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CSS Reads- Grade 9

 Jason Publack & Abby Saadeh~ Grade 9 Humanities

The Grade 9 teaching team, which included two student teachers this term, constructed a reading competition based on the CBC’s Canada Reads program. Scott Bailey, one of our University of Calgary student teachers, created a CSS Reads website to share and track the process of competition. The site is an excellent exemplar for schools wishing to host their own ______ Reads unit. Please let us know if you are hosting a similar competition. We would love to connect.

The question every student needed to answer was this: Why is this novel meaningful and relevant for CSS grade 9 students?

Over two months, the grade 9 students of the Calgary Science School read books of their choosing, reviewing and critiquing them in search of the ultimate novel for their class. Taking inspiration from the CBC's "Canada Reads" contest, all 100 students, five teachers and two student teachers participated. The project ran through a series of "rounds" and students tracked their reading, thinking and writing about their selected books through personal blogs and videos. Because our 100 students are split into four classrooms of 25 it was decided that they would begin in groups of five that would, through votes of elimination, narrow down their five books to a single novel that the group would put forward to the class. The process was captured on the CSS Reads website here. 

The Grade 9 teaching team modelled the debate process for the students which included a video introduction for his choice from our Superintendent Dr. Garry McKinnon. 

This process of narrowing down the choices took four hours over multiple days; students defended and attacked the books within their group on the basis of themes, reader engagement, appropriate content, reading level, character motivation, writing style, and even believability. After the groups of five chose a single book to champion in front of the class the debate became a classroom affair. Each classroom of 25 deliberated for a full two periods and chose one book to put forward as their “Class Choice.”

The four finalists, from the four grade 9 classes were:
The Alchemist
The Illustrated Man
Boy in the Striped Pajamas

We could not be happier. Here we have The Alchemist, a classic novel acting as a mass-metaphor for living life and following your dreams, up against a free-verse style poetry collection detailing (in a sometimes graphic manner) the struggle of a young woman’s drug addiction in Crank. Across the table from those two are equally surprising selections. The Illustrated Man, unlike its opponents, is a collection of science-fiction short stories, written 60 years ago, detailing harrowing tales of alien encounters and the dangers of technologies. Whereas the Boy in the Striped Pajamas is historical fiction, following two nine-year-old boys developing a relationship through a concentration-camp fence, building bonds beyond the German/Jew demands of their society. Each of the four has varying themes and messages, from the need to reject peer pressure and build self-reliance, to multi-culturalism and hope.

100 students, from four classrooms, came together and found a collection of books, some of which most teachers would never have considered, and told us what we were missing. Which teacher would have thought that The Illustrated Man, written in the time of their grand-parents, would garner 22% of the popular vote? Which teacher would have believed that Crank could inspire a male reader to defend a female protagonist’s fight against drugs through poetry?! The point is, by the end of the debates every student had read two books, every student researched at least one other, and every student asked him/herself the question, “What book has meaning for me as a grade 9 student?”

It was beautiful. Two weeks later students were asking each other which book to read next. For students and teachers, we consider this unit a win.

If you host your own ____ Reads competition at your school, please let us know. We would love to connect and hear how you adapted the unit.


Lisa said...

Mr. Publack,

This is a truly inspiring idea for many reasons. Your own love of reading and passion for literature has directly influenced your students and it seems like they have grown as critical thinkers and readers through this project.
When I was in school, I always wondered why or how books were chosen but there was a never a place to explore my questions and my thoughts were never entertained because it wouldn`t have made a difference if I thought a book was meaningful to my education. My love of reading developed outside of the classroom which was a shame because as you know so much can be explored and questioned with peers and teachers.
Its a teachers dream to experience students passionately debate over literature and come together as a community of critical readers. I would have loved to be a part of those conversations.
If they didn`t already have a love for reading, I am sure the roots are firmly planted in many students for a lifelong appreciation of literature, its place in education, and its representation of the state of the world.
Great work Grade 9`s, as always I am impressed by the depth and intelligence your work conveys. I commend the teachers for inspiring your students to find quality reads on their own while giving them great tools of critique and assessment to use in their journey.

Kindest Regards,

Lisa Nguyen

Garry McKinnon said...

Jason, it is a great blog that you have written on behalf of the grade 9 Humanities teachers and student teachers who were involved in this exciting initiative. The website that was created to provide a comprehensive description of the CSS Reads process is very well done. The high level of engagement of the grade 9 students and teachers is a true measure of the success of this innovative approach to promote reading. Hopefully readers of your blog will take up the challenge to host a similar competition in their schools and to share their experience with others.

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