Are They Really Reading? Expanding SSR in the Middle Grades
reviewed by Kimberly Kimbell-Lopez - 2003
Title: Are They Really Reading? Expanding SSR in the Middle Grades
Author(s): Jodi Crum Marshall
Publisher: Stenhouse Publishers, York
ISBN: 1571103376, Pages: 166, Year: 2002
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Jodi Crum Marshall has written a text that speaks from the vantage point of a middle school teacher while offering advice and wisdom appropriate for teachers across levels spanning elementary to high school. In her book, Are They Really Reading: Expanding SSR in the Middle Grades, Marshall builds upon the traditional concept of sustained silent reading to also incorporate reading aloud and writing. The resulting program, Supporting Student Literacy (SSL), is based on her classroom experiences and incorporates research proven methods designed to increase student motivation and learning. Reminiscent of Nancie Atwell’s (2002) In the Middle and Linda Rief’s (1998) Seeking Diversity, this book will reach out to many teachers searching for a way to meet the needs of struggling readers in the middle school classroom.
The foreword by Janet Allen (pp. ix-x) references A Stone in My Shoe: Teaching Literacy in Times of Change by Lorri Neilsen (1994). She states that Neilsen’s book, like Marshall’s, illustrates how really great teachers ask “what if” questions. Allen shares that “Jodi began to see the ‘perceived knowledge’ of the professional community as provisional until she could document that the time and practice were making a difference in the literate lives of her students” (p. x). Allen states that the stone in Marshall’s shoe was sustained silent reading, and Marshall examined this stone as part of her desire for “wanting to use every minute of her time with children in ways that could really make a difference” (p. x).
As she tells her story, Marshall draws upon a wealth of educational knowledge in order to increase her students’ reading strength and ability. She makes connections with such noted researchers as Richard Allington (2001), Patricia Cunningham (2001), Stephen Krashen (1993), and Frank Smith (1994). Following along the lines of one size fits few (Ohanian, 1999), Marshall emphasizes that the actual program each teacher should use will be based on the needs, interests, abilities, and voices of the students who enter the classroom each year. The case for her SSL program is further supported when she cites data from informal and formal measures indicating academic gains in reading and language (pp. 91-92).
In Chapter One, Marshall shares how she began her journey by questioning whether her middle school students were really reading. She also discusses initial changes that were made in scheduling, accountability, and the book selection process. Chapter Two illustrates how classroom conversations were used to guide the changes made in the program. Marshall talks knowledgeably about the lengths students will go to in order to get out of reading (i.e. avoidance, indifference, disruptive behavior, and fake reading). This chapter also details how her students encouraged her to give grades for the time they read in her room, and how she created a universal reading log to help keep track of the books that were read and where they had left off last when reading. Other concerns addressed include scheduling, time (i.e. 10-30 minutes), and the need to incorporate sustained silent writing.
Chapter Three looks at the need to build a literate classroom environment by providing access to books along with suggestions for increasing the classroom library. She stresses the need to know your students so that their interests and reading levels can be matched with a book that will motivate them to read. Chapter Four emphasizes that the high-quality teacher of a SSL program must be a researcher, facilitator, listener, questioner, motivator, and reader. She again addresses the issues of accountability and grading. In Chapter Five, Marshall shares how she sought the input of her students through the use of surveys and conversations. As in other chapters, she reaffirms the fact that struggling readers often need help in selecting a book to read. One of the major areas she addresses is how important reading aloud is to a successful program.
Chapter Six will be helpful to schools wishing to implement a school-wide program, since it details some of the trials, tribulations, and successes based on Marshall’s own experiences as a middle school reading specialist. In this chapter, she states the need for the faculty to buy-in to the program. She also stresses the importance of sufficient professional development to support the staff during the initial year of implementation as well as in subsequent years. Chapter Seven is especially useful for a quick overview of the SSL program where Marshall lists out frequently asked questions and answers. A major appeal for teachers will be the appendices that include daily reading and writing forms; student and parent survey forms; guidelines and grading scale; and a year long sample schedule replete with writing prompts and suggestions for reading aloud. Another added bonus is the detailed listing of titles for teens and resources for teachers.
Citing from Katie Ray’s (1999) Wondrous Words, Marshall clearly illustrates the ultimate goal she has for her students—to develop a true love for reading (p. 100):
I remember the first time I realized the students were gazing up at me while I was reading to them. I was overcome for a moment at how significant their gaze was, at how much trust I saw in their upturned faces. At how awesome my responsibility was to fill that space between them and me with words, wondrous words that would not disappoint them, words that would not let them down, words that they and I could stand on, walk across and meet one another in a place that ordinary words of our days forbid us to go. It was a journey of words we could make together through reading.
Another favorite quote Marshall includes from Mahatma Gandhi (p. 98) most suggests the perspective that she adhered to throughout the development of the program:
You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
This quote will strike near and dear to the heart of teachers who struggle to go against the flow that is commonly dictated by the current political environment. It is clear that Marshall will do what needs to be done in order to change not only how her students view reading but also to change how other teachers approach that same task.
Overall, the lessons and anecdotes that will be gleaned from Marshall’s text will prove to be an essential resource for teachers who find they also have ‘a stone in their shoe’ when working to implement an effective SSR program.
Allington, R. (2001). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. New York: Longman.
Atwell, N. (2002). In the middle: Writing, reading, and learning with adolescents (2nd Ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Cunningham, P., Hall, D., and Sigmon, C. (2001). The teacher’s guide to the four blocks: A multimethod, multilevel framework for grades 1-3. Greensboro, NC: Carson Dellosa.
Krashen, S. (1993). The power of reading. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Neilsen, L. (1994). A stone in my shoe: Teaching literacy in times of change. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Penguis.
Ohanian, S. (1999). One size fits few: The folly of educational standards. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Ray, K. W. (1999). Wondrous words: Writers and writing in the elementary classroom. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Rief, L. (1988). Seeking diversity: Language arts with adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Smith, F. (1994). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.