By Curt Yeomans
Jonesboro Middle School eighth-grader Kayla Peerman was reading Jodi Picoult's "My Sister's Keeper" on Wednesday. A classmate, Khristian Howard, was reading Kim Edward's "The Memory Keeper's Daughter."
Other students in the class were reading a wide range of other books, including Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," Mark Bowden's "Black Hawk Down," and Terry Trueman's "Stuck in Neutral."
As the students sat on rugs in the middle of the room, Lorrie McNeill, the teacher of the honors-level, eighth-grade language arts class, sat in a rocking chair, pitching a new book to the students, hoping they will take it up as their next reading assignment. The book was William Golding's "Lord of the Flies."
"I'm not going to lie to you guys," McNeill said. "The first 50 pages, or so, are just exposition where you're introduced to the characters, and it's not very exciting. But, after that, the book starts to get interesting. By the time you get to about page 150, the action is really going."
McNeill is using the reading-workshop method, in which students get to pick what books they read in class. They are expected to start a new book every two weeks. McNeill is currently the only teacher in Clayton County Public Schools who is using that method, according to Shonda Shaw, the school system's coordinator of secondary language arts.
While McNeill is the only Clayton teacher using the reading-workshop method, she is not the first to employ it in a classroom. The method was widely popular in the late 1980's, and early 1990's, said Amy Flint, an associate professor in the department of middle-secondary education and instructional technology in Georgia State University's College of Education.
As the focus in public education shifted toward test-centered accountability, and after the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, the reading-workshop method became less popular, Flint said. "[School districts] started to move toward a standardized reading approach," she said.
Flint, who endorses the method, said it is now used only in "pockets," at individual schools around the country. "I wish more schools would use it," she said. "If someone is interested in what they are doing, then they are going to be more engaged."
Nancie Atwell, the founder of the Edgecomb, Maine-based Center for Teaching and Learning, said the benefit of the method is that students are more engaged by having a choice in the books they read in school. "You're treating them as a person who has tastes and interests, just like any other reader has their own tastes and interests," she said. Clayton County's McNeill studied the method in Atwell's classroom as an intern at the center for a week last September.
"I think it's easier to get interested in reading books," said student, Kayla Peerman, 13. "Say, your teacher wanted you to read 'To Kill a Mocking Bird.' Well, 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' is not the kind of book I'm interested in. When you get to pick a book, it's easier to comprehend it, and understand it."
But, while the prospect of students getting to pick what they read may conjure up images of youths pouring over "X-men" comic books, McNeill and her pupils said that is not the case. "You get to read what you want, but it has to be approved by Mrs. McNeill beforehand," said eighth-grader, Sebastian Womack, 13.
"They can't just bring in some book from home and read it," McNeill said. "I make sure all the novels are pushing them to new levels of reading comprehension." She has amassed a library of "500 to 600 books" in her classroom, with the books being purchased with her own money. She said she estimates she has spent $1,000 on books for her classroom library.
McNeill requires the students to read for at least 30 minutes a night at home, as well as in class. During class, she checks the students' progress by asking questions and making notations in her lesson planner. Part of the reading-workshop method includes a writing journal, in which students are required to write a letter -- to McNeill during the first month of the school year, and then, to each other after that -- about a book they have read. The letters are more like essays, and students are expected to talk about the theme of the book and the meaning of key passages that they enjoyed. In the letters, students have to follow rules McNeill created using Georgia Performance Standards for reading at their grade-levels.
McNeill said in the first year of using the reading-workshop method, she saw an improvement in the number of her students who exceeded state standards on the reading portion of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCTs).
Among her current eighth-grade class, 15 of those students exceeded state standards this past spring. Another three students met the state's standards. A year earlier, before they were using the reading-workshop method, 4 students from that group exceeded state standards, while the remaining 14 pupils simply met the standards.
The students said they are not just learning how to comprehend a book by participating in the reading-workshop method. Several said their interest in reading for pleasure has increased. They also said their communication skills have been impacted in other ways as well. "You start using words that you didn't use before, and you're like, 'Where did that word come from?'" said Khristian Howard, 12.
"Then you remember, 'Oh yeah, I read that in a book once.' It's also improved my writing skills, because I'm being exposed to so many different styles of writing."