Julia Franks claims two professional loves: literature and how to teach it. She's the author of the novel Over the Plain Houses, which was an NPR Book of the Year and won five major literary prizes. She taught high school English for decades and is now an Atlanta-based web entrepreneur and the founder of Loose Canon, a social media and publishing platform for teachers that organizes and energizes reading in the classroom. Loose Canon tracks lit circles, summer reading, independent reading, book clubs, and traditional assignments.
How did your education and previous professional experience shape your current work at Loose Canon?
I was a high school English teacher for decades, and I was discouraged to notice that each year my students seemed to be doing less and less of the assigned reading. You can get into this groove where students are just pretending to read, which means that all those discussions and activities surrounding the reading are pretend too.
Then one year, in my AP Lit classes, we had what seemed to me a particularly lackluster fall semester, so at the end of it I gave my students a vote. They could read the 5 books on the spring syllabus, or they could read twice as many books they chose themselves from a list of 300 titles. Out of 49 students, every single one voted to read twice as many books. And then they proceeded to choose these doorstoppers like Lord of the Rings, so by the end of the semester some of them had read four or five times as many pages as I had originally intended.
I set the class up in iterative lit circles. They were reading a new book every two weeks, and they had about 120 minutes each week in class to read and discuss it. They worked in groups of two or more, and they unpacked the literature together (using online tools if necessary). I’ll tell you, when it came to staying on schedule, they felt more accountable to each other than they ever had to me. My classroom was electric with conversation about what they were reading, what the other groups in the room were reading, what the groups in my other section were reading, and, most importantly, what they wanted to read next.
So, yes, it was personalized learning, but combined with peer accountability and peer conversation and peer transparency. And of course, we were still spending more than half our class time doing close readings together, especially poetry. In the end, my students scored higher on the AP test than the other AP Lit sections in our school.
What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?
It’s pretty clear that the way we’ve taught reading for decades isn’t working anymore, mainly because the broader culture has changed around us, and drastically. Kids (and adults) have shorter attention spans than they used to. That means we’re graduating students who simply don’t have reading habits, not because they can’t read, but because they don’t have the "muscles" to want to do it. Even when they’re scoring adequately on reading tests, they may not be growing into adults with reading habits.
Schools and teachers are struggling to revive reading. Many educators know that the way to save reading in this country is to incorporate more choice into the classroom, a technique that elementary teachers have been doing for decades that has "trickled up" to secondary schools. There’s debate about what exactly the balance is between choice and all-class reading activities. To me, one of the most important aspects is reiteration. In other words, it’s great if a student has a single opportunity to choose a single book to read, say, for summer reading. But the real energy comes with repetition, because that’s when they really begin talking to each other about books. That’s when they’re getting into the habit of planning what book to read next. That's when a school’s reading program becomes self-perpetuating and student-driven. We built Loose Canon to facilitate such programs.
What has been the response from students?
Students respond to the social media aspect, unquestionably. They’re like us: what gets them excited about reading a book isn’t a teacher’s recommendation or even a Goodreads review from someone in another state. What gets them interested in a book is that someone in their own school has already read it and is talking about it. If you’re a student, writing an online book review that people in your school will read feels a lot different than writing an essay to turn in to your teacher.
What if any are future plans for Loose Canon?
Some teachers are already incorporating independent reading or book clubs or lit circles in ways that accommodate the parameters within their own communities. Many of these teachers are natural MacGyvors, and we want to give them a tool that will make their program easier. We want to provide the least prescriptive, most adaptable social and personalized reading tool out there. To do that, we are in constant conversation with teachers and librarians. They tell us what they need Loose Canon to be able to do, and we respond.
Ultimately, we want to make pedagogical innovation easy and energizing, because that's when it becomes a "no brainer" for all teachers. I've said it before and I'll say it again. If there is any entity that has the power to save reading in this country, it’s not a certain foundation or a certain online program or a certain YA author. It is us, English teachers, changing the way we teach literature to teenagers.
Who are the most interesting people you follow on Twitter?
I mostly follow English teachers or folks talking about pedagogy (Tom Newkirk, Kelly Gallagher and Ted Dintersmith are favorites). I also recently discovered Berit Gordon because I really liked her recent book No More Fake Reading. I also have a lot of respect for a new professional development tool called Leaderally.
Image: Courtesy Julia Franks