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Reclaiming the Classroom With Engaged Reading

by Teresa Lesage
 | May 14, 2015

This year began differently. Every year is unique: new students, new preps, new schedule, new rooms, new colleagues, but this year, after only a few days, I sensed something in my freshmen students I had not yet experienced—quiet. I joked for the first couple of days about “dream students” and plowing ahead more quickly through the Common Core scope and sequence. However, after the first week or so, I grew uneasy because while the students were quiet, they were also unexcited and uninvolved—almost inert. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was happening with them, and then I read “Engagement With Young Adult Literature: Outcomes and Processes” (Ivey & Johnston, 2013), which questions the validity of current engagement models. Ryan Rutherford and Jo Worthy wrote about this study in a previous Literacy Daily post.

I realized engagement had come to be viewed as teachers manipulating students or “hooking them” to capture their attention. There was little emphasis on students’ concerns, emotion, and sense of agency. So, time for a revolution. Or maybe less a revolution and really a reclamation of what I have always known and believed to be good teaching and of what I have always valued—the learning process.

First, I reflected on both my students’ and my own engagement. Second, to support my observations, I surveyed my students about their sense of behavioral, emotional, social, and agentic engagement in my classroom and the school. Unsurprisingly, about 80% admitted they felt little to no agency anywhere in school, and those who “succeeded” actually aimed merely for a grade. Third, I prioritized student-selected young adult literature and time to read in the classroom—all necessary factors according to Ivey and Johnston (2013) for engaged reading. Fourth, I sought approval for this curricular change. I addressed the school’s improvement plan, and argued passionately to my head principal that I could balance my school and district’s demand for aligned skills in the areas of research, academic writing, and speaking and listening, with student freedom. I wanted my students to choose what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it without a whole-class text or one-size-fits all instructional model. Finally, I culled lists of texts that appeal to students and that inspire conversation, pulling from a variety of sources such as the Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers lists from the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), ordered books thanks to grants, had students unpack their library, and we jumped in. We haven’t looked back since.

Class sessions now largely involve authentic discussions between students about books, writing, researching and more, as we now view reading and learning as social events of shared experience. I also regularly confer with individuals in order to build relationships and to push cognitive growth. To finish a text and to ace a summative assessment are no longer the foci; rather, relationships and learning for learning’s sake rule, as students teach each other more than I ever imagined possible. Everyone has read, written, researched, spoken, been listened to, and listened, and much as Ivey and Johnston found, I have found that students’ academic achievement continually meet or exceed the Common Core standards.

One of my students put it best: “Choos[ing] my own books and their content has been a very liberating and opening experience . . . . Being allowed to choose my books has help[ed] me live.” Well, the changes Ivey and Johnston’s research have inspired in my classroom have helped me live, again.

Teresa Lesage teaches English at West High School in Madison, WI.

The ILA Literacy Research Panel uses this blog to connect educators around the world with research relevant to policy and practice. Reader response is welcomed via e-mail.


Ivey, G., & Johnston, P. (2013) Engagement with young adult literature: Outcomes and processes. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(3) pp.255-275.

The views expressed in this piece are the author's (or authors') and should not be taken as representing the position of the International Literacy Association or of the ILA Literacy Research Panel.

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