Sunday, June 2, 2013

Motivating with a Close Reading of Pop Music in an RTI Reading Class For Middle School Students

If you are an educator working with young adults, you probably understand all too well that in order for students to learn they must be motivated to do so.   Think back to an individual in your classroom who has struggled, and I am confident that at least part of the reason could be traced back to lack of engagement.  It is no surprise that students act out or choose not to participate fully because they are bored or uninspired.  These same students, however, suddenly transform into energized and animated alter egos when the school day ends,  once again returning to their world of you tube videos, MTV, and itunes.   We know that  adolescents are “social actors” who “bring their popular culture into the school culture where the struggle between these two is inevitable”  (McLaren as cited in Wood et. al, 2006 p.56).  The reality is that  bringing popular culture into classroom lessons could significantly reduce the motivation issues that exist in many classrooms today.   Personally, I have found that welcoming pop music and other forms of pop culture daily into my Response to Intervention reading course has caused glazed-over eyes to dissipate and objectives to be met with more enthusiasm.  
           When my colleague Erica Martin and  I became reading interventionists, working with struggling middle school readers,  we quickly learned that our students would not make any reading gains if they weren't motivated to read.  Our students are not unique in this way:  more and more students across America have chosen a path of non-reading.  In fact, Kelly Gallagher has recently asserted that we are less in danger of having an illiterate society as we are of having an aliterate one.  Not only do many of my students struggle with motivation, but they also require intervention in the areas of vocabulary, comprehension, writing, and reading fluency.  One effective way Erica and I have found to strengthen motivation and increase reading skills simultaneously is to incorporate pop music into our daily plans.  
         Fluency refers to the reader’s ability to read text accurately, at an appropriate rate, and with appropriate expression.  If a reader struggles with fluency and reading the words, he or she will most likely experience difficulties making meaning from the text.  One research-based method to help older students who struggle with reading fluently is to perform repeated readings of the same text (Gillet, et. al, 2008).  Here the student practices reading a passage repeatedly until the same passage begins to sound like conversational speech.  Tim Rasinski, a leader in the field of literacy development, recommends using songs to increase reading fluency.  According to Rasinski, the melody of a song “may also be thought of as a form of prosody, an important element in fluency” (2010, p. 134).  Asking students to practice reading the lyrics while simultaneously singing a song to which they donot already know the words is an excellent way to add pop culture into a class while teaching fundamental skills (Rasinski, 2010).   Thus, Erica and I decided to combine the repeated reading and song approaches inside our classroom.
         At first, we chose random songs that we thought students might like to sing, but eventually we discovered that we could increase students' background knowledge with the songs we selected.  As Kelly Gallagher says, "You have to know stuff to be able to read stuff."  In other words, students with limited background knowledge will struggle to connect new learning with existing knowledge.  Thus, comprehension becomes a challenge.  What began as an entertaining way to build fluency, slowly morphed into a key component of our balanced-literacy RTI intervention program.
          Every Monday, students perform a close reading of a new song before singing it.  Students read the song silently with a pencil in their hand.  As Fischer and Frey recommend, they underline what they feel is important, circle what is confusing, and annotate their ideas and wonderings as they read.  Then, they discuss their findings in a small group.  I am always quite amazed by how this process alone leads to some very deep conversations about theme and extended metaphors (although the students are often not aware that this is what they are doing) without an adult ever having to open her mouth to ask a question.  In fact, some of the text-dependent questions I have created no longer need to be asked after observing their rich discussions.  Next, the students reread the song and write about the discussions that they had in their groups, reflecting on what the song means to them.   Finally, for a third read, I  play a you tube version of the song that contains the lyrics for students to sing along to practice fluency.  If you think middle school students are too shy to sing aloud, think again.  Some of my most stubborn students had the most fun with the singing portion of intervention.

          Each day that week, students will practice their fluency with that same song,  sometimes singing as a group and sometimes reading the lyrics into their ipods to play back and self assess using The Florida Center For Reading Research Reading Fluency Evaluation.  They chart their progress and reflect on their own reading skills.  Once per week, they participate in a partner scoring, taking turns evaluating each other to ensure they are using the evaluation rubric correctly.  The songs they sing always connect thematically with the texts we will read that week. Sometimes the song lyrics are deep and reflective, while other times the content is on lighter side.  For example, when we were reading about the Swine Flu Pandemic, we used a parody of "We Didn't Start the Fire" called "The Swine Flu Song" that claims pigs were unfairly blamed for the flu outbreak.   While reading stories and articles about Hurricane Katrina, we found a song titled "Still New Orleans" that discusses how New Orleans will remain strong despite the devastating effects the hurricane had on the city.  Just last week, we  learned that several students had little, if any, knowledge about Memorial Day and why they received Monday off school.  Along with articles about how the holiday evolved, students performed a close read of  Tim McGraw's "If You're Reading This" about a soldier who has written a letter to his wife to be read should he not be able return home.


       Along with the close reading, the words we choose to explicitly teach during intervention using Beck's Word Conversation Method can always be found in that week's songs and related readings.  We select Tier 2 and Tier 3 words that connect to the theme of the week, so that students can easily apply their new words to writing tasks after they've been exposed to the words several times first.   
        Sometimes, in my conversations with teachers from other schools who are also teaching reading interventions, Erica and I will receive mixed reactions when teachers learned that our program does not come pre-packaged in a box that contains the label "research-based."  How can we get away with using a program that is not 'research-based'?  They always want to know.  Our answer is always the same:  Our work is research-based.   Just because it does not come with pre-printed worksheets and handouts that can be recycled to use again each year regardless of which students appear in our desks or what is currently going on in the world, does not in any way take away from the fact that all of the strategies and methods are well-researched and supported by those leading the work in the field of literacy.  I would, in fact, argue that what we do is better than anything that could be bought simply because it is created with individual students in mind.  After all, need I remind you of the biggest obstacle that a middle school teacher has to hurdle?  Motivation.  Finding texts that are timely and engaging is something we have going for us that those boxed programs simply do not.  After all, the boxed programs are created for the masses.  Ours are created for that student in period four who hates reading but cannot stop telling us fun facts about sharks.  Which do you think is more motivating for that student?  
         Furthermore,  if you haven't snuck a peak at What Works Clearninghouse (WWC) recently, you might want to do so.  The WWC,  created by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Educational Sciences, provides educators with information to help make "evidence-based" decisions about whether or not various intervention programs yield significant results.   

You'll probably find as you browse the WWC that the same pricey programs that claim to work miracles on their webpages and the colorful fliers that line your mailbox each day,  do not boast such outstanding results  after all if you were to look closely at the data.   As educators, we know what can happen if we do not explicitly teach our students to consider author bias when evaluating sources and how we should never simply take a source at its word.  Please don't forget to do the same when you are considering how you will spend the crucial time you have with the students who need you the most.  Their futures depend on it.

Works Cited

Gillet, , J.W., Temple, C., & Crawford, A. (2008). Understanding reading problems: assessment and instruction. United States of America: Pearson Eduction, Inc.

Rasinski, T. V. (2010). The fluent reader. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Scholastic Press.

Wood, K. D., Soares, L., & Watson, P. (2006). Research into practice: Empowering adolescents through critical literacy. Middle school journal, 37(3), 55-59.

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