First Person

First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read

PHOTO: Jarred Amato
Independent reading time in the author's classroom.

As an English teacher, I believe there is tremendous power in having students reflect on their own reading habits. So after our 20 minutes of independent reading, I asked my ninth graders a few questions.

How often do you read? Do you enjoy reading more now than you did in the past? What challenges do you face as a reader? What can Mr. Amato do to help you succeed?

Their answers were honest and illuminating. They also made me realize how important it is for teachers to understand why many students aren’t reading as much as we (or they) would like so that we can work with them to find solutions.

Here are the top seven challenges students face as readers, according to a survey of approximately 100 ninth-graders at Maplewood High School, a high-poverty school in Nashville, Tenn.

1. Cell phone addiction.

This should come as no surprise. One student told me, “I stay on my phone 24/7.” Another added, “Whenever I see a message on my phone, I have to answer it.”

If students keep their phones in sight while reading, it’s virtually impossible for them to finish a page without feeling the urge to check for a text message, Instagram like, or Snapchat.

2. A short attention span.

Several students reported that they have trouble staying focused for a long period of time. For example, one student said, “I get off task easily and get into something else,” while another said simply, “My attention span is kind of low.”

There is no question that cell phone addiction contributes to their lack of focus, and my students certainly aren’t alone. A recent report said the average attention span of a human is down to just eight seconds — one second less than that of a goldfish. (That number may not be fully accurate, but it certainly feels like it is.)

3. Responsibilities at home.

I am constantly amazed by the strength and maturity of my students. One student said, “I have to help my little brother do his work, and help my mom around the house,” and several others also mentioned that they are on babysitting duty after school.

I was really impressed with one student who came up with a solution to her problem. “I have to babysit, so I’ve started to let my niece read while I read also,” she said. How awesome is that?

4. No quiet places to read at home.

Several students mentioned the fact that their home isn’t conducive for reading. One student said, “There’s not a lot of quiet places to read at home, so I can’t read as much as I’d like.” Another cited the “loudness at my house,” while a third said, “I never have time and when I do I never have a quiet place to read.”

5. Extracurricular activities.

From sports to band practice to work, a lot of our students are extremely busy after school, which affects their ability to read as often as they’d like.

“When I come from practice, I usually eat dinner and go to bed,” said one student-athlete. “During track season, I can’t read as much,” said another. “I’ll catch up over the summer, though.”

6. Lack of interest.

If students are going to put away their smartphone and take out a book, they certainly want to read something that they enjoy. Unfortunately, some students reported that they have a hard time finding books that interest them.

7. Lack of motivation.

I appreciated how honest a few students were about their lack of motivation to read. In fact, one student wrote, “The only obstacle I have is me wanting to read.” Another stated, “I don’t push myself to pick up a book and start reading.”

My biggest takeaway from these reflections? As English teachers, we can help students overcome several of these challenges.

We can create quiet and comfortable reading environments in our classrooms for students who don’t have other calm places. We can also give our students consistent time to read, when they know their cell phones must be put away and that nobody will be talking. That consistent practice can help students get into a reading routine, boosting attention spans, reading stamina, and attitudes toward reading.

Finally, in order to address those last two obstacles — students’ lack of interest and lack of motivation — English teachers have to be motivators. We also have to be avid readers ourselves in order to make recommendations and prove to our reluctant readers that not all books are boring. They just haven’t found the right one yet.

This piece first appeared on A Look Inside Mr. Amato’s Classroom.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.