California English Journal
Another Home Run
Jim Trelease has suggested that one very positive experience can create a reader, one "home run" book. The term "home run" book is taken from Fadiman (1947), in reference to his earliest experience in reading, a book entitled The Overall Boys. "One's first book, kiss, home run, is always the best."
We tested Trelease's hypothesis in a previous study (Von Sprecken, Kim and Krashen, 1999) in which we found that 53% of the fourth graders we interviewed said that there was indeed one book or experience that interested them in reading. A wide variety of book titles were mentioned.
In this study, we attempt to replicate this result with a different population. Our original sample consisted of three schools. In one, 59% of the students were considered low income (received free or reduced lunch), while at the other two, 17% and 18% were in this category. In this study, we interviewed sixth graders from a high poverty school in the Los Angeles Unified School District: 94% were eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
Our sample consisted of 103 children, a sample of convenience made available to us by the principal. We have no reason to suspect that these 103 differ in any significant way from the entire sixth grade population of the school (n = 888). All 103 were proficient in English, except for four who were categorized as English Language Learners.
We asked the same questions asked in Von Sprecken, Kim and Krashen (1999):
Most subjects reported having a home run book experience: 75% (77/103) said that there was one book or experience that interested them in reading. As in Von Sprecken et. al., a wide variety of titles were mentioned, including Don't Look at the Mirror, Kristy's Great Idea, The Give, Night in the Terror Tower, The Giving Tree, The Plague, The Outsiders, Island of the Blue Dolphin, Looking for Home, Calling All Creeps, Pigs Can Fly, The Diary of Anne Frank, Goosebumps, Matilda, Annie and the Old One and Go Dogs Go.
Our finding that 84% of the students like to read is in agreement with Von Sprecken et. al., who reported that 96% of their fourth graders liked to read. Both of these results are contrary to common wisdom: Literacy campaigns feel children must be encouraged and urged to read, and feel that incentives are necessary. Common wisdom also holds that building up skills must precede reading for pleasure; indeed, the major cause of infrequent voluntary reading, it has been suggested, is the inability to decode individual words "automatically" and fluently. But very few of our nonreaders claimed that difficulty in reading was responsible for their lack of interest. From their responses, it appears that they simply didn't have interesting things to read.
Our findings lead to an interesting question: The students at the school we investigated perform quite poorly on standardized tests. In the 1999 SAT9, the sixth grade mean was the 25th percentile for all students, the 30th excluding limited English proficient children. While these scores are better than other schools at their SES level, they are low. If the children are so positive about reading, why should their scores be so low? In our view, they are not reading enough, and they are not reading enough because they have little access to books. It has been demonstrated that children from low SES backgrounds have very little access to books at home, in the community (public library) and in schools (school and classroom libraries) (for a thorough review of this evidence, see McQuillan, 1998). It is also quite likely that few of these children have a comfortable, quiet place to read, factors also known to influence the amount of reading children do (Krashen, 1993).
These children are willing to read and appear to be enthusiastic about reading. We suggest that they would read more, and hence read better, if more reading material were available to them. The minority who do not like to read are simply waiting for the right pitch to hit their home run. They don't need encouragement, they don't need incentives. They need books.
Circles and the Socratic Seminar Process
For nearly twenty years, California educators have been leaders in the Socratic seminar movement. In the last several years, however, that leadership has slowly shifted east to the state of Indiana. There, thanks to the support of an extraordinary staff at the Indiana Department of Education, seminars have been increasingly and systemically incorporated in literally hundreds of Hoosier classrooms.
Large-scale usage of Socratic seminars has been fueled by a strong streak of Midwestern pragmatism and experimentation. One result has been the development at Fremont Community Schools of immersion circles.
What are immersion circles?
Immersion circles are loosely based on a previous model sometimes called "inner circle/outer circle" seminars. In other words, there is a core group seated in the middle which seminars while an outer circle observes.
Although this earlier model offered some theoretical advantages in a large class, in reality it was often problematic. The outer circle students were largely uninvolved and often the most unmotivated students in the class. Further, this model often used a "hot seat" for inclusion of interested outer circle students. Too often this resulted in the insertion of tangential comments that pulled discussion away from the text.
Immersion circles work largely because they directly involve the outer circle students. As a matter of fact, they make it possible to rotate students back and forth between the outer circle and the inner circle. In other words, nobody gets a free ride through class during seminars.
Further, immersion circles help students form their own seminar performance benchmarks. This proves valuable when students self-assess. The nurturing of benchmarks also guarantees the seminar process continues to grow rather than stagnate.
Finally, seminar immersion circles make students the workers and teachers the facilitators. This has some profound implications for not only instruction but also assessment. By using peer assessment in combination with self-assessment, teachers' grading load is significantly lightened. What's more, grading becomes "real." That is, what you read is based on genuine student interest rather than external requirements.
What is a typical classroom cycle like using immersion circles?
Early in the course year, freshmen English students at Fremont High School are each given the Guidelines for Socratic Seminar Participants (see Figure 1). While briefly talking about this, I always emphasize the word "guidelines" since modifications are always made to better fit the individual class's identity.
Then, we begin our first immersion circle.
Students are given two short pieces to read in class. I often begin with a Chicago Tribune feature about a teen suicide and a case study from Dr. Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia.
While students are reading, I shuffle my class set of cards and deal them into two stacks. Each card has a student's name on it. Doing this avoids the common problems "counting off" has. It also speeds up the process significantly.
When everyone is finished reading, I quickly explain the immersion circle process. Students will seminar over one of the two readings. While each seminars in the inner circle, an outer circle student drawn randomly will assess him or her. Then they will reverse roles. I also point out that if they disagree with the peer score, they will have the opportunity to self-assess their individual performances.
Students are next assigned to their inner/outer circle groupings based on the card piles. Once everyone knows what group each is in, I reshuffle the cards and draw a single one out. The student whose card is drawn is offered the choice of which material his/her group will seminar over or inner/outer circle placement for the first round.
Before having them reseated according to their groups and inner/outer placement, I distribute the Immersion Circle Assessment Sheet (See Figure 2). To help guarantee the anonymity of the peer assessor, students are asked to fill out the opening information.
Since we will do several immersion circles, I have them number the cycle (in this case, #1). Also, students put all graded seminar assessments into a "Seminars" file in their portfolios. The line indicating "seminar selection and creator" will help them later in the year when they write their seminar self-assessment essays as part of their semester 2 final exam.
During the first immersion cycle, I spend a few minutes going over the five assessment criteria and what they mean. Students ask questions as needed. I also explain that the only grading I will do will be of the outer circle participants. This will be entered on the "Instructor's Score" line and will simply reflect my perception of his/her performance as a peer assessor. However, again, they may counter with a self-assessed score on this so long as they explain themselves fully and reasonably in the space provided.
The final activity we do prior to reseating is quickly to agree on the blank sixth assessment benchmark. For example, it might be something as simple as "Listened well." On the other hand, it may eventually become more advanced. One often used by experienced groups is "Avoided side seminars."
This blank is important in several ways. First, it builds class ownership of the process. Second, it helps students form their own performance benchmarks. Third, it allows students to tactfully point out factors which they believe need to be addressed.
Finally, in its own sneaky way it is a short seminar in itself this time with built in closure.
Once these preliminaries are completed, students reseat. I collect their Immersion Circle Assessment Sheets in two piles. I then shuffle the inner circle's pile face down so even I don't know who got which. Then I distribute them face down to outer circle students. Finally, I ask one of the outer circle assessors who can easily see the clock to tell me when the roughly desired amount of time has been spent in seminar.
From there I sit down in one of the empty chairs in the inner circle and simply facilitate their seminar. Thus, at this point it is really little different from standard seminars. However, since I will score participants' peer assessor performance, I do try to be aware of outer circle behavior while facilitating.
After going through the seminar with reflection, I collect the outer circle's completed Immersion Circle Assessment Sheets. Then I thank both circles for their participation and have them reverse their seating.
Once that is done, the process is simply repeated.
That night I place my scores on the student papers. The next day I return the completed assessment sheets to the participants. They are asked to turn them in the following day with completed "self-assessment" counters. Then, we move on to the next item of class business.
When I collect the assessment sheets for scoring, if there are no self-assessment counters, I simply put the first column's final score in my gradebook. If there are self-assessment counters, I read their arguments and refigure their scores accordingly.
To avoid a grading quagmire, I do insist that this refigured score be final.
Although this may sound a little complicated, it really isn't. The normal cycle can easily be completed in a single Block 4 class period. In a standard 45-60 minute period, it is easy to complete the cycle in two periods. It should be noted, however, that as students improve in the Socratic seminar process, cycles tend to take longer. I also tend to increase the number of blank lines on the Immersion Circle Assessment Sheet and decrease my own benchmarks, as students better understand the process.
Why use immersion circles?
Immersion circles offer several advantages. They fit large classrooms well. They build student ownership of the Socratic seminar process. They involve everyone in the assessment process, thus lifting the assessment burden at least partially off the teacher's shoulders. They encourage authentic writing. They incorporate portfolio usage. What's more, once in place, the immersion circle process is uncomplicated, fun, and flexible.
Henrik Ibsen once wrote, "The community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm." Immersion circles in Socratic seminars do just this. All work together; all "take the helm."
If you believe one or more of the peer observer's scores are incorrect, you may submit a self-assessment counter score in the appropriate columns above. Then write a brief and specific explanation justifying each counter score in the space provided below. If it is clear and reasonable, your score will be adjusted accordingly. Feel free to continue on the back if necessary.
About the Authors:
for my students who say they have no time for reading
Cecil Morris teaches English at Roseville High School where he is also the faculty advisor of the school literary magazine.
Adventures in reading with apologies to Harcourt, Brace , and World
I am about six years old and I am lying in bed one cold, foggy evening. My ypounger brother snuggles next to me on the bottom bunk as we listen deliciously to our dad read to us about the brave firemen and their devoted black and white spotted dog who together save the nice people in the old brownstone in the big city. The evening is special because my dad works most nights as a shift worker in the oilfields out near Taft. We don't see my dad much; he always seems to be heading off to work or heading off to sleep. I may have invented this cozy memory after some years reading to my own children when they were little. I do know that I was an early and avid reader mostly because my parents and grandparents valued reading.
One of my grandfathers was a Baptist preacher. He read aloud to his grandkidsfrom his worn, dogeared, leatherbound Kin James Bible with a serious, resonant reverence that still awes the impressionable eight year old of my memory. The gift of the word retains a mystical gravity for its sound and meaning.
I scandalized my mom one day by reading aloud from a "MAD" (Our Price 15c Cheap) Magazine when I was about ten. Perhaps if I had not chosen to read to some lady from church my mom was trying to impress she might have been less embarrassed. Or not. Anyway, Mom thought the satire in "MAD" might encourage her kid to think a bit. I think that was her rationale. She didn't know that her best friend and neighbor smuggled these outrageous pulp mags into our house when she came over for coffee. Slightly zany, offbeat Auntie Harryette has a lot to answer for, I think.
I don't remember who brought the "Classic Comic" to our freshman English class, but I suspect we weren't the first students in the 1960s to comprehend the plots of Treasure Island, Moby-Dick, or Hamlet through the pictureboof format. I do remember the guilty pleasure I felt when I hid one of those thick, richly colored comic books among the serious pages of my algebra homework, securely and discreetly nestled in a blue canvas binder.
Somehow, Long John Silver seemed more menacing, more sinister, and more cunning in the comic than in the Disney remake. The beginnings of critical analysis or jusy adolsecent obstinence?
My slightly bohemian friend Vickie Woodruff slipped a book into my hand after French class one afternoon. She said I should keep this scarlet-bound
Bantam paperback out of sight, "just in case." The Catcher in the Rye was not on the officially approved reading list of the Kern County Union High School District. I read the whole book in one night feeling remotely bohemian, vaguely iconoclastic, and absolutely hip. I still enjoy the reactions of my students when they recognize the flummoxed, frustated, ironic, and pathetic voice of Holden Caulfield when he escapes
Pencey Prep. "Sleep tight, ya morons!" is still funny and seems amazingly appropriate sometimes.
Okay. I was lucky to have grown up in an environment that encouraged, however apprehensively, broad reading. Though my reading adventures may not be typical, I'll bet they're similar to those of many other English teachers. Our students do not necessarily have the secure environment for reading discovery that many of us took for granted. Today's kids are bombarded by a cynical and insecure culture that seems suspicious of thinking readers, that discounts thoughtful reading, that promotes electronic entertainment and a kind of narrow-minded bottomline thinking. As professional readers we must help our students explore the pleasures and provocations of reading broadly, deeply, and well.
California teachers can't help but be struck by the irony of our circumstance. Despite the evidence that students who attend schools with good libraries tend to read better than others; despite the evidence of improved readding test scores; despite the achievement of a literature-based curriculum that finally begins to reflect California's diversity, California's education policy makers have decided that more testing is preferable to more reading. The adventures our students have in their reading are shaped by politically motivated policy that makes reading for pleasure, understanding, or appreciation subject to basic skills tests and comprehension drills.
An educational culture that has politicized how students are taught to read will also politicize what students get to read and why they read. Cost effectiveness will be preferred to inefficient creativity. Measurable gains are best measured when everyone reads the same stories, poems, essays, plays, and everyone connects the dots and colors within the lines. Fortunately, English teachers are a notorious ly intractable lot. Like the the hero of Walden, who refused to beat his students with a wooden stick, English teachers must creatively avoid beating their students with wooden standards by inviting their students into an active and energized life of the mind available through wide reading.
Thoreau noted that even the best readers in his hometown Concord, Mass. ("the hub of the universe")were not very literate. He might appreciate how similar smug contemporary California is compared to his smug Concord. English teachers are the architects who may "throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us." Reading is the transport to countless undiscovered countries real, imagined, and metaphoric. English teachers must be willing to validate the passports of young reading adventurers whether the official state seal is properly affixed or not. We can't expect to return the nostalgic safety of the 1950s, television notwithstanding, but we can make our classrooms safe places to disciver the joy and adventure of reading. We can model the behavior of professional readers by exemplifying what we believe about reading for more than the test. Perhaps in these pages of California English you'll find the ideas that will help you validate some passports.