Ligonier Valley teacher makes reading a social activity
Note: This story is also featured in the March 2015 issue of Voice.
Dee Ambrose-Stahl always saw a lot of research on reading and elementary students, but as a secondary school teacher she was often frustrated about the dearth of academic writings on adolescent reading.
Then, while working on her master's in reading at Edinboro University about two years ago, she came across research by Winnie Mucherah, a developmental psychology professor at Ball State University.
"Finally, I found someone writing about adolescents and reading,'' said Ambrose-Stahl, a seventh- through 12th-grade language arts teacher in the Ligonier Valley School District, Westmoreland County. "I sent Dr. Mucherah a note thanking her and complimenting her on her research.''
To her surprise, Mucherah wrote back, saying she was glad to hear from "a practicing teacher'' and raised the possibility of their doing some joint research.
She and Mucherah, who is from Kenya and maintains academic connections there, decided to study reading motivation and achievement among U.S. seventh-graders, the grade level Ambrose-Stahl was teaching at the time.
Seventh grade was also a good age level since seventh-graders in Pennsylvania take the PSSAs in reading, and those in Kenya take what are called "district exams.'' Those exams are critical because Kenyan students must pass them in order to proceed to high school, so their motivation to read is both academic and cultural in that going on to high school holds great societal standing.
Their peers have recognized the significance of their ongoing research. They were selected from more than 13,000 applications to present in April at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Foundation (www.aero.net) in Chicago. Their work also has been published in prestigious international and national journals.
Making reading a social activity
What really stood out to Ambrose-Stahl when she looked at the results of their reading motivation questionnaires was that her Ligonier Valley seventh-graders in no way saw reading as a social activity.
That surprised her because it conflicts with previously published research she had seen, and because of today's seventh-graders' access and use of social media, which certainly requires reading in order to participate.
"I asked myself, 'How is the best way to turn reading into a social activity?''' Ambrose-Stahl said.
She came up with two ideas.
First, she started a Reading Sharing Circle where Ambrose-Stahl and students would sit on the floor talking about things they were reading or had read, what they liked about it, and what they had learned.
The format really lent itself to peer dynamics. If a peer thought something was interesting or "cool,'' others tended to want to read it, too.
"I had students who had never checked out a library book starting to go to the library and get some of the books they had heard about in the circle,'' Ambrose-Stahl said.
The other was something called "Brandon's Story.'' Starting with the opening of school in the fall, each school day began with the story - the title of which and the author of which Ambrose-Stahl said were fictitious. She told them she'd reveal the real title and author before winter recess.
Each day, she'd pick out some material to discuss, and a big feature was her showcasing it on her whiteboard with students predicting what would come next in the story. Their interests took off beyond her wildest dreams.
"I'd hear them talking about it in the hallway before coming in for class,'' she said. "Even the principal started to drop by the class to see what was happening next.''
The big day
What the students didn't know was the story was being written by Ambrose-Stahl as the days and weeks went along.
"I spent every spare moment I had writing,'' Ambrose-Stahl said, laughing.
When the day came to reveal the true title and author, she set things up for an announcement to make over the PA system, and she said there was "deadly silence'' in the hallway.
"When the announcer said the title is 'Third and Long,' (it has a football theme) and that the author was me, a huge roar went up throughout the building,'' Ambrose-Stahl said. "I've never felt so uplifted as a teacher. My soapbox now is we have to step back with reading and how we teach it,'' she said. "I'm convinced the test scores will come if we do.''