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Juan Diego creates culture for reading, improves test scores

Feb 01, 2018 09:25AM ● Published by Julie Slama

Juan Diego students read about two hours per week during their homeroom time reading for pleasure. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By his own account, Juan Diego Catholic High Principal Galey Colosimo will admit that when people think of reading time, they think of elementary school.

Colosimo, who used to be an elementary principal, said initially he wasn’t able to get the entire faculty to buy into the idea of dropping everything to read for 30 minutes.

“The education approach is that they need to teach them content, not reading, in high school,” he said. “Some students grumbled, teachers weren’t all on board and everyone didn’t see the value of reading for leisure.”

Instead of dropping the idea, Colosimo fine-tuned it, bringing together 750 students, along with faculty, and combined the reading time with daily announcements in the auditorium. Now, students and teachers have their “nose to the book,” and seem to enjoy the time.

“What I didn’t expect was that it has built a sense of community. With students sitting next to each other reading, there was a sort of low-impact peer pressure for even those more hesitant to read,” he said about the second year of the program.

Junior Campbell Magrane was one of those students who didn’t fully support the reading program upon initiation.

“Homeroom was when we were able to hang with friends and then, they wanted us to sit and read,” he said. “It was a weird change. It took me about two months to get used to it, but now I really like it. I actually am beginning to love reading.”

Magrane, who plays basketball and baseball on the school teams, said that often fitting reading for fun in between homework and practices was hard.

“Now I’ll read on my Kindle on the bus going to games. I like to read murder mysteries, trying to solve them before the last page, and I like to read the books before seeing the movies,” he said.

Although the books they read are not for class, Magrane said he’s seen improvement in his reading.

“Before I’d look at some assignments and books and it was like words on a page. Now, it’s easier to understand and I’m able to read faster,” he said.

Colosimo said that it’s because of the deeper level of concentration and time reading that students are becoming more critical readers.

“We want our students to extend their stamina and read for leisure at a longer stretch of time. We want to get them doing what all of us used to do — read for leisure. We want them to read more thoughtful, longer writing, not a shorter news article. Our aim is to prepare our students for college and we want them to acquire the leisure reading to go along with the classics and rigor they will have in a classroom,” he said.

Unlike elementary schools where there are rules about how many minutes or books students need to read, Colosimo doesn’t want this time to be guided by rules. His only principles include that the recreational reading be in a book not an electronic device — “there’s a time and place for everything,” so after being online for hours each day, he wants students to actually pick up a book. He also allows them to stop reading a book if they don’t find it interesting. He also said the program doesn’t have any incentives or punishments — “no candy bars if you’re good or detention if you’re bad.”

“Reading is valuable in of itself and we want our students to develop a lifetime love of leisure reading,” he said. “So much of our education is test scores, which takes the fun out of learning and reading. We’re giving them the opportunity to trust in a different environment than the academic classroom.”

However, Colosimo said it is translating into success in the classroom as well. He said that oftentimes, students show that if high school students read for two hours per week, they do better in school.

“If you give students reading time, their reading levels will improve,” he said.

Each December, Juan Diego students take the Accuplacer Reading comprehension exams, which is a prerequisite for many college introductory classes. According to test results from 2015 to 2016, the most recent available, students reading scores increased 68 percent.

Junior class president Chloe Tatum, who is currently reading Pulitzer Prize winner “All the Light We Can’t See,” attributes her score of 33 out of 36 on the ACT in part to increased reading.

“As we read, we get better at reading, gain a wider vocabulary and learn others’ points of view,” she said. “I’ve always loved to read. I use reading as a way to unwind. I have four AP classes so instead of going straight from AP class to AP class, this gives me a chance to relax during my day and head back to class refreshed.”

Tatum also chats in the halls with her teachers, including a science teacher, for recommendations and about her current reading.

Juan Diego swim coach John Moran said he overhears team members chatting about books they’re reading in between workout sets.

“It’s pretty cool that there is dialogue about books and I hear how they are liking reading,” he said.

Each Thursday, instead of reading for a half hour, about one dozen students meet with a faculty mentor, where often the conversation turns to reading, said Colosimo, who also offers a “book talk” monthly.

“The most powerful part is hearing students give each other reading recommendations and how it is opening a dialogue,” he said. “We’ve created a culture of reading.” 

Education, Today
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