grew tremendously.
When only a few students were still working on the test, I took the rest of the class back to our classroom. Isaac was taking his time at his computer, and I was anxious to see how much he had grown. While we waited, I gathered the students around the rocking chair to read aloud to them. Then Isaac burst into the room. His face told it all. His smile was from ear to ear as he proclaimed to me that his reading level was 750! In January, it was 430. He had grown 320 points in four months!
The entire class sat in shocked silence for a moment. Then we erupted in cheering and celebration. Isaac ran to his friends and started to jump up and down with them, but then he stopped.
With tears in his eyes, he turned to me and said, “Miss Agee…thank you.”
“You have earned it!” I exclaimed.
“But you are the one who encouraged me to read,” he said.
I was astounded by his maturity in that moment and how the simpleness of a thank you makes up for all the difficulty it took to get there. I could tell in each of my students’ eyes that they realized the same thing. The struggle and the effort was all worth it. Each one of them has reached their own level of success.