By ANGELA FARR KING
A pin can be heard when entering Travis Crowder’s 7th grade ELA class at East Alexander Middle School.
Every student is engaged in a book of his/her choice. They are actually reading for pleasure. No one is annotating texts or answering a set of questions. They are simply reading. Mr. Crowder says there is a time for those activities, but he sets aside time each day for “choice reading” to help them discover books and genres they love.
It’s surprising to find that a group of young men is mesmerized by books of poetry, not a genre typically chosen by middle school boys. They say Mr. Crowder introduced them to “sports poetry” and they can’t get enough of it.
It takes time for Mr. Crowder to build relationships with his students in order to become their reading advisor. Lots of conversations are necessary for him to know their personalities and to help them discover their own interests.
His students all have reader’s notebooks and take notes of interest as they read. It is clear that Crowder has modeled this for them. This allows them to share new discoveries with him during conversations and simple one-on-one reading conferences.
There is no script in this classroom. There are no set programs. These are techniques that Mr. Crowder has developed over his 14 years of teaching. Many students come to his class with a disdain for reading, but most leave having discovered new genres and new passions for books.
Crowder believes strongly that pleasure reading is an essential key to reading comprehension. He has studied the topic in depth by reading numerous books on the subject. He has done his own professional development and research using his own time and resources. In fact, he has become so knowledgeable on the subject that he has presented at prestigious English/Language Arts (ELA) conferences.
He isn’t just knowledgeable about his teaching. He is able to impart his passion for reading to his students. It is clear that most of his students love his class. When asked about how they feel about being in Mr. Crowder’s class, they had much to say:
“He makes it fun. We don’t just sit down and annotate. I never liked reading until his class.” – Marissa Cline
“We read books that WE choose. He makes sure we are comfortable before sharing our work.” – Lydia Presley
“He describes things better and gives more details.” – Cheyanne Keller
“When he talks, he isn’t talking AT us. He’s talking TO us. We have lots of group discussions.” – Drake Williamson
“He helps us with stuff. He explains it more than once.” – Bo Chumley
“He helps us find books we like and that fit our personality.” – Jazmine Fonseca
“We get to discuss with a group. We don’t always have to figure things out on our own.” – Natalie Newton
The most profound quote of the day was from Delilah Jammes, who said, “He gives us lots of freedom compared to other teachers. We are allowed to have different opinions instead of simply giving the ‘right’ answers.”
Crowder received his BA in Literature and Language from UNC Asheville and a Masters of Instruction from UNC Charlotte. He was certified to teach Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) students from Western Carolina University. He is currently working on his doctorate degree in Curriculum and Instruction from UNC Wilmington. He is also a National Board Certified Teacher. Crowder has become an expert in his field because of his continual research.
He has been a presenter at the National Council of Teachers of English on the topics of “Choice Reading” and “Finding Joy in Ordinariness.” He has also presented at the International Literacy Association on the topics of “Developing Reading Lives” and “Reflective Thinking.” He is the author of two books, Sparks in the Dark and Reflective Readers: The Power of Readers Notebooks.
Crowder practices what he preaches. He says that “technology has its place, but we should give kids permission to slow down and read a book.” He agrees that there is “no set program to fix literacy deficits and his research shows that reading tangible materials deepens comprehension.”
His belief in choice reading drives his instruction and his passion to learn more himself. His classroom is a small library. He has accumulated approximately 1,500 books at his own expense for his students to choose from. On the controversial topic of banning books, Crowder says that he welcomes parents to be involved in their children’s reading lives. He is thankful when parents want to be involved because that is a rarity these days. If a parent is uncomfortable with a book their child is reading, he welcomes them to discuss it with him and can easily provide an alternative.
He relates becoming a fluent reader to becoming a skilled basketball player. It takes lots of practice. When asked, “How do you become a better reader,” his answer is simple — “READ.” Mr. Crowder himself is a lifelong reader and a love of books sometimes made him different from other children his age, but that love is what has propelled him to become one of the best ELA teachers in Alexander County and maybe the state. That is not based on test scores, but on students consistently developing stronger vocabulary, critical thinking skills, creative writing techniques, and a love of reading in his class. Standardized tests cannot measure what is happening daily in Mr. Crowder’s class.
He says he hasn’t always taught this way. He is in his fourteenth year of teaching, but in year eight, he realized that students weren’t leaving his classroom with personal reading lives. This shifted his teaching and prompted him to begin reading professional books about literacy development. His class is engaged so there are very few behavioral management problems. He understands that engagement is key to management. His students respect him and enjoy his class, while strengthening their reading skills daily. It is also clear that he respects the diversity and educational needs of his students in return.
Travis gives lots of credit to his parents for insisting he go to college. He says he was never good at using his hands, but he can give back to the community in this way. He is able to spark the imaginations and literacy love of his students, which will further their successes in any fields they choose in the future. He supplies them with a seemingly unlimited selection of books of many genres and helps them discover their own love for reading, while strengthening their reading skills in the process. This spills over into their writing, as they begin to write fluent paragraphs using figurative language and plot twists.
April is National Poetry Month, so it is fitting to find students in Mr. Crowder’s class engrossed in poetry as one of their favorite genres. This is not common in middle school ELA classes and should be celebrated as a success for any middle school teacher who can make this happen.
Anyone wishing to strengthen their own English/Language Arts instruction needs to visit the classroom of Travis Crowder. Any instructional leader who is looking for professional development in the area of writing or reading needs to use Crowder as a resource. His instruction is inspiring and his passion to be a continual learner himself only makes him stronger with each passing year. He admits that “teaching is really hard this year. There are a lot of things pushing in on us, but I find my light by interacting with my students.”