The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Reading Big in the Classroom

A stack of books. Photo by Jamie McCrary

The mission of the Big Read is not only to get people reading, but to educate. We want readers to think about, question, and examine what they’re reading! I believe that a good book opens the mind, teaching readers new cultures, ideas, and ways of thinking.

While the Big Read provides a list of recommended books to read and literacy events to attend, we also provide some pretty juicy educational materials, which are available both for grantees and the general public. On the Big Read website, almost every book is accompanied with a reader’s guide, teacher’s guide, and an audio guide, each with lessons plans, discussion questions, and book summaries.

With all these educational resources on our site, I couldn’t help but wonder: Are any classrooms in the country using Big Read materials? And, if so, how has this influenced their students---and their teachers? Linda Crawford, language arts instructor at Arvada-Clearmont Junior-Senior High School in Clearmont, Wyoming, answered those questions for me yesterday. An educator for nearly 25 years and language arts instructor at Arvada-Clearmont for the past six, Mrs. Crawford teaches grades 7-12, usually working with each grade level every day. Below, Crawford gives us insight into her classroom, exploring how her use of the Big Read materials has impacted both her students and her teaching.

NEA: Which Big Read book have your students been reading? Why did you choose this specific book?

LINDA CRAWFORD: My ninth-graders just finished Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In this particular class I have five boys and one girl. They're very strong readers. They read a lot. I wanted to give them something that had a message that would be a little more challenging. I think the whole idea of the book is important---that a society without books would not be a pleasant place to be. Ray Bradbury does a great job of using words that are a bit more difficult, and it is sci-fi, which is an interest a majority of them have. Last year, they read The Giver by Lois Lowry. Fahrenheit 451 talks about things they could connect back into The Giver. We were able to compare and contrast how these two authors wrote about their ideas of the perfect society.

NEA: At Arvada-Clearmont, you have very small class sizes. What are some positives and negatives you’ve encountered with this?

CRAWFORD: Yes, this year my largest class is nine students and my smallest is six, and I’ve had as few as one. The smaller class definitely gives me more of an opportunity to interact with each individual student. So, when I have a student who’s struggling with something, I can just stop whatever we're doing and have a conversation with him. When you get down to one, two, or even three students, it's very difficult to have a strong discussion. I think part of that has to do with the limited exposure some of our students have. Because we live in rural Wyoming and some of our students don’t travel, they're not aware of things beyond their scope. Sometimes those discussions can be a little challenging when you're talking about literature.

NEA: How did you hear about the Big Read? What motivated you to use our materials?

CRAWFORD: I prepare for six classes a day, so you can imagine when I have that much preparation, I am constantly looking for materials. When my ninth-graders were starting Fahrenheit 451, I did a search for the book and the Big Read was the site that came up. I started looking through the materials that were there, and I was very impressed with the different aspects of the book that were covered within the lesson plans. I could look back at my common core standards and I could say, "Oh, this really fits in well!" So I thought, “We're going to try this and see how it goes.”

NEA: Was there any material you found particularly engaging or useful?

CRAWFORD: I loved the audio part of it! I think that gave something to the students that they don't normally get. The author is actually talking about his writing, and where it came from. If I could have that for every book we do, that would be so great. It just gets the students hooked in! They realize that, “Wow, this is a real person who told this story and wrote this book, and this is what they were thinking when they did this!” I can tell them some of that, but the audio makes it so much more real.

NEA: Thus far, what do you see as being one of the strongest influences the Big Read has had on your students? Is there a specific example that illustrates this?

CRAWFORD: For their Fahrenheit 451 final project, they were required to do an oral presentation and discuss different aspects of the book. It was really interesting to see interpretations of things within the novel that they may not have recognized had we not been using the Big Read’s materials. The exercises and hand-outs on character development were particularly helpful. These helped them explore what Bradbury was trying to do, what the message was in the book, and even helped them tie characters into the theme. It all made them think a little deeper, and more critically.

NEA: How do you believe the Big Read has impacted your teaching?

CRAWFORD: In some cases it has given me an opportunity to think about the reading in a different way. For example, the Culture and Art unit is definitely not something I would have thought to tie into my teaching. It turns out there were two students in class who are very into band. They've played instruments since elementary school, so they really connected to the musical focus in that unit. If I hadn't had the Big Read, I would have never thought to incorporate that.

NEA: What do you think is one of the most crucial issues in literary arts education today?

CRAWFORD: At this point in my career, I feel so overwhelmed with the continually changing standards that we're presented with. Just trying to stay on top of what the next expectation the government is going to have is very overwhelming. It's definitely not like it was ten years ago when I came to the classroom. Then, you just looked to see what the students knew and you taught them the next level. Now, you have to be focused more on where the government expects you to be. Every activity that you do better somehow relate to what you are “supposed” to get out of that class. My concern is that there's going to be holes in these people's education because of those expectations.

NEA: How do you think the Big Read could address this issue?

CRAWFORD: I would suggest making sure Big Read materials and activities tie back to common core standards. The more they do that, the more educators are going to look towards the Big Read to use in their classroom. Because of these government expectations, we really feel a pressure to tie each classroom activity into these standards.

NEA: What other Big Read books are in your classroom’s future?

CRAWFORD: My Antonia, by Willa Cather, The Maltese Falcon, by Danshiell Hammett, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and Call of the Wild, by Jack London.

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