On Limiting Choice

Whenever I speak of choice and letting kids choose their own books, I am always met with skepticism from some.  Surely you mean choice for those who know how to select a book?  Or those who are at a certain reading level?  Or those who I know are reading?  I fear I disappoint people when I tell them no, when I say choice, I mean choice for all.

For the kids who do not know how to choose…yet

For the kids who do not know how to read well…yet

For the kids who are in intervention.

For the kids who may try to choose not to read.

For the kids who seem to always choose wrong.

They all need choice.

If we constantly limit choice in reading because we need kids to always be reading a just right book as determined by us, how will kids ever learn to self-select a book? As Greg McKeown writes; When we remove choice, we learn to be helpless.” We are teaching our kids to be helpless and always search for the adult, the level, the lexile, the whatever artificial thing to help them choose a book when we need them to start to trust themselves.

So I ask you this; when is it right for a child to choose their own book?

Is it when they are just beginning and they are just discovering the magic of reading?

Is it when they can actually decode and can, therefore, read words out loud?

Is it when they finally read chapter books, even if it is slow-moving?

Is it when they have finally reached their grade level as determined by a reading comprehension test?

When do we offer them choice?

Because I will tell you, if we do not offer choice until they have reached their grade level reading level, then we will have lost so many readers before then.

So we offer choice and we offer our support.  We help them figure out how to book shop and we use tools, such as reading data as PART of the support.  But we don’t tell them that they can only choose from a certain bin, or shelf, or letter level.  We don’t tell them that this is the only section for them.

Part of growing up is making mistakes.  It’s fighting through something.  It is figuring out what you need.  It is using the tools and resources that surround us so we can make our own decisions.

If we constantly limit choice because we believe we are doing kids a favor, we are limiting their chance to grow in the long-run.  So when I say choice, yes, I mean, make no mistake about it.




A Call for Common Sense Reading Instruction

It appears that in our quest to make sure students can comprehend what they read that we have lost our common sense.  That we have started listening much more to programs, politicians, and shoddy research than the very kids who the programs are happening to.  That we have pushed the ideas of teachers aside, of best practices, and solid pedagogy, and gotten so lost in the process that we turn to more experts to tell us what we used to know.

So it is time for a little reminder of what we know about best reading practices; those same ideas that my students have been reminding me of for years.  Those same ideas that the godfathers and godmothers of reading have been shouting loudly for years.

Choice matters.

And choice for all matters.  Not just for the kids who already know how to read well.  Not just for the kids that seem to be able to pick the right book almost every time.  Not just for the kids who already feel like readers.  Choice for the vulnerable, for the strugglers, for the resistant, for the kids who don’t think they will ever like reading, for whatever we deem to label a child that just not has blossomed as a reader just yet.  And real choice, not the pretend you have choice when I ask you to select from this one stack of books.

Time matters.

And not the time to do more stuff about reading, but actually read in class.  To plant the seeds of further reading as Allington discusses in his research.  To actually give them time to read within our school day before we make them do more with their reading.  How can we say that reading a great book is vital and then deny them the chance to do it right in our very own classrooms?  How do we find time to have them read in class, we, educators, stop speaking so much in class.

Perception matters.

How we view the abilities of our students directly influence the instructional choices we make.  When we perceive them as high-achieving and capable we give them freedom, more chances of creativity, and have better relationships.  When we are afraid that they will not be able to handle something, we restrict them, we tighten our control, we have them read less, do less meaningful work, and also have a more strained relationship with them.  Do you see all of your students as capable readers or just some of them?

Access matters.

We know children should be surrounded by books, and yet how much money is spent on other resources rather than books.  When I see 1 on 1 programs rolled out or other major tech initiatives, I always wonder if the same amount has been spent on books?  Not because I don’t support the technology, but because books aren’t often seen as investments.  I always wonder if there is a classroom library in every room.  Yes, we need fully staffed school libraries with certified librarians for all kids AND we also need classroom libraries in every single classroom.  In fact, research shows that students read 50-60 % more in classrooms that have libraries than in those without.

Representation matters.

And those classroom libraries need to represent the diverse society we live in.  We need to critically evaluate what we bring into our students’ reading lives, not because it always has to be classical reading but because we need great books for many readers.  That means we say yes to graphic novels, audio, comic books and other amazing formats of books.  That means that we search out and specifically purchase stories featuring a diversity of characters from #OwnVoices authors.  That means that we not just aware of who is represented, but also how they are represented.  And we constantly assess who is not represented in our classroom library.  We start small with our library collections and build them every month.

Reflection matters.

When we finish a book, what do most of us do?  I can tell you what most people don’t do – write about it.  And yet, what is one of the most common practices we have students do in our classrooms?  Those little jots, reflection pieces, reviews, and logs are making the very act of reading a chore.  Not for all but for some.  So why make all kids reflect after they have finished a book?  Why not give them choice?  Perhaps they want to do nothing, perhaps they want to book talk it, perhaps they want to share the book on social media, perhaps they want to write.  Let them discover what their reading identity tells them to do rather than follow a blanket rule.

Our knowledge of children’s literature matters.

If we are teaching readers then we should be reading their books.  Every time we read a children’s book we are able to speak another language with our students.  The books we recommend get read more, which also means that the book gaps we have (books we do not tend to read) dictate what we don’t recommend.  So read widely and proudly.  Read children’s literature as much as possible so that you can become a proper reading role model, not just because you said you are, but because you are able to speak books with the very kids you teach.

Trust matters.

When a child tells me that they read at home, I trust them.  Much like I trust them to work on reading outside of our class.  If I hand them a reading log to have parents sign, I am telling them that I don’t trust them when they share their reading decisions with me to quote Jessica Lifshitz.  For some that may take all year to achieve, for some, the habit never fully solidifies.  But we try every day as we offer up reminders of why reading more than just what is accomplished in class matters.

Personalization matters.

When we purchase the programs, when we make blanket decisions, when we force the same procedures on every child, we are telling them that we are too busy to get to know them.  That their unique reading identity needs to fit within this one box, no matter where they are on their journey.  That we would rather trust a program than trust the very kids we teach.  So use the program but keep your students in mind, detour when needed, and administrators, please tell your teachers to trust their experience rather than just follow a program to fidelity.  Give them time to wrestle with new ideas, new challenges, and new curriculum.  Trust those that are ready and support those that need it.  So much can depend on one great administrator.

You matter.

And so you must find the courage to speak up when you see instructional decisions harm the love of reading that our students carry.  You must start conversations within your own district, your own buildings, and you must reflect on your own decisions.  Ask your students how you can be a better teacher for them.  Ask them what makes reading amazing and what makes it awful.  Question your own practices and admit when you need to grow.  We are only as good as our last decision to change.

So we can purchase the programs, we can get caught up in test scores and test prep.  We can continue to search for the next big thing or we can go back to the things we know work for all kids; time to read, choice in what they read, access to books, and a community to grow with.  Don’t lose touch with your own common sense.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first 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.


On Creating Reading Experiences

They groan when I tell them about the Signposts.

“Another thing to write about, Mrs. Ripp?”

“Do we have to?”

“Why can’t we just read?”

Their post-its hang behind me, reminding me of all they have said about what kills their love of reading.

And I get it, we, meaning educators, have written reading to death.  With every post-it, every jot, every stop and think, every time we ask them to do more work and forget about the virtues of aesthetic reading as discussed by Louise Rosenblatt, we make them dislike it more.  In our eagerness to help kids become better readers, we have made the kids drown in their post-it notes.  We have broken meaningful stories into such small tasks so that the very meaning that made the story worth our time is gone.  We have forgotten about the purpose of all this instruction it seems; to create literate human beings that can grow from what they read, both intellectually, but also on a heart level.

Yes, we need to teach skills, of course, we do.  But we also have to let the kids use those skills in meaningful ways.  We have to let them practice too without telling them to use post-its, without telling them to write down, without telling them to look for specific things, because if we don’t, we don’t know if they will ever be able to do it without our prompts, our scaffolds, our tasks.  We have to remind them, and ourselves, that when we read it is not just to complete a task attached to it.  That the task is just a practice for the real deal; for when we read and we have an experience with the text.

So I tell them not to worry.  The signposts, or any other skills we review or learn are just tools.  Tools to use when it makes sense.  Tools to use so they can complete the tasks that we do need to do at times.  Practice them so they become habit when we need them but that it is also okay to just read and let the movie flow in our heads to the point where the rest of the world falls away and all we can focus on is how close we are getting to the end of the book.

So let your students experience meaningful words, not just more reading tasks.  Let them experience what it means to read and then feel something.  Let them experience what it means to read and sit in silence.  Let them read and get to the end and then discuss what the text made them think of, not just a few skills you have just taught, not just the repertoire of tools they may have.  Balance is needed in all of our classrooms for the purposes of reading, our students are telling us this loudly if we will only listen.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first 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 Reading is Trash or Magic

A couple of years ago I asked my students to tell me why reading was amazing.  When Jack whispered to Michael that “Reading sucks…” the rest, they say, is history.  Inspired by Jack’s words of truth, I have asked students for years now to tell me their reading truths and not hold back.  I cannot be the kind of teacher I would like to be if I don’t get to know them.  The real them.  Not the school-primed, sanitized version.  Not the kid that knows how to play the game.  Not the kid that says whatever they think we want to hear so they start off on a good foot.

So on the third day of school this year, I told the story of Jack. Of how I had been doing that lesson where I talk about the magic of reading.  How he had dared to whisper those words.  Some of the students laughed, they remember the lesson I was referring to, as they have also head about how amazing reading is for years.  And then they got quiet as I asked them so when is reading not magical?  And when is it?

I wrote in big bold letters “Reading is magical” and then asked them what to write on the other side.  “Reading is trash!” they said as they chuckled, not quite sure, I am sure, of what to make of all of this.

They grabbed as many post-its as they could and then started to write their reasons.  Please tell me when reading is amazing.  Please tell me when reading is trash.  Tape your post-its to the board so they stay up.  Sign your name if you want.  And then step back, read the post-its.  What do you notice?


Over and over their words joined together to form the same patterns I see year after year.  The same things I have done to kids through the years.  The same things many of us educators are told to do every year by well-meaning administrators who are led by an expert curriculum that someone told them to purchase to raise test scores.

No choice!

Boring books!

Too much writing!


Forced reflections!

Sitting still!

Their words glared at us.


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But wait?  When is reading magical?  Again a pattern that we all know.

When I find the right book!

When I am given time to read!

When I find a great series or author!

When it is quiet!

When I am allowed to just read!

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Their words have carried us into our beginning reading conversations, into our analysis, into our very community.  They have guided us as we start to figure out where reading fits into our lives and whether we can protect or promote a strong and personal relationship with reading.  They have guided us as they have mentioned the amazing experiences they have had with their previous teachers, and the ones they wish that had not had.

We fret so much over what curriculum we should use, how we should teach, and how we should grade, yet sometimes the biggest impact we can have with kids is simply when we stop and ask them for their truths.  Do you know what your students would say?

PS:  This lesson and the others that surround it are all discussed in my new book, Passionate Readers.  Passionate Readers.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first 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.


On Authentic Reading Goals and Conversations

The silence envelops us a few minutes into class.  I look around and see one of my favorite sights in the world; kids reading.  Quietly I walk up to the first kid, grab a chair, sit next to them and ask; what is your goal for the year? And for the next few minutes, I get to know this child a little more, not just as a reader, but also as a human being.

Last week, I wrote about our the changes to our 7th- grade reading challenge and how this year we had decided to move away from just quantity to make it more authentic for students.  I was excited to roll it out but not sure how the students would react.  Were they even up for a challenge or would it just be another thing to get done just so the teacher would stop bugging them?  Only one way to find out; ask them.

This week, as I started my quick reading check-ins, asking about their goal, has been the main topic of conversation.  With a simple question, we are off and I am starting to get a feel for these kids and who they are as readers.

So what have I noticed?

That no goal fits all.  As an elementary teacher, I often provided my students with a specific goal for them to work on and while instructionally this makes sense, after all, I can see what they need to work on, there often was very little buy-in.  When students reflect on their own needs and set a goal, they immediately see the reason for it. Those goals that I also see for them?  We will work on them together in a small group.

That when we ask kids to really think about what they need to work on the answers are very varied.  This also means that the years I have pushed for more of a quality goal or other single-minded goals, that many kids have not bought into it because the goal has not mattered to them.  Some kids immediately had something come to mind, while others needed more support.  Most kids though have created a goal that is specific to not just their reading identities, but also their reading lives.

Those individual goals encourage more honesty.  I always operate under a policy of total honesty when it comes to reading and ask my students to also do so.  By starting our reading conversations early in the year and asking for them to tell me the good and the bad as far as their reading experiences, that judgment-free reading discussion follows us into their goal setting.  When I ask students why they chose that goal, many discuss how or when they read or when they don’t and why they need to change that.  Some kids also discuss how even with this goal they don’t think they will be successful because of various obstacles.  Rather than hiding these thoughts, they are willing to share them which means I can now note it and try to do something about it.

That they do most of the talking.  While I start the conversation and also offer up follow-up conversations, I need to make sure that it is their response that guides the path.  Too often I have overtaken a conversation out of my own helpfulness, but now I try to listen and then respond to get them to elaborate.

Those relationships are built in small pieces.  One of the best benefits of these reading check-ins simply has to do with relationship building.  Every time I am able to devote a few minutes to just one child that is one child I know better.  While this might be a “Well duh” moment, I often think of how many conversations we don’t make time for especially in middle school and high school.  How often do we feel like we don’t have time for that check-in or small group because we have so much to cover?  The reading check-in is a foundation of my further instruction and I need to remember that when I feel like I am pulled in a different direction.

That quantity goals often mean that the child does not know themselves well as a reader.  While quantity goals used to be our norm, I have found in my conversations that often when a child now sets the minimum quantity goal it is often because they do not know what else to work on.  Our reading check-in then centers around what else they could focus on.  When they are not sure then that tells me a lot about their reading identity.

That reading check-ins offer me a chance to remind.  Those first few days of school are such a blur for all of us and I shudder to think of all of the information that these students have been presented within all of our classes.  So while I offer reminders in the beginning of class, I am also reminding them of reading rights as we speak.  It is important that kids know that they can book shop anytime they want, that they can abandon any book they need to, and that they need to plan for reading throughout their day.  How many times do we say things in those first few days that kids never hear?

That I write very little down.  Too often we get caught up in our conferring notes, rather than in the conversation itself.  I am intentionally limiting my notes just so I can focus on the child, so I can look them in the eye, react to what they are saying and then jot a few things down that can spark the next conversation.  (To see the form I use, go to our Facebook group).

As I think ahead to the coming week, I am excited.  Excited to have more conversations.  Excited to move further in our instruction.  Excited to learn more about these kids that have been entrusted to me every day.  All through one little goal and a few minutes of conversation.

PS:  If you would like to have more reading conversations or you have questions, come join our Passionate Readers Facebook group, 

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first 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.

The 7th Grade Reading Challenge

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.

To see the hand out I give my students, please go here 

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.  27166703430_98b5a337ba_o26835817253_48478693c8_o27344117862_70e104318d_o27443368625_dc2b4b5b2b_o27344097252_2fe674e6bd_o

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 like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first 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.