Three Keys to Creating Successful Reading Experiences

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It’s January.  In the perfect world all of my students would love reading by now.  All of my students would bring their self-chosen book to class, eager to dive in, begging for more reading time.  In a perfect world, every child would have a goal they were working toward, every child would be eager to book talk their books, to browse our library, to read outside of class.  I don’t teach in the perfect world, I don’t think anyone does.

Instead, by now here in January, I have kids that still show up with no books.  That still tell me they hate reading.  That still would rather flip the pages and not actually read anything.  I still have kids who don’t read outside of class, who have no goals, who would rather do everything they can to avoid having a reading check in with me.  Not a lot, the numbers have dwindled, but they are still there, they are still prominent, and I still lose sleep over how to help them have a better relationship with reading (or writing, or speaking, or English, or even just school…)

We all have these kids in our classrooms, in our learning communities.  These kids that seem to defy the odds of every well-meaning intention we may have.  Who do not fall under our spell or the spell of a great book.  Who actively resists not so much because they want to but because they feel they have to.  And so our initial thoughts are often to tighten the reins.  To tell them which book to read.  To hand them a reading log so that you can see when don’t read.  To tie in rewards to motivate or even consequences to punish.  We create lesson plans with more structure, less choice, less freedom overall thinking that if we just force them into a reading experience, perhaps then it will click for them.

We must fight our urges when it comes to the regimented reading experiences.  What these kids need is usually not less freedom, more force.  What these kids need is not more to do when it comes to their reading.  What these kids need is not the carefully crafted worksheet packet with its myriad of questions that will finally make them read the book.

What they need is patience.  Repetition.  Perseverance.  I am not in a fight with these kids.  I am not here to punish them into reading.  I am not here to reward them into reading either.  I am here to be the one that doesn’t give up, even if they have themselves.  I am here to be the one that continues to put a pile of books in front of them and say “Try these…”  I am the one that will repeat myself every day when I say, ‘Read…” and then walk away.  Who will crouch down next to them and ask them how they feel and listen to their words, even if I have heard them a million times before.

We look to external systems and plans because they entice us with their short-term promises.  We fall under the spell of programs, of removing choice from those who have not earned it, in an effort to get these kids there faster.  Yet, what I have learned from my students is that every one is on a different path.  That every child is on the journey  and while their pace may be excruciatingly slow, they are still moving forward.

So our classroom is not perfect, and neither am I.  I cannot force my students to read but I can create an ongoing opportunity where they might want to.  And so that is what I will do, every day, up until the last day, hoping to reach every single one, even if I have not reached them yet.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    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.

We Have Already Grown

I realized today as my students sat quietly reading that if a stranger were to walk into our classroom, it would all look so effortless.  As if the kids had always quietly settled in with their books and this hush had fallen over us.  As if the kids had always read when I asked them to.  As if they had always known just what to do and when to do so.  Yet, that is not the true story.  Ask any teacher and they will tell you; creating a space for independent reading time is not easy, nor does it just happen.  It is hard work.  It takes effort.  It takes planning, and boy, does it take a lot of patience.  It takes great books.  It takes dedication.  And it takes a community, takes trust, takes respect, and takes conversations.

We build our communities in small pieces.  We plant the seeds on the very first day when we welcome our new kids into our lives and into our classrooms.  When we say this is your room, these are your books, and we mean it.

We build it when we ask them to pick up the books.  To read a few pages.  To talk to one another and to share their truths.  We build it when we accept their truths about why reading does not matter and promise that we will try to help them change their minds.
Every day as we plan our lessons and build our communities, we give them the reading pieces to place into the puzzle of their identities and hope they will see the value.  And we do it one day at a time.  One conversation at a time.  One book at a time.

It may be almost December, we have so much time still left, and yet I cannot help but marvel at how far so many have come.  How many actually will read, not because I ask them to but because it is their habit.  How many of them will casually abandon a book because they know they can find a better one.  How many of them will recommend a book because they want to,  because they need to share it, because someone else deserves to have the same experience with this book that they just had.

This is work.  This is love.  This is what we do.  And we do it in such small steps that sometimes we forget to look back at just how far we have come.  So as I sit tonight, exhausted, thinking back to all of the moments we shared today, I also realize that while we are not all there yet, we have come a long way.  We have already grown.  We have become better readers, even if if for a second I may have forgotten that.

 

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out January, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    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.

 

If Not Us, Then Who?

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When I was 17 years old, my history teacher pulled me aside and told me tone it down.  “It” being my opinion in case it intimidated others.  “It” being speaking my mind because sometimes I would come across so forceful that others did not want to engage.  So I stopped speaking in his class.  I stopped jumping in, afraid that I was going to rock the boat or upset the other students.  I knew I had opinions, but I didn’t want to be known as someone who did not make room for others.

A long time ago I decided that staying quiet would not get me anywhere.  That hoping that someone would understand what I needed without me actually speaking up was a delusion.  That I could no longer wait until someone spoke the words that burned within me so I could quote them and pretend I hadn’t thought the exact same thing.  I started writing, speaking, and teaching as the whole me, rather than the 17 year old girl who had been told to tone it down.  It has been quite a journey since then.

As educators we speak up all of the time.  We speak up for ourselves when changes need to be made in our schools.  We speak up for our students when they need us to advocate.  We speak up for our own needs and hopefully for the needs of our students.  We speak up when we see injustices that need to be righted, when our teacher stares are not enough.

So I think it is time for us to speak up and let our voices be heard because when I look at my classroom library, when I really study the books I am able to put in the hands of my students, I cannot help but wonder; where are the books from non-white authors?  Where are the picture books that center around kids that are going about their every day life that look like some of my students?  Where are the holiday books, the birthday books, the first day of school books, the books that share small slices of life that have characters that are not white?

While I buy the ones that I know of thanks to blogs like Reading While White, We Need Diverse Books, and the Nerdy Book Club, I am constantly reminded of how few there are out there for us to purchase.    When I receive a package of books I am constantly reminded of how often the kids in the books look just like my own kids in all of their whiteness.  How my kids must take it for granted that, of course, the books they read have people in them that look like them.  That I do not have to scour the internet to find books that remind them of themselves because those are the majority of books out there.   That in book upon book being white as a character is the standard not the exception.

We need diverse books.  We need own voices books.  We need more than what is out there and so we need to raise our voices.  There will be no change if we do not say loudly; “This is not enough.  This is not ok.”

So as educators we can speak up.  We can reach out and demand better.  We can spend our precious budgets on books that do not just offer up more white narratives, but actually mirror the diversity that we are surrounded by.  We can tell publishers that we need books that show all of the kids we teach.  We need books about Native American written by Native American, or other #OwnVoices authors.  We need books that go beyond the standard stories being shared so that when all of my students open up a book they can find a character that looks like them.  Or when my own white children read a book, they will see a character that does not look like them and understand that that too is the norm.

For too many years we have waited for publishers to notice the major gap that has been created, and while changes are under way, the process won’t speed up until we speak up.  So use your voice, use your connections, use your money to show the world that when we echo that “We need diverse books!” it is not just because it is a catchy phrase, but is the truth.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  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 book, 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.

It Was Never for the Adults

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On the very first day of book shopping this year, with the piles of brand new books waiting on the tables.  Sharpened pencils ready, to-be-read lists in hand.  Time set aside to meander.  Books displayed and discussed.  On the very first day of book shopping, two kids refused to even look.  One sat in a corner, hood up, eyes down.  Another child, more than an hour later, but this time at a table, arms crossed, no to-be-read list, no pencil, not even a word.

I approached both with caution, sometimes children who so actively refuse to even pick a book remind me of a wounded animal.  They are someone who clearly has not had a good experience with books.  Someone who must be treated with the gentlest of hands, because otherwise, it will just become another power struggle and one that I will never win.

As always, I asked quietly; What is wrong?  How may I help?  Then wait, hold my breath, and soon the refusal.  Soon the dismissal, “Leave me alone, I don’t like books, I don’t like reading.”  Whatever the words, the stories always so familiar.  The emotions raw, the conversation careful, and yet unexpected.  It happens every year.  So after a few gentle moments, I pull out my secret weapons; my graphic novels and my picture books.  I grab a pile of those perpetual favorites or some brand new ones, I place them in front of the child and I walk away.

It happens without fail, a few moments later, a page being turned, a book being read, the angry stance in the shoulders gradually fading away.  Books change minds.  The right books change lives.

Yet if I were to take the advice of some.  If I were to listen to the words of those who say they know better.  If I were to be a “real” teacher of English, those books would not have a place in my classroom.  No more Captain Underpants, Where Is My Hat, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  No more Tales from the Crypt, the graphic novelization.  No more rows of picture books waiting to be read and shared.  Those books that many of my students think they are too old to read.  Those books that some might think are not appropriate for a student to read.  Those books that some deem too easy, not enough, not real reading.  Those become the books that capture my hardest students.  Those become the portal that lead them back into believing that they too can be readers.  That reading can be for them.  That reading is something that matters.

So when I see a call for censorship, for teachers telling students what they exactly need to read.  When I see a call for parents to study our classroom libraries to make sure that the books we have are not inappropriate, too emotional, or lord forbid too fun.  When we are once again told that something that is too easy for our kids, not challenging enough, not enough of whatever the right thing is.  That is when I am reminded of who I serve.  That is when I am reminded of who my library is for.  Because it was never for the adults of those children I teach.  It was always for the kids.  And those kids need all of the great books we can hand them.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  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 book, 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.

When the Book is Just “Ok”

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“Once I find a book it’s fun but it doesn’t happen often” says one of my students.

I have been spending little time in official reading conferences so far this year. These reading conversations that are the foundation of how my readers grow are far and few in between.  But it is not from being forgotten, it is because of how many students have needed help finding a book.

We start every class with 10 minutes of glorious independent reading.  As students read, the quiet settles over them, and I observe, ready to confer, but also ready to help out.  This year I have noticed just how many kids are clearly not into their book, whose eyes shift restlessly from book to page, who are still on the same book they picked up on September 2nd.  So I ask them, “Do you like your book?” and without fail they answer, “It’s ok…”

Only ok.  Not great, not amazing, but ok.  A 6 out of 10 at most.  They are content with a mediocre book because then at least it looks like they are reading.  It looks like they are following the guidelines set forth and perhaps I, the teacher, will leave them alone.  Yet this is so far from ok.  Reading only “ok” books is not what will make reading better for our kids.  Reading only ok books will not inspire further reading, nor will it change their minds that reading is actually worthwhile.  In this instance being ok is not ok.

So we book shop together, immediately, for this is a reading crisis that deserves urgency.  We discuss when the last time was that they read a book they really loved (sometimes never) and we pull book after book after book off of the shelves so that the reading experience they will embark on is as far from ok as we can get it.

I could wait, of course, see them muddle through the pages and perhaps finish a book in a few weeks.  Glad to have one read.  I could hold back and tell them to book shop by themselves, let them explore the shelves and hopefully find something worthy of their investment.  Yet, the problem with the “ok” book lovers is that if they stay on this path, with no help from others, they will remain ok until they are not.  They will remain ok until they finally do give up fully and reading is no longer something they are willing to even attempt.

So when we have kids in our rooms that do not like reading, we must be urgent in our reading approach.  We must talk up reading in such a way that there simply is no way around it.  We must emphasize every day that reading in here matters and that you should only be reading great books.  That you should not be satisfied until you find a really good book.  That we will support the abandonment of books until a really great book is discovered because in here reading is meant to be more than ok.  In here, we should all be trying to find our new favorite book, not just settle for whatever we grabbed when the teacher told us to find a book.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  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 book, 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.

 

 

 

A Few Ideas For Better Book Shopping

As we continue our work bonding as a reading community, I am struck by how often the idea of finding a good book comes up.  Over and over again students share that they like reading only when they have the right book, that they cannot find the right book, that they have never read a book they truly like.  And I watch them browse the books, unsure of what to look for, idly picking a book up only to drop it again the very next day.  The more I think about; book shopping and how to find a great book is one of the biggest skills we can teach students before they leave us.  And others agree, Donalyn Miller wrote her phenomenal book Reading in the Wild based on the notion that students need to be able to be readers without us and I couldn’t agree more.  So while book shopping and how to find the right fit book is something being taught in classrooms all over the world, how can we make it more effective?

For the past few years, I have been inspired by my students to tweak the process a little bit.  Here are the small things that seem to make a big difference in how we book shop in our classroom.

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Old way:  Books are displayed like a bookstore, in a row on the book shelves.

New way:  Books are grouped together in bins by genre, topic, or author.  

What difference does it make?  The bins can be placed on tables as a group and students can easily flip through them.  Students can also more easily identify where books are that may capture their interest.  It also means that book covers are displayed out, catching the eye of readers as they sit in the classroom.

Old ways:  Books are randomly placed back in their genre bins.

New way:  I place all books back in the library taking care with which book is at the front of the bin, thus facing out to the class.  

What difference does it make? Much like bookstores and libraries change their displays, so must we, so the fronts of our bins become mini displays that are ever changing.  This is also a great way for “older” books to be discovered.  Students see amazing books waiting to be read whenever they are in our classroom.

Old way:  A designated book shopping time.

New way:  Book shopping whenever they need it.

What difference does it make?  Kids need a new book whenever they need a new book.  They should not have to wait until a designated time or day to book shop.  Encouraging them to book shop whenever it is needed, means that they always a have a new book to read.  This also means that I can see how students book shop on their own and what their habits are, which, in turn, helps me help them become better book shoppers.

Old way:  Book shopping was mostly silent as students tried to get through it as quickly as possible.

New way:  Book shopping is a social event at least every few weeks.

What difference does it make?  One of the things we work a lot on is creating a community of readers, and that community comes from finding your reading peers.  So when students can bookshop and are encouraged to discuss books as they go, we are creating ties that bind us together as readers.  I jump in and out of conversations as they book shop, perhaps highlighting a few books or helping a child that seems to be lost, but I love the conversations that I overhear about books and why a certain one looks amazing.  This also shows that I am not the center of book shopping because students should not rely on me to be the one that finds them a great book, at least not at the end of the year, so the bookshopping event plants the seed for them to rely on each other, rather than just the teacher.

Old Way:  Book shopping meant just new books.

New way:  Book shopping piles are now a mix of new books and old favorites.

What difference does it make?  While we all love brand new books, there are so many great books published in earlier years.  I put these in the piles with the brand new shiny books so that students cane be introduced to them as well.  I love when a child sees a loved book and has to share it with others to recommend it.

Old way:  Book shopping lasts a few minutes.

New way:  Book shopping takes the time it takes.

What difference does it make?  Book shopping should take time, after all, students should be flipping through pages, perhaps reading a few, looking at the covers, and discussing books with each other.  I ask my students to slow down and savor the moment, this helps them understand that book shopping is not just something we get through, it is something we enjoy.

Old way:  Teacher as the first stop for book recommendations.

New way:  To-be-read list as the first stop.

What difference does it make?  Their To-Be Read list is my way of helping them rely on themselves rather than just on the teacher.  So while I love book-shopping and recommending books, I also need to teach students that they can rely on themselves.  So when a child asks me for a great new book to read, I ask them to find their to-be-read list first.  This year our list is in our reader’s notebooks which stay in the classroom so the students always have access to it.

Old way:  Book talks once in a while.

New way:  Book talks every day.

What difference does it make?  Inspired by Penny Kittle and her great book Booklove, I book talk a book every day, these can be books I have read or books that are brand new to us.  I try to book talk a new book every class because kids want to check out the books right away so it is not fair to tell them to wait until the end of the day.  My bigger goal though is that students take over these book talks, one student has already jumped in, and they start to recommend books to each other.  Again, trying to shift the responsibility back on themselves rather than the teacher to find them books.

Old way:  Little conversation about books they abandon.

New way:  Book abandonment is written down and discussed.

What difference does it make?  When a child abandons a book it is a conversation waiting to happen.  Why did they choose to abandon the book?  When did they abandon it?  This is why we keep track of the books we abandon on our To-Be-Read lists, something most of them think is odd, but when I try to help them discover who they are as readers  we start with the books they abandon.  It is amazing to see students realize what types of books they do like by studying the types of books they don’t.

Old way:  Book shopping guidelines apply just within the classroom.

New way:  Book shopping guidelines apply to the library as well.

What difference does it make?  I have noticed that students who know how to bookshop in our classrooms sometimes flounder in the larger school library.  So this year, students are asked to bring their reader’s notebooks with their to-be-read lists in them and then book shop together.  I will also be walking around with the groups pointing out great books.

A final idea for better book shopping is also to have a stack of books ready for the kid that just hates reading.  These should be some of the books that have had the most success with other kids that really have written off reading.  I pay attention to what the game changer books are for my 7th graders and will often pull these out when I help a child who says they hate reading  find a book.  It is amazing what some of these suggestions have done for planting a seed about how reading is maybe not the worst thing in the whole world.  To see our list of some our game changers, go here.  

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  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 book, 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.