I learned a lot this school year.
More than I imagined I would.
At the start of the year, I didn’t know what to expect. I was worried— I couldn’t figure out how to handle class as I knew it. Students often find my classroom strange at first because it is much different than the structure they are used to. Usually, we start with 15-20 minutes of independent reading, then transition into some form of text study, whether it be an anchor text or our independent reading. We think and write, then share with a partner. Many times, we gather in the sacred circle and quickwrite, then move into our writer’s workshop. My understanding of workshop procedure has evolved across the years. I’ve grown to understand more of the nuances of workshop teaching, such as when students need more independent reading time, when small groups are necessary, and when students need time with a partner to smooth out pieces of their writing. But this year would be different. The space between desks felt like chasms. Gathering in small groups would be virtually impossible. The closeness of workshop would be lost, I thought. How would we build the same type of reading community?
There were worries of other procedures, too. Face masks, social distancing, bathroom use, lunch protocols, and digital everything blended into the feeling of uncertainty that we all felt going into a much different school year. And on top of all of this, I worried about kids’ reading lives.
I’ve written about this before, but generally speaking, the year starts with gobs of book talks. I spread books across the classroom (something I call “book shopping”) and give students time to peruse the books and add titles to their to-read lists. I challenge them to look for genres and formats that are outside of their reading comfort zone, an idea we return to again and again across the school year. As they browse, I walk among them and stop to talk briefly about books they’re looking at, or ones that they may have missed. Reading is social and I want kids to feel this on day one— I want them to hear what talking about books can sound and feel like. This isn’t just picking out books. This is part of participating in the process of reading.
This time is special for other reasons, too. For example, this is a great time to discuss things with students that many teachers may reserve for mini-lessons. I find it more helpful to handle some of these conversations during this book shopping time because it is in the moment and more authentic. I’ve stopped students many times to discuss the false binary of fiction (“fake”) and nonfiction (“not fake”) when I hear such wording arise in their conversations. “Fiction does not mean fake and nonfiction does not mean not fake,” I tell them. We spend a few moments discussing why.
But this year would be different and I didn’t know what to expect.
Several weeks before kids arrived for the first day of school, I sat in my classroom and stared at the spaced out desks. Out of hope (or perhaps desperation?) I had pulled books from my shelves and stacked them, wondering if I’d be able to lay books around the room as I normally had or even have a chance to describe books kids may want to read over the course of the year. They stood like little sentinels all around the room, staring back at me, challenging me to do what I always do. Eventually, I did the only thing I could think of: I started standing them up around the room and placing them on whiteboard ledges. No, the year would not be the same, but we could still talk about books.
The first day of school was hectic and strange. Lines with arrows lined the hallways to direct students and maintain social distancing. Signs all around the school reminded us to maintain a safe distance, use hand sanitizer, and keep our masks on. Much of that first day is a blur, but I remember discussing safety expectations and helping kids start their digital notebooks. Digital notebooks are Google presentations that had been modified to mimic the look of an actual notebook. These were complete with tabs that linked to different sections of the notebook. Usually, students spend much of the first several days not only picking out books but also decorating reader’s-writer’s notebooks. Personalizing notebooks lifts what students bring to their writing. Knowing the notebook belongs to them nudges kids to write with intention, with passion.
Next comes the labeling.
We divide our notebooks into different sections: reading response, writing, and vocabulary. They title the very last page “To Read” and the next to last page “Words to Remember.” These are pages that are helpful for me as a reader/writer and I want kids to try them out. So far, they’ve worked for other students, too.
When they finish decorating and labeling, I ask them to hold their notebooks close to their hearts (don’t laugh, it actually works) and understand that this year, their reader’s-writer’s notebook will house their thinking about the books they read and the topics they choose to write about. It will have quickwrites and thoughts and feelings and reactions. They need to write openly and honestly about how and what they feel because it is in that space of openness that we truly begin to write.
Students didn’t have this option, though. Instead of physically decorating, the best I could do was ask them to copy and paste images onto the “covers” of their digital notebooks. There’s something magical about writing inside a new notebook, labeling sections and pages and adding the first entries. There’s another sort of magic that happens when the notebook starts to look used and lived-in. At this point, the notebook has a story. Digital notebooks don’t look worn and used; they just get clunky after too many slides have been added to them. As kids copied and pasted images from their computers to their notebooks, I recognized that this year would be different for these young readers and writers. And while they may not connect with their notebooks in the same way as years past, we would continue to read and write and think together as a community.
On the second day of school, I decided it was time to talk about books. I had no idea how book selection would go, but I decided to trust the process— to give kids space and time to select books and let the books speak to them. I placed hand sanitizer around the classroom and told students to sanitize their hands before picking up a book. I stood the books on desks and counters so students could see the covers and abstracts without touching the books, but if they needed to pick them up, sanitizer was there for their convenience. Kids browsed that day, added books to their to-read lists, and settled on one to take with them before the end of class. In the weeks to come, there were students who abandoned multiple books, but eventually, everyone found something to read.
We were only several weeks into the school year, but one day as I watched kids grab their books, turn to dog-eared pages, and re-enter stories, it hit me: in spite of everything this school year, we had managed to build a reading community.
Not long ago, I sat down with my notebook and listed the things that I’ve learned about working alongside kids this year. One thing that rises above all the others is the power of reading itself. All I did was provide as much access as I could. The books and the kids did the rest. That’s the thing, though. Learning to trust the process. And listening to kids as they talked through books they read and articulated their reasons for abandoning specific books.
With groups of students in the building only two days a week, books had to be prioritized. I refused to relinquish daily independent reading time, even with students in person just twice each week. Each class period started with a non-negotiable 10-15 minute block of time for free choice independent reading. This came, of course, after students had spent time book shopping, adding books to their to-read lists, and settling on what they wanted to read first. Yes, there were plenty of students who abandoned their first pick, but that’s always the case. Because I changed classes, not the students, I piled my mobile cart high with books that they might want to exchange their current book for. Eventually, the dust settled and they all relaxed into something that matched their reading interests and abilities.
Multiple times this school year, an administrator came into my room for a walk-through “observation” and muttered “I’ll come back when something is happening” or “I guess I’ll come back in about ten minutes” before leaving. Honestly, those mutterings hurt, but after a bit, I stopped worrying about their comments. They didn’t know the research about independent reading and they certainly didn’t know the hard work that goes into working with kids to build a community of readers. When anyone came to my room to “observe,” I pressed on and encouraged them to speak with the readers in the room.
Even with our face masks, I checked-in with kids about their books. I talked with them a lot (socially distanced, of course) and we emailed back and forth about their books. I would tell them, “Email me your reading response,” and when they did, I would spend time responding to each student. I learned so much about them this way. Usually, I read their responses in their notebooks, but over email, I saw their personalities shine through, especially in their greetings, and the ways they signed their names.
COVID created quite a string of health protocols and finding a way to work with them in mind proved to be a challenge. But with students, we found a way.
Every year, kids talk about how much book talks and book shopping help. The environment would not be the same, but I discovered a way to make it work. I took book suggestions from last year’s students, ones I had collected midway through the year, and created a document that displayed all of these books. I divided them into genres and gave kids time to look through the document and decide what they wanted to read. I carried these books on my cart and laid them around the room. After our hands were fully sanitized (I was very strict about this), we walked around and browsed. We did this several times across the year, adding to our to-read lists and suggesting books to others in the class.
I gave kids time to talk about their books, too. Even though the kids were socially distanced, I gave them time to turn and talk about characters and pivotal moments. Sometimes I invited them to email each other about what was going on at that moment in their books and blind copy me so I could see their thinking.
Another thing I learned was how important authenticity is. Earlier in my career, I believed kids were more interested in the activity after the reading than the reading itself. I learned quite a while back that the opposite is actually true. Kids are more interested in reading, not the clutter I gave them afterwards. They want choices, though. And readers deserve choices in their reading lives. We continue to study texts together, but I protect their right to choose books and to have time to read and respond to those books during class.
Such a teaching philosophy receives criticism because it sounds less academic. But there is rigor in kids participating in the same reading processes that real readers participate in. There is rigor in analyzing characters and motivation. There is rigor in exploring themes and big ideas in books and connecting those themes to other texts we read in class, such as poems, articles, and images.
And I still believe there is rigor in choice.
It is challenging to narrow reading options and decide how and if certain books match your interests. For some students it takes a while to settle into a reading life because their understanding of their preferences may not be well-developed. And that’s okay.
Years ago I scoffed at the idea of choice-based initiatives in reading class. I never imagined students would challenge themselves as readers if they had the option of choosing their own books. But here’s the thing: Students do challenge themselves. They may select an easy book at first, but their minds crave something more. And I’ve learned that my understanding of challenging books is biased. What I consider challenging is not universal. Decentering myself means listening and empathizing with their individual needs as readers, not expecting them to adopt my beliefs.
And that’s another thing this year has taught me.
Even in the midst of a challenging year, kids still wanted to read.
Even in the midst of face masks, social distancing, book sanitizing, hand sanitizing, and digital everything, kids read and read and read. They fell in love with characters, moved from a nonreading to a reading identity, grappled with choices in their reading lives, and set goals for themselves. Every so often I gave kids a sticky note and asked them to place it on the page they felt they could be on in a week. I love visuals. A noticeable marker, such as a sticky note, helps me see my progress. If I don’t reach the page I marked, I can reflect on the things that stood in my way. Or, if necessary, I can set a different goal. These goals gave kids that necessary visual. They challenged themselves each week to read more.
Every day, at the beginning of class, book bags shuffled while students extracted their books and settled into independent reading time.
The sounds of reading emerged.
I hesitated to check-in with them, but I was anxious to hear how things were progressing in their books. Some days, I left them alone and just watched them read. I despised the institutional desks and rows that I had to replace my comfy chairs and flexible seating with. Still, a reading community developed. It wasn’t lost.
I don’t know what next year will look like, but regardless of the structure of school and classes, I know kids will read if we let them. I acknowledge that there are situations that have required different routes for readers this year and in many places, teachers worked hard to provide the best reading environments possible. This is by no means a criticism of anyone’s classroom or work this school year. This is just how I worked alongside my readers in these uncertain times. I pledged to move heaven and earth this year to support kids’ reading lives and while nothing was perfect, I am overjoyed at the amount of reading students did.
On her end of year reading reflection, Heidi wrote, “There has been a significant change in my reading life this year. Now, I like to read realistic fiction, but am not afraid to take a challenge and step outside of my comfort zone. In the previous years of my life, I have found reading to not be something that interests me, but now, if I have the right book at the right time, I won’t put it down.” Other students indicated how intrepidly they read this year. I want that for all of them. But like all things, reading is a journey. The path we take is never wrong, but it looks different for different people.
I hope that even in the midst of this wild, tumultuous year, you have found books, like we have in room 502, that speak to your heart and tempt you to be fearless in your reading life. Whatever your school year looks like next year, I hope you work alongside your students as they move their reading lives forward. And I hope that we all take our cue from Heidi and find those books we can’t possibly put down.