33% of my 118 7th graders told me they had not read a single book last summer. That books were just not their thing or they were simply too busy. 33%…Many of them told me they had read the book club books they had been assigned the year before but not that much else. Some told me they had fake read most of their way through years prior, averaging 1 to 2 books a year if even. Some told me how much they loved books, that their summers were spent with their nose in pages because what else would you do when you have all of the time in the world
Teaching 7th graders has taught me many things, but one of the biggest is the incredible need to inspire a larger love of reading in more of their lives. Not because teachers before them haven’t, but because for some reason it hasn’t completely stuck for all of them. So that becomes our mission; for the students to fall in love with reading or at the very least hate it less.
When I read the Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, it significantly changed my reading instruction as a teacher. Coupled with other landmark books for me such as The Daily Five by The Two Sisters, and also Mosaic of Thought by Elin Keene and Susan Zimmerman, I finally felt like I had a path I could follow when it came to the aspiration of reading. It was as if I did not know how high of expectations I could hold my students to until after I read these books. Donalyn’s 40 Book Challenge became a central tenet of my instruction, not as a requirement, but as a way for my students to challenge themselves. While I made tweaks because that is what reflective teachers do, I stayed true to its original intent; to challenge my students to read voraciously, based on the research that Donalyn cites in her book that kids who score in the 90th percentile of reading tests read between 30-40 books a year. I did not offer incentives. I did not do logs. I did not tell my less developed readers that their goals should be less because there was no way they could accomplish 40 books. I asked them to shoot for 40 or more and then helped them reach their goals by giving them time to read, time to book shop, and support as they needed. Some kids made their goals, others did not, but they all read more than they had before.
I knew that when I moved to 7th grade I wanted to do the 40 Book Challenge but I was also faced with the incredible limitation of 45-minute instructional blocks. 45 minutes to do everything. 45 minutes that only allowed me to give them 10 measly minutes of reading, rather than the 30 we had enjoyed in 5th grade. After my first week with my 7th graders, I decided to change the language of the challenge in the beginning to 25 books rather than the 40, not because I did not believe that my 7th graders could not read 40 books, but because for some, simply saying 40 in the beginning seemed completely un-doable, especially because I could only give them 10 minutes of reading time every day. However, if I had 60 minutes or more, I would still start with 40 books, after all with that amount of time kids should be given at least 20 minutes of reading every day. But the idea remained; this was a challenge, something to strive for, something to work toward, and something that I believe all of my students can reach if we help them have successful reading experiences.
It appears that some believe that because I have called this the 25 book challenge in the past that that means I want my students to only read 25 books. That somehow the original 40 book challenge is too hard for kids. Neither of these statements are true. All kids should be challenged to read 40 books or more. I believe all of my students can read more than 25 books, my job is often to help them believe it too. But just as in the original, it is not really about reaching the quantity set, it is about having incredible reading experiences.
As the year goes on we, therefore, adjust our goal, some continue to focus on the quantity while others change their focus either to different genres, harder vocabulary or even formats that they have not dabbled in before. While some kids continue to focus on quantity, and for them we do the following breakdown for how books count, for others the challenge morphs into figuring out how they can push themselves as readers beyond a quantity standpoint. (To see more about this read about the reading identity challenge).
- Books under 200 pages count as 1 book
- Books over 200 pages count as 2 books
- Books over 500 pages count as 3 books
- Books more than 750 – see the teacher
- Depending on its size a graphic novel may count as a whole, half or quarter of a book.
- 10 of the books have to be chapter books
- If this goal is not high enough for a learner, they set a higher goal
- They write down their titles in a reader’s notebook we keep at school and update it every Monday or whenever needed.
I do not ask them to read certain genres but instead take this as an opportunity for them to explore themselves as readers and figure out what they love to read. I constantly book talk books, as do they once we get rolling, and I am constantly sharing recommendations to individual students. We practice free book abandonment, making sure that the books we read are books we actually want to read, and we book shop monthly if not more. Our to-be-read lists are extensions of our reading life and are used weekly, if not daily.
After three years with 7th-grade book challenge, I can tell you, it works. I am not surprised, after all, Donalyn Miller and her ideas have never let me down. While not all kids reach their goals, many do, and many of those who did, never thought they would. Yet the biggest success is not just the kids that reach their goal but within the kids that don’t. As one child told me on his reading survey, “…I even read a book at home for fun, I had never done that before.” That child’s number? Five more than the year before. Five more great books that he loved so much he book talked them to others. Books that gave him such a great experience that he continues to chase that feeling again.
I will not pretend that it worked for everyone, there are always kids that issuing a challenge will not work for, where what we did together was not enough, but there are so many that it made a difference for. Where the expectation to read every single day and reach a certain goal that mattered to them meant that they turned up their reading, that they selected their books more carefully, that they spent a longer stretch reading then they normally would have.
So for the 118 7th graders that I teach, I am so grateful that they believed me when I told then, “Yes, you can read more books.” But do not take my word for it; let these pictures show you what it looks like when 7th graders read and become readers. Let these pictures show you that yes we can get kids at this age to read, that just because a child is going through huge personal development reading does not have to become not lost. What matters is the reading community we create. And the high expectations we have for all of our kids.
And in case you are wondering, that is 4,357.5 books. Not bad for how many kids told me that reading was not something they felt like doing.
If you are wondering why there seems to be a common thread to so many of my posts as of late, it is because I am working on two separate literacy books. While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher. The first book tentatively titled The Global Literacy Classroom is scheduled for release November, 2016 by Solution Tree. The second, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge. So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.