A Reason to Read

My last class of the day had just dismissed, the last student shuffling out of my room. I grabbed a stack of paperwork I needed to give the school bookkeeper and made my way to the office. Passing through the media center, I turned my attention to a group of students who were congregated in one of the cozier areas of the library. Some were piled on the comfortable chairs, others were huddled on the carpet and rugs. Each student held a book, but none of them were reading. I stopped momentarily and the teacher looked at me, smiled, and said, “I just don’t have a group of readers this year.” I smiled and left. On my way back through, they were still holding books and still not reading. No desire to read seemed to exist within them at that moment.

I am often criticized for my viewpoints about reading instruction, mainly from those who are adamant that motivation to read should exist in every child. Honestly, I agree. It should. With the amount of resources available to schools through programs and grants, students should be surrounded by high-interest books, educators who are familiar with those titles, and time and space to read, write, think, and talk. Unfortunately, that balance is often forgotten as students grow into upper grades where time to read, write, think, and talk is replaced with activities and assignments that diminish the value of books and reading. Kids should come to our classes with a love of literacy, but often, they have no reason to read. It is a chore, an obstacle, and it is something you accomplish only in a reading or English classroom. Billy Collins would tell us that their only reason to read is to force a confession out of a piece of literature. Such a sad truth.

Each year students enter my classroom with mixed feelings about books and reading. Their attitudes teeter on the edge between disdain and curiosity: why do people keep telling me something I despise is so important? I ask students to complete an interest inventory at the beginning of the year that assesses their feelings about reading but also gives me a chance to know them as people, not just as students. These interest inventories are often filled with disheartening honesty and unfortunate truths—they believe reading is just not for them. I notice the abundant mentions of video games and that they enjoy hearing a book read aloud. They love stories, but they are reluctant to engage in the act of reading. Even though this appears disheartening, I still see rays of light.

Deep inside of everyone is a passion for story. People want to see a narrative arc embedded in all types of writing, both fiction and nonfiction. Essentially, we want to see characters (or people) involved in a conflict and seeking a resolution—the elements of stories, both real and imagined. Story is part of humanity, woven into the fabric of time and space, intricate pieces of experience that help us gauge our actions, provide a metric by which we live, and engage us in discourses that have endured for millenia. Story runs in our blood and exists in the narratives we weave each day through living. Knowing that this passion for story exists within all of us helps me leverage my work with students, especially when I invite them to experience books and reading. But, if I want them to fall in love with books, a rationale, one that lives deep within them, has to come alive.

If we want students to read, we have to give them a reason to do so. Explaining to students that reading is good for them is not a strong reason. Telling kids that our classes will give them the skills necessary for navigating difficult texts later in their lives is not true unless they are reading voluminously. And honestly, unless their reading lives originate from a place of love, students will not evaluate deeply or analyze carefully the words and phrases that constitute the books and passages they will encounter. I know because I have experienced both in my classroom: students whose literary analysis is based on compliance and those whose literary analysis is grounded in a love of reading. I’ve watched many students gravitate to more complex books because they had choice. I’ve seen many students tackle the challenging mentor texts and study pieces I hand them because close reading and analysis started from a place of love. I’ve expected students to read independently, select books that are increasingly difficult, talk about books, and listen during book talks throughout the week. I’ve read aloud to students from picture books and chapter books. Together we have laughed, mourned, and questioned because the characters have compelled our thinking and our hearts. Students want to read when it comes from a place deep inside, and they will if we give them a reason.

So how do we begin to give students a reason to read? I don’t know a perfect answer, but my success with reluctant readers is born from the courage to try something new and stand upon the shoulders of mentors whose writing and guidance has helped my practice. When students come into my class, I am genuinely curious about the things that engage or distance them when it comes to reading. What have teachers done to move them as readers? What classroom structures have helped promote and sustain their independent reading lives? My experience with gifted, struggling, and reluctant readers has led me to understand how the following strategies and ideas lead to joyful experiences with books.  

  1. Book Talks. Reluctant and struggling readers have no idea what types of books are available. Their understanding of books is generally limited to the titles that teachers bring into the classroom. A quality book talk, especially at the beginning of class each day, opens a world of engaging titles to your students. During book talks, I hold the book, give a brief summary, read a high interest part aloud, and discuss how this book made me feel. Emotion is an intrinsic piece of the human experience, and when we discuss books in a way that describes our feelings, we create a touchstone for others in our presence. Students go to art, especially music and lyrics, for an emotional response. Books have the same power, but only if we open that world to them.
  2. Read Alouds. A read aloud is a perfect opportunity for students to hear a seasoned reader read. Many times, instructors are responsible for dismantling the negative associations that students have with books, and reigniting that passion for story can occur when kids hear a book read aloud to them. It’s necessary to select a book that is high interest. It doesn’t need to be riddled with questions about main idea and supporting evidence; instead, it just needs to be a time of joy. I struggled to show students the joy that reading can bring, but a read aloud has the power to demonstrate how joyful books are.
  3. Choice. One of the most powerful ways to engage students in the act of reading is to give them choice. Freedom to choose reading materials gives students ownership of their learning. Whole-class and common texts have the potential to be powerful, but if students read only what the teacher prescribes, they read less. Inviting students into the learning process can begin with offering choices in their reading lives. When students choose their books, there is a great possibility of them reading voluminously and across a wide range of genres.
  4. Meaningful Extensions of Reading. The activities and assignments that students complete when finished reading or studying literature should emulate the things that real readers do when finished with a book. I do not ask students to create posters of their learning or provide a menu of activities to complete to demonstrate an understanding of a text. I provide extension assignments that deepen their understanding of the book and give them a chance to participate in the activities of real readers. I often ask them to turn and talk about their books, write a letter to a friend recommending the book, explore a big idea in their writing notebooks, discuss and write about how the book is a microcosm of the world, create I Am poems from a character’s perspective, and so on. I wasted time on packets and worksheets and posters for years. Now, I want my students to do what readers do—read, write, and talk.
  5. Surrounding students with books. When students enter my classroom, I want them to know that books matter. Students see books displayed on the ledge in front of my room, on countertops, on the bookshelves, and (especially on the first day) on their tables. I want them to see books everywhere and have access to the ones that catch their attention. We are influenced by the things we see each day. I want students to be influenced by books, and I make sure they are in plain sight all over my classroom.
  6. Time and space. Practice makes perfect, but only if we are intentional with our practice. Students need lots of time and plenty of space to read. Across a year, students should be reading voluminously, taking time to read and talk about their reading during class. Unless time and space are provided, students will not be motivated to read. My lesson plan includes a non-negotiable 15-20 minute reading block each day. We don’t read as a reward when we are finished with a classroom assignment. Reading is our classroom assignment. Setting aside time to read and space to talk about reading communicates to students that reading is important and valued in a classroom.

Joyful reading is sometimes born from struggle. Scrapes and scars tell the story of our lives, showing the world that we have experienced something hurtful, but in the end, we grew. It’s the experience, though, that gives us deeper appreciation. Sometimes, the same is true of reading. I never expect that students will gravitate immediately, but after time, I notice changes, especially when they are surrounded by conversations about books and time to read them.

There is no magic formula or high-interest activity that will create readers. The only way to create readers is to get students reading. I can never give my students a strong enough reason to read. They have to experience books first, and in time, a reason to read will swell within them, causing them to crave the written word. That is joy. And that is the reason to read. We live in narrative, structuring our lives and words on the stories of people before us. Books are the keys to unlocking a world of insight and imagination, but without a reason to read them, books, and their uniquely beautiful ideas, languish on the shelves. Moving students to read with purpose and passion does not start with a class activity or activating strategy. Reading is my activating strategyit engages the mind and the heart. And eventually, a reason to read grows.

T

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Travis Recommends…Vol. 1, Issue 2

April was a busy month for me. I was blessed with the opportunity to visit two schools, work with several fabulous educators, and learn alongside students in two different states. I am always amazed at the passion and courage students display when they are driven by an internal fire that motivates them to learn. But what I usually see is an educator who has provided a class structure that promotes time for independent reading, writing, and conversation. The teachers who invited me into their classrooms taught me a tremendous amount, and I am a better educator and thinker because I interacted with them.   

Two books captured my heart during April. I hope you will find time and space to read them and share them with others. These books are splendid additions to your professional and personal collections. They will stretch your thinking, motivate your teaching life, invite you to question deeply held beliefs about people, education, instruction, and the things we hold sacred.

180 Days by Kelly Gallagher & Penny Kittle

180 Days

When I first heard about 180 Days, the newest book from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher, I pre-ordered it immediately. As you can see from the many sticky notes, it probed my thinking at a deep level, forcing me to think about my own classroom and the reading and writing practices I implement. The format of the book is beautiful and there are gorgeous images from both teachers’ classrooms to supplement the amazing methodology they discuss. Please keep in mind that this is a detailed professional book. It is beautifully written, but you will want to read with a pen and sticky notes. Philosophy is beautifully woven into the strategies offered, and each chapter sheds light on the best ways to engage our students in reading and writing. As English teachers, engaging students in reading and writing is the first hurdle in getting them to think like academics. We want our students to have robust reading and writing lives, but if we do not engage their hearts and minds, our attempts will be in vain. When we plan with students in mind, we never go wrong. Kittle and Gallagher describe the activities, assignments, quick writes, and notebook work that engaged their students. Standing beside their thinking will never cause harm!

The book is divided into two sections: Planning Decisions and Discourses. The Planning Decisions section provides a deep look at the why of teaching. At the beginning of the book, Kittle and Gallagher describe their planning process, stating that they begin with their beliefs. I loved this so much because it encapsulates everything I believe about planning. When I meet with co-workers to plan or to vertically align curriculum, I never hear a statement about the things we believe. Usually, these planning decisions begin with books we hold sacred and the ways to make our lives as easy as possible. They do not start with kids. Penny and Kelly challenge that thinking and describe the processes and conversations that enabled them to reach the students in their classrooms.

In the Discourses section, both educators delineate the essential questions they pose to students, and the narrative, informational, argumentative, and multi-genre writing projects that students complete. This part of the book includes detailed descriptions of their teaching process, and how they used mentor texts, small and large group conversations, writing conferences, and peer feedback to enhance the quality of student writing.

If you are a teacher who wants to change the reading and writing environment in your classroom, I encourage you to read this phenomenal book. I read it alongside a co-worker, and as we read, we met periodically to discuss our marginalia, thinking, and ideas for the next school year. There is a lot to digest in this book—deep thinking, complex ideas, lessons, strategies, and mentor texts—and reading alongside someone will only intensify the conversations about Kittle and Gallagher’s teaching.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

the poet x

This fabulous blend of poetry and prose slayed me with gorgeous lyricism and haunting sentences. Xiomara, a high school sophomore with a love of philosophy, is struggling to find her place among teenagers whose lives and intellect do not match her precocious understanding of the world. She thrusts her existential questions into writing, filling her notebook with keen insight. Her perceptive thinking catches the eye of her English teacher who invites Xiomara to an evening of spoken word poetry. Xiomara is elated; however, dogmatic ideologies, spawned by her mother’s deeply held religious beliefs, threaten to derail any chance of speaking power to the poems in her mind and notebook.

In addition to the issues at home, Xiomara is also caught into the beauty of a budding romance, one her mother will not approve of. This love interest encourages her work as a writer, and in ways, becomes a muse. I loved the feminist thread that ran through this novel—a young woman who unleashes her own power by writing herself to freedom and conquering the demons that try to dissuade her. She is a force to be reckoned with and in the end, she finds the fortitude to rise.

Please add these amazing titles to your to-read stack. I know that it is May, and as teachers, we find ourselves facing testing, more testing, deadlines, end-of-the-year minutiae, and bittersweet goodbyes with our students. Both of the books, however, will ignite your teaching and reading soul, refreshing your mind and heart as you look toward next school year. I encourage you to read it. And share your thinking.

#SparksInTheDark

P.S. Sparks in the Dark, my book with co-author Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd), will be available during the first week of June. I hope you will get a copy and learn alongside us as we work to affect the readers and writers in all of us!

Travis Recommends…

I am always excited to share books. My colleagues, family, and friends are the recipients of my most fervent book talks. When I finish a book, there are people I text immediately, sending them snapshots of the writing that spoke to me. I take pictures of paragraphs and whole pages, describing the parts that engaged my heart and deepened my thinking. In short, I love sharing my thinking about books with others because that is what readers do. When we read something we love, we want to write and talk about it. I would love to begin sharing part of my reading life with you, hopefully posting a blog like this one on a monthly basis. The three books in this post are ones I have read or re-read recently. I am confident that they will engage your readerly mind, compel your teaching heart, and inspire your students’ reading lives. #booklove

Moo by Sharon Creech

I love this whimsical, playful novel, and so will you. Even better, your students will adore it. Sharon Creech blends poetry and prose in this magnificent tale of Reena and her younger brother, Luke, whose parents move their family from New York to Maine. At first, the children have no idea what to make of the quaint, agrarian atmosphere, but soon, they make the acquaintance of Mrs. Falala, a curmudgeonly old woman whose antics are frustrating for Reena and Luke. Even worse, Mrs. Falala enlists their help to groom Zora, a prize cow, for the fair. Hilarity ensues, but not at the expense of rich character development, meaningful moments among characters, and an ending that proves how no one should be judged by their seemingly harsh exteriors. Creech’s masterful fusion of prose and poetry will captivate your students, and her use of spacing, font, and non-traditional poetry forms will move your students to write in her style. I know you and your students will fall in love with this book.

moo by sharon creech

 

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

Of the books I have read during spring break, this book is one of the first that I will share with students when we return to school. Wallace, a.k.a. Lolly, is in middle school, navigating the precarious nature of adolescence while recovering from his brother’s recent death. Jermaine, Lolly’s brother, was killed in gang-related activity, and Lolly finds himself battling the anger and bitterness that accompany the death of a loved one. Lolly’s mother’s girlfriend, Yvonne, begins bringing him large bags of Legos, stating that the store she works for was planning to throw them out. Lolly’s love for architecture and Legos compel him to build a massive structure, one that angers his mother because of the space it occupies in their apartment. So he moves it to one of the vacant rooms at his after-school program. Big Rose, a peer whose tendencies are annoying to Lolly at first, begins building her own Lego structure, and as their buildings and cities increase in size, so does their friendship and their understanding of the world around them. Layered with laughter, joy, sadness, grief, and the unbreakable bonds of family and friendship, this novel will capture a piece of your heart. I encourage you to join Lolly in his quest to understand the community in which he lives, to forgive the people who are dearest to him, and to seek answers to questions that haunt him.

stars beneath our feet by david moore

 

A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts

I have followed Kate Roberts’s work for several years, reading DIY Literacy, a book co-written with Maggie Beattie Roberts, and Falling In Love With Close Reading, co-written with Chris Lehman. This solo project is nothing short of gorgeous; it is a must-have for secondary English/language arts teachers.

One of the lingering, most controversial issues among English teachers is the use of whole-class novels. Is the time used for whole-class text study beneficial when students could be reading books that are of interest to them? How can a teacher engage students in a core text study when there is such delight and vigor from watching students recapture a love of reading in reading workshop? Honestly, these questions have lingered in my mind for several years, especially when I abandoned whole-class novels several years ago in favor of a reading workshop model of teaching. My distaste for whole-class novels had developed in response to slow, painful trudge that accompanied the studies I had attempted. Engaging students in literature shouldn’t be this difficult, I thought. So I moved away from the whole-class novel idea and gravitated to a system that I knew would engage readers, increase their stamina, and provide them with a rich, satisfying reading experience.  And honestly, students read voluminously, reading conferences were saturated with students’ complex thinking, and the writing students produced about their independent reading was gorgeous. This was how a language arts classroom should work, I thought.

There is a remarkable beauty, however, to the idea of readers uniting around a single text, discussing the layers of meaning, the characters, and the ideas that nudge us further as readers, thinkers, and human beings. When readers share an experience, such as a whole-class novel, a different kind of community is formed. The novel becomes a touchstone, something that teachers and students can refer to all year. These thoughts moved to the forefront of my mind each year, and I wrestled with my feelings about whole-class novels, wondering if my students were missing a valuable piece of instruction because I had abandoned them.

Then I read Kate’s book. And I was ready to make a change.

If you use a workshop model and are missing the whole-class novel, or if you are using only core texts and are looking for new thinking to help rejuvenate your whole-class novel study, I encourage you to get a copy of Kate’s book and read it. Then read it again. Kate’s focus on skill development makes a novel study a manageable, less daunting idea. She guides you through her teaching journey, showing you step-by-step how to navigate the book with a balance of read aloud and independent reading, how to determine which skill(s) students further develop by reading a core text, and how to make the whole-class study a meaningful experience, as opposed to the trudge through words, something English teachers are too often familiar with. Her book resonates with power and inspiration. When you are finished, you will want to return to whole-class novels, or alter your methodology. Kate’s book radiates with possibility.

This is a professional book you need to prioritize. I encourage you to push it to the top of your to-read list. I know the things going on in your classroom are amazing. I know you are challenging students, nourishing their fledgling reading lives, and nudging them further in their work as readers and writers. But if you can stand beside of Kate’s thinking in A Novel Approach, possibility will be magnified within your classroom. Read this amazing book if you can. You won’t regret it.

a novel approach by kate roberts

Arm Me With Books

“One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” -Malala

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Who knows who might be the target of a well-read man?” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Books are potent things.

I’ve written that sentence dozens of times, weaving it into blog posts, magazine articles I’ve been asked to write, and Sparks in the Dark, my forthcoming book with Todd Nesloney. I’ve scribbled it inside almost every notebook I’ve kept as a language arts teacher, a small sentence that houses so much truth and understanding. As students have fallen in love with books and have developed reading identities, the sentence has glimmered with new meaning, for me and my students. It’s beautiful to behold.  

There is a frightening narrative unfolding at this moment, one that advocates arming teachers in response to the horrific school shootings across the country. I propose a completely different, less violent option: arm teachers with books. I have witnessed the mesmerizing power that books have over my students. When they read something they love, they want to talk about it and write about. They also want to act, to do something in response to the things they read. I have watched students become social justice warriors. Armed with the beautiful ideas from books they read, my students want to seek change in their world, using their reading lives as ammunition. Most recently, one of my students humbled me because he proved to me that a strong reading life is a loaded gun, and with it, we have a chance to change others.

His name is Dane. When he entered my class in late August, I could sense his negative stance toward reading and writing. I am not inclined to appreciate reading and writing, he seemed to say with his posture, comments, and the honest answers he provided on his interest inventory. His perspective about language arts, especially a reading and writing workshop, was anything but positive, but I persisted.

In late October, I watched his attitude transform. I book-talked Dear Martin by Nic Stone, a gripping novel about social justice and the racial disparity that exists in our country. I read part of the book aloud, and Dane, who usually slouched in his seat during book talks, held onto every word I read from the book. His interest was piqued. He approached me during independent reading and asked if he could read the book, stating that he wanted a book where the main character looked like him and understood his experience. “Of course you can read it,” I said, smiling and secretly wanting to give him a giant hug. I was elated. I had refused to give up on him, and as a result, I had finally reached him.

After reading Dear Martin, he read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The March Trilogy by John Lewis, and When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds. Reading conferences with him were incisive and pleasant, and by January, he was writing in his notebook about big ideas and themes. Our conversations about author’s craft encouraged him to write poems much like Jason Reynolds’s poetry. I became inspired by his writing and ideas, and when I would leaf through his notebook, reading what he had written, I found myself nudging him further in his writing. “Tell me more,” I would write in the margins, knowing that stories and poems and letters had layers that more writing would unearth. Dane had fallen in love with words and reading. But his attitude and posture on this one day seemed to be telling me a completely different story.

During independent reading, his eyes were averted from the page, sharply focused on the blank space in front of him. With his right hand he twisted ringlets of his hair, and with his left hand, he fanned the pages of his book. I approached him. “Dane,” I said, “is everything ok?” “Yes, sir,” he responded. For a moment his eyes returned to the page, but almost immediately he resumed the same distant stare, focusing on empty space, mind anywhere but class. I didn’t press the issue.

When independent reading ended, I asked everyone to get their writing notebooks out and turn so they could see the board at the front of the room. Langston Hughes’s I, Too, Sing America and Andra Day’s Rise Up were the pieces of writing we would focus on for our quick write and discussion before students began using them as ways to see intertextual relationships with their independent reading. Dane turned so he could see the board, but once he saw the poem and song, he smiled and turned back around. There was definitely an issue, but I wasn’t sure what had prompted the lack of participation. I had not seen a negative attitude from him in quite some time. Where was the writer, the reader, the poet?

During the quick write, I decided to read over shoulders as opposed to writing with my students. I needed to figure out what was going on, confident that Dane’s writing would give me a window into his mind. When I looked at his work, I could tell that he was dutifully working in his notebook, but there was no joy. When I approached his group, he did not look up from his notebook, but as I turned to walk away, he said, “Mr. Crowder, can I talk to you after class?”

“Sure,” I said. “Is everything ok?”

“Yeah, well, I just need to talk with you about a social justice issue.”

“I’ll be happy to talk to you,” I said.

And he went back to his notebook. For the remainder of class, he worked in his notebook, hardly speaking to the others in his group, intensely focused on the page in front of him. He was writing, but it was with purpose. Glancing over his shoulder as surreptitiously as possible, I noticed him working on Hughes’s I, Too, Sing America, writing his thoughts, and the personal connections he had made, around the poem, which he had pasted in his notebook. He was filling the page with vigor and attentiveness, channeling his ideas onto the lines, a mind consumed with something that had precipitated today’s class. He loved writing, but today he was on a mission. I was curious and worried.   

Class ended, students packed up their belongings and ushered out of my room. Dane walked to the front of the room and stood in front of me, seemingly searching for the right words. “So, something happened,” he said. “I just need to get it off my chest.”

“What’s up?” I asked, concern, I’m sure, apparent in my voice.

And he told me. He explained how earlier that morning at breakfast, a fellow 7th grader had approached him and said “What up, n——!” Repulsed at her language, he asked her to stop, but in reply, she commented that “y’all people say it all the time so why can’t I say it?” His attempts at explaining appropriate language were insufficient. Out of spite, she began saying it just to seek retaliation, wanting him to become angered. “But I didn’t,” he said. “I wanted to be the bigger person.”

As the day went on, his thinking sought the memory of the incident, dragging it to the forefront of his mind. By the time he reached language arts, and he saw that we were reading a poem by Langston Hughes, the experience from earlier that day was burdensome. And so he wanted to talk to me, the person who had suggested he read Dear Martin, the book that ignited his reading life. “I knew you’d understand,” he said.

“I don’t know what to do,” Dane continued. “Maybe I just needed to get it off my chest.” He started to leave, but I stopped him.

“Dane, do you remember what Justyce did?”

He smiled at me, recognizing the main character from Dear Martin. “Yeah.”

“Do you think that would help?”

“Are you telling me I need to write to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr?”

“I’m not telling you to do anything, Dane. But do you think writing to Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks or Malcom X or John Lewis would help?”

He smiled at me and nodded. “I know what I want to tell him. Thanks, Mr. C. Can I have a note to my next class?”

I wrote him a note and watched him leave my room. The following morning he brought me the letter he had penned, written with conviction to MLK, Jr. There was a rich authenticity to his letter: there was a significant audience, as well as a beautiful purpose. “I showed it to my mom this morning, Mr. C. She sat down at the kitchen table and cried.” When he walked away, so did I.

He wrote:

Dear Martin,

I really do not know how to start, so I’m going to just jump right into it.

So it’s Black History Month, and I’m being really cautious. Some, not all, but some people are saying mean things. I feel like people are running over us. Well, not all people, but some. I want to put an end to this.

I wanna protest. Not sure if I can but I really want to.

Ok, so there was this girl who used the “N” word when she spoke to me this morning. I was so mad because then other people started using it. I felt like it got out of hand. I’m still angry. I really don’t know what to do. I just felt like I should come to you. I want to speak out. I want to say something but I don’t want to say something that will hurt someone. Or get me in trouble.

Maybe this will help.

Thank you so much,

Dane

Since writing his first letter to MLK, Jr., Dane’s writing has found a courage and intensity that it did not have before. He has written more letters to MLK, Jr., and they have become deeply honest, probing at issues he is trying his best to understand and overcome. But more importantly, Dane connected with a book and used it to leverage his feelings, ideas, and reactions. This is a social justice move, a civic action that all students need to participate in, and students like Dane are leading the way.

In a time when politicians and other leaders are advocating for arming teachers with guns, I am advocating for a completely different way to arm us. Give us books, ones that will change our students lives, give them a renewed purpose, and encourage them to crusade for change within their country and world. When students like Dane are moved by books and use them as sources of strength and resilience, I am emboldened by their noble act. Books are powerful things. And they change us.

Arm me with books, with gorgeous, riveting prose that will engage students in reading and civic action. Arm me with books, with lyrical poetry, inspiring imagery, and explorations of the human condition that expose all that is good, evil, and noble in this world. Books are potent, and with them, I can arm my students. Dane could have chosen a different strategy to deal with his anger, but he chose to use Nic Stone’s novel as a guide, as a mentor. A solitary book changed him and gave him a way to rise above the ignorance. I want this for all of my students.

Arm me with books. Because the pen is mightier than the sword.

And books will change hearts and minds.

 

Building a Healthier Reading Diet

Since walking into my classroom, my students have been surrounded by books. Novels line the ledge at the front of my classroom, are stacked on the coffee table in the middle of the reading nook, and occupy space on top of the bookshelves that line an entire wall in my classroom. Books are everywhere.

I reserve the first twenty minutes of my ELA classes for independent reading. As students read, I check in with students, asking them about their reading lives, about the books they are reading. I listen as they tell me about their books and together, we discuss the goals they have for themselves as readers. How many pages would they like to read by the end of the week? What book do they want to read next? Are they keeping up with their to-read list? How are they challenging themselves as readers? Are their reading lives including a wide range of genres? These are the questions used to assess the quality of a healthy reading diet. Overall, students inspired me with their answers.

However, their answers to the last question, the one about reading a wide range of genres, concerned me. Most students were limiting their reading lives by reading books in only one or two genres. This was not indicative of the healthy reading life that I want my students to have. Several of them explained that they weren’t aware that they were reading in the same genre; others stated that they were not really aware of books in other genres that would interest them. How could I inspire them to challenge themselves as readers, selecting books from genres that they had avoided? To help them analyze their own reading lives and inspire them to stretch their thinking about their genres of preference, I decided to have students “data-fy” their reading habits*.

Genre Requirementsgaps in my reading life

Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, used a genre requirements graph with her students. This graph assisted students in keeping track of their reading lives. I believe strongly in using models to help students’ reading and writing habits. First, I “data-fied” by own reading life, noting the genres that I had read. Strikingly, I realized that I had avoided quite a few genres. Second, I wrote beside the graph inside my notebook. Why had I avoided particular genres? Why was my reading life seemingly narrow? I thought I had read a wide range of genres, but my genre graph proved otherwise. Clearly, the challenge to broaden my reading habits would be for me as much as it would be for my students.

With the help of a co-worker, I made stacks of books that were representative of different genres, namely fantasy, science fiction, memoir/biography/autobiography, historical fiction, poetry, and graphic novels. I included alternative structures into these stacks to add variation to the diversity of genres. After students completed their graphs, I wanted them to peruse the stacks and jot down books that were of interest to them.   

reading gap activity fantasy stack
As students worked, I heard them remark that they were unaware that their reading lives were as narrow as they appeared. I also heard them comment that they had forgotten about particular books that I had book talked earlier in the year, or that they had never noticed certain books on the bookshelves. Reminders are wonderful things, and so are chances to peruse books of various genres.

I encourage you to “data-fy” your own reading life, then give your students the opportunity to do the same. Like us, students need visuals; they need chances to see their reading lives in numbers and graphs. Keeping a list of books that we have read is great, and I require my students to keep a list in their notebooks. However, organizing your reading life into categories, into genres, is a beneficial activity. It allows students to see the gaps in their reading lives.  And it nudges them quite a bit.

Challenging ourselves as readers is essential. A well-rounded, voluminous reading life is diversified and broad. Identifying the gaps in our personal reading lives is necessary. I was honest with my students. I showed them my own shortcomings and embarked on this challenge with them. So, I am challenging you to do the same. Find your reading gaps. Identify the genres that you would enjoy exploring. And create, for yourself, a healthy reading diet.

*The genre requirement graph is from Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild. You can access a copy here.

 

Out of Chaos, Beauty

“One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a star.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

“Things fall apart…” -William Butler Yeats

There’s a story I’d like to tell you, one of failure and defeat, but ultimately of triumph. My students have taught me a great deal in these first six weeks of school, especially about the conditions necessary for engaging reluctant readers. In previous years, the number of readers greatly outweighed the nonreaders, and with time, I was able to pull students without reading lives into the world of literacy. They gave me a sense of the engaging books, poems, and mentor texts I could use to build and enhance reading habits. As a result, reluctant readers developed a passion for books and came to my room each day itching to read more. They read voluminously and were devotees of compelling authors and genres. They spoke eloquently about themes and characters they encountered. Naivete, my misleading muse, made me feel that my work would always be this seamless, and I expected the same results this year.        

On the first day, my optimism soared as students rushed to the bookshelves to seize their first reads. They scrambled for titles that had piqued their interest, trying to snatch them before anyone else could. Coworkers told me that this group despised reading and writing. According to them, my work was cut out for me, and when I mentioned the successes I had last year, they scoffed. “Not all students will be readers,” several fellow teachers said. And yet, I believed they would.

On the second day, a surge of panic rose in my heart. Student after student complained that the books they had chosen were not the right fit for them. The books were boring, difficult, or slow. I helped them find different books, certain that this time, they were matched with the right one. Satisfied, they returned to their seats; but the next day, droves of them returned to class with the same complaint. Once again, we found other books. The following day, however, was the same story. So was the next day. And the next.  

Two weeks into the year, I was wading in a sea of despair. Stacks of abandoned books were testimonies to my failure. Sam slouched in his seat while he read, sedated by the book in his hands. Colson wriggled on the floor, more interested in his hoodie strings than his novel. Annie stared at the pages of her book, unable (unwilling?) to immerse herself in the story.  I adjusted my instruction to discuss book selection and different genres, but my efforts felt pointless. In my heart, I knew I was doing what was best, but I didn’t feel that I was reaching them. Last year, students flourished in an environment with reading choices and were constantly seeking for book recommendations. This year’s group was markedly different. Books I thought they would love were cast aside. Free choice independent reading was just not of interest to them.       

I repeatedly heard them complain about being slow readers. “I’m just not fast at reading,” Jacob said. And he wasn’t alone. Multiple conferences unearthed the same complaint: they weren’t quick readers, and they believed reading pace was a requirement for effective reading. One afternoon, several students explained that former teachers had bemoaned their slow reading abilities, proclaiming them deficient readers. Even though I assured them that there was no shame in slow reading, my words could not assuage the frustration.  

Despair feasts on hope and turns ambition to insignificance. Honestly, I felt that I was losing a battle with my students. So, I turned to books, to professionals, to mentors. I returned to writers, ones I had read many times before, seeking inspiration that would help me diminish the dissonance in my teaching life. Tom Newkirk’s The Art of Slow Reading helped me understand the importance of slowing the reading process down, of stepping into the story, of greeting the characters as we encounter them, of falling in love with them. His wisdom gave me ways to describe the benefits of slow reading, something several of my students saw as inferior.  I used his beautiful words to explain how important slow reading is, how it helps us enter the story and experience it. Using his words encouraged them and I noticed a difference in Jacob’s reading habits. Instead of shaming his reading rate, I embraced it and used it to capitalize on something significant: immersion in the story. Since then, his reading abilities have increased and he has finished two books. Thank you, Mr. Newkirk.

I also had to dismantle negative associations with books and reading. Most of my students had been subjected to reading passages with accompanying multiple choice questions, described by Makenna as “papers with paragraphs on them.” Each day, I began reading workshop with a read aloud from a book I knew specific students, or groups of them, would enjoy. Hearing the narrative and getting the feel of the books was essential, and slowly, more and more students picked up these books that I read aloud to them. This was a practice I had used last year, but not each day. This year’s students helped me learn that it was an essential practice and needed to be in place as often as possible. In turn, they read these books, passed them to other students, talked about them, and spoke eloquently about them during reading conferences.

Because I am a voracious reader, I am always talking about books with students (and teachers, too). I am connected to life through the fabric of literacy. My reading life is interwoven with my professional and personal life and the books I’ve read help me tell my story. When I speak to students about reading, I so often talk about the books I’ve loved, never showing them how I deal with book selection, reading slumps, and less interesting passages. In Passionate Readers, Pernille Ripp discusses how she compartmentalized her teaching and reading lives, never converging the two parts until she realized that bringing her reading life into the classroom would benefit her students. I was willing to talk about good experiences with books, but the less-than-stellar experiences were redacted completely.  From their perspective, it must have appeared that I loved every book I started reading and never abandoned anything. Our students need to see the issues we face as readers. I recently finished Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith. The book is exquisite. Since finishing it, I haven’t been able to settle into another book, haunted by the unique quality of Smith’s writing. I keep thinking about the sentences, the imagery, the passage I used as a mentor text (pages  79-80, by the way), and the relationship I built with the characters. I’ve started and cast aside several books, and only recently began The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz. When I was honest with them about my own struggles with reading selection, and how I floundered until I found this one, I know it helped them see that even proficient readers grapple with selecting books to read. And I know because they have brought it up in reading conferences.        

I know I can be impatient. I am guilty of wanting immediate results, and I base my efficacy as a teacher on how many students fall in love with books and reading immediately. But establishing a reading and writing workshop takes time. Even when students are used to joyful reading and writing, workshop procedure is a paradigm shift. Kids need time to explore reading, to meander, as my friend Mary Howard so often reminds me. They need adults who care about books, who talk about them frequently, and who are patient with them as they begin forming their own unique reading identities.  Penny Kittle, in a video found here, explains that to get kids reading, we have to talk with them, help them set goals, and give them lots of choice. Today, I crouched beside Michael’s seat as he read I’ll Give you the Sun. He’s had this book for almost a week and has only read twenty-five pages.  Instead of focusing on typical, expected conference questions, I focused on something else. “Where would you like to be in this book by next Monday?” I asked. “Far into the book,” he replied. “What does far mean to you when you think about this book?” I responded. He flipped through the book and said, “Right here,” as he pointed to page 150. “Only you can do that,” I said. “I want you to think about the barriers that stand between you and getting to page 150 by the beginning of next week.” He smiled, returned to his book, and was finished with it by Monday. Talking with children about books and helping them set goals is such important work. When they envision success, they will challenge themselves. But we have to sit beside them, guide them, and trust that the meandering will lead to readership. Because it does.  

As a teacher, I am still learning to embrace the chaos that is part of this work. (Do we ever accept it?) Teaching and learning are messy processes, and I have to remember that time, patience, talk, and choice help channel that chaos into beauty. In just six weeks of school, these kids have taught me a tremendous amount. They’ve helped me realize that the most reluctant readers will pick up a book and give it a try eventually. They’ve taught me that they need a teacher who will bring his reading life into the classroom and show them the polished as well as complicated pieces. I can do that.      

Right now, I’ll admit that things aren’t perfect. I’m still waiting on Annie to find the book that will grip her heart. I’m still waiting for Sam to find the one book that will change his mind about reading. And I’m still waiting for David, Cesia, Caleb, Oshey, Dylan, and several others to read outside of class. I encourage them daily because I believe it will happen eventually.

In the meantime, I’m going to love the fact that Justin said he didn’t like to read when he walked into my class, but now has a to-read list that grows each week. That Deanna, a student who fake-read her way through sixth grade, has read four books by Ellen Hopkins, and has now decided to abandon poetry for the prose of Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. That Jay, whose frustration with reading was evident from the first day, has read three books, and today, during a reading conference, explained the structural similarities between two of the books he read. That Juan, who read four books last year, has now read fifteen and is seeking more challenging books. In the meantime, I am going to celebrate these victories while continuing to encourage every reading life, no matter how developed or fragile.   

I don’t know the end of this story, but I do know that the chaos is beginning to break, and beauty is emanating from those fissures.  I hear fragments of conversations as students get ready for class, and I take note of the student-led book talks that are happening around the bookshelves, the small reading communities that are burgeoning, and the reading recommendations that students seek from me and their peers. I do not have the ease of last year, but I have deeper satisfaction. Our students need us. They need adults who read, who talk about books, who are honest about their reading lives. With time and patience, chaos dissipates, but it takes patience.

So I’ll wait, watching the chaos break into beauty.   

T

Love is All That Matters

“Let yourself be drawn by the pull of what you love. It will not lead you astray.” -Rumi

The summer months, for me, are full of energy and drive. During these weeks away from school, away from the minutiae that often dominates education, I recharge and regroup for another year of helping develop the reading and writing lives of young people. Preparing for another year is exciting and overwhelming. I, like many educators, spend hours thinking about the upcoming year, agonizing over the best ways to motivate and encourage students. I have just a few days of summer break left, and as I contemplate the mentor texts, book talks, and quick writes I want to use and discuss, I know that I am preparing lessons for students I don’t yet know. Each year, my classroom comes to life with the beautiful chatter of adolescents. Some are excited about the prospect of a new year, some are shaking off the frustrations of the last one. I realize that these kids may arrive in my classroom with challenges I may not understand and issues that I may spend a year trying to solve.  On the other hand, they may be delighted about another year of language arts.  Regardless of their attitudes toward my subject area or the circumstances that may have impeded their academic journeys, one thing is for certain: I will love them.       

I have faith that every student in my classroom will succeed. Without a doubt, these young people are equipped with the ability to write with vigor and read with passion. Loving my students means overlooking the attitudes they may arrive with and working hard to reverse the negative feelings they might have about my content area. Part of this profession involves a commitment to the resistant students, the ones who have fallen out of love with learning and are satisfied just to endure class. When I think about resistant students, I immediately think of Robbie, a student who came into my class last year, hair swept across his eyes, uninterested in school and above all else, uninterested in reading. I know because he told me.

The explanation I gave him about independent reading in my classroom was a waste of time, an expectation that he had no intention of meeting. Regardless of the titles I handed to him and the recommendations I gave, he was not compelled to read beyond the school day. During independent reading time, he would stare into the distance, and I knew he was miles away from class. Eventually, I learned that before he had moved to our school district, a close friend of his had committed suicide. For him, school was a hideous reminder of his friend’s death, and in response, he resisted anything academic. Beneath the caustic comments he would utter and the baggy clothes that shrouded his thin body, there was a child whom I was responsible for. During a quick write one day, in response to photographs from WWI, I noticed him writing feverishly for the allotted two-three minutes. When I read his entry later, his clarity and knowledge about military history astounded me, and when I approached him with a preview stack, he selected Unlikely Hero, the story of a Jewish soldier in Hitler’s army. Although Robbie still refused to read outside of school, and even though I wished he would read voluminously, he read and loved it. The expectation was of less concern than helping Robbie find a book he would enjoy, so I pushed the expectation aside. I don’t regret it.   

I also think about Annie, a student whose fiery eyes and anger told the story of intense heartache. She despised writing, and when I encouraged her to join the rest of the class during our writing workshop, she took it as a mere suggestion instead of a requirement. Things changed, though, during a study of memoir. She chose to write about the death of her father, a man who had provided stability, and in his absence, she was suffering under the inattentive care of her mother. She cried while she wrote and even asked to change the subject of her memoir twice, but in the end, she crafted a beautiful portrait of her father. Her story resonated with me, and afterward, when the narrative had spilled onto the page and was no longer trapped inside her, she was a different person. In a note to me, she mentioned that no one had ever asked her to write about something so personal, but she was glad she did. I was, too.

Not all students are resistant, though. Anna, for example, came to my class hating to read, but by the end of the year, her reading list contained over thirty books. John started reading because of the expectation in my classroom, but discovered he loved books written in verse. And Rebeca’s voracious reading habit, one that was only improved in my room, put my reading rate to shame.  Their book love was only magnified with time and space to read. All of these students have one thing in common. I accepted each of them without question. I gave them space to find books they would fall in love with, topics they could develop through writing, and time to talk about both. I worry every year about the messages I send to students. Kids are smart, more intuitive than we give them credit for being, and it is often the implications that send the strongest messages.  When we say we love our students, it means showing them through our remarks, the things we advocate, and the assignments we ask them to complete. Our actions tell our philosophies better than our words do. Worksheets and chapter quizzes do not engender a love of reading, and when they are utilized, students are disengaged. Loving them means participating in the activities of real readers and writers. It means giving them the power to choose and allowing them a chance to discover themselves through reading and writing.      

I know that the children I teach this year will arrive with unique stories, quirks, and needs. And because I love this profession and the students I teach, I will do everything in my power to make this a memorable and worthwhile school year.

Future students, I promise that I will value you as people and respect the differences that you bring to the classroom.  I will listen to your stories, cheer your successes, and encourage you during your failures. I will advocate for practices that will increase your potential and denounce programs that are destructive. I will help you develop a reading life, even if you aren’t sure you’ll enjoy books, because I know that they have a magical quality that you will love. I will give you a chance to write about the things that matter to you because that is where the most potent writing emerges. Above all else, I want you to read and write with joy. I will do all of this because I love each of you.  I promise to teach you from the depths of my heart and give you reasons to fall in love with reading and writing. I will also love you regardless of your abilities, your weaknesses, or your strengths.   

Because in the end, love is all that matters.

T