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,


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.   


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.


In Defense of Free Choice Independent Reading

“We now have a quarter century of studies that document three findings: literacy blooms wherever children have access to books they want to read, permission to choose their own, and time to get lost in them.” -Nancie Atwell

I was mesmerized by stories when I was a child. When entranced by a delightful book, I would spend hours devouring the narrative, getting lost in the world of the characters and wishing I could step into their world for just a moment.  I saw glimmers of fictional characters in my teachers, my classmates, and even my parents.  Even though I loved to read, some of my reading joy was shattered during school.  The books I brought with me to class were not appropriate or “leveled,” a term I learned to loathe even as a child.  Several books didn’t have Accelerated Reader labels on them, and if I read them, how would my teacher determine the points I would earn? Also, how could they determine the quality of the book I was bringing to school? I found myself hiding books under my desk or behind a text book, but I wasn’t as furtive as I hoped. Novels were snatched from my hands or I was asked to put my book away. In upper grades, there was never time for independent reading, and my choices as a reader were never discussed or encouraged.  Unfortunately, school never helped me develop a reading life.  Now, as a language arts teacher, I want much more for the children in my classes. I want them to fall in love with reading.     

I have several middle school children in my life, ones I know personally, and their collective indictment about language arts classes is sobering, especially since they qualify for advanced programs. In their classes, independent reading is something that is done outside of the classroom, or completed in class to participate in incentivized reading programs.  I’ll admit that in the past, I have denied my students independent reading time because I didn’t value free choice reading. I believed that the books my students chose would not satisfy the standard of reading that I held them to.  In truth, students will surprise you with their choices.  By giving students the freedom to choose their own books and providing them with a schedule that permits iindependent reading time, we promote student voice within our classes.    

The benefits of free choice independent reading far outreach any graphic organizer, worksheet, skill drill, or group conversations that students are exposed to in our classrooms.  We nurture reading and conversations about reading when we give students time to read.  There isn’t a single language arts teacher who would deny the importance of reading, but free choice reading, the activity we relish as adults, becomes incredibly controversial when students are involved.  The implication is that student choice is not valued. When we trust students to make their own choices, the classroom environment changes dramatically. Students move from passive attendees to active participants. They also discover more about themselves and their reading identity because they are compelled by genres they thought they would dislike.  Anna spent most of the first semester reading great young adult literature, and her writing notebook was filled with drafts that spoke to her love of these books. When students finish a book, I always ask them, “What is your plan now?” I am curious what they want to read next, and if they don’t know, I help them.  When I asked Anna what her plan was, she said that she wanted to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but she was afraid she wouldn’t like it. It was a classic, and those books had turned her off from reading in the past. I encouraged her to give it a try, and I helped her navigate the first several chapters until she could establish her interest. In the end, she fell in love with the story. And when we shared our favorite books at the end of the year, To Kill a Mockingbird was at the top of her list.  I value the reading choices my students make, and although I may not agree with them, I do my best to guide them to excellent books. Anna enjoyed books that I disliked, but I respected her choices.  This respectful learning environment encouraged her to read a classic, one that she devoured in just a few sittings.            

I’m amazed at the reading communities that populate in my classroom over the course of a year. Students unite around authors they love such as Andrew Smith, Sharon Creech, Shaun Hutchinson, and Nicola Yoon. Fan groups form around books students cherish such as Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon, and Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston.  These reading communities are organic and my classroom is always alive with conversations about books and authors and reasons why others should read them.  Discussions emanate from groups around the room as class begins, and often, I find myself waiting for these vital conversations to end before beginning my classes. I am drawn into the different reading communities that develop in my classes.  The beautiful thing about them is that I do very little to create them.  Mainly, I give students time to discuss what they’re reading with their classmates.  As they talk about characters, themes, unanswered questions, or unexpected twists in the story, they get to know their classmates in relation to books. They hear what other students have enjoyed and disliked, and during these discussions, reading recommendations naturally occur.  I weave in and out of groups, listening for chances to slip into a conversations and catch a book recommendation.  Before giving students the gift of free choice reading, these reading communities did not exist. There were no lively conversations about the books we read in class because I was the one choosing them.  When students have the chance to self-select their own reading material, engagement in that material increases.  More times than not, students will fall in love with a book they’ve chosen, and ultimately, they’ll want to share the story with someone else.  Readers seek a community of other readers to share stories they love.          

As students move through their academic careers, it is imperative that they develop independence in their reading lives. There are texts that students will not be able to negotiate on their own and they will need an instructor to help them navigate those texts; however, they will need fluency in their reading lives to help them reach a place where they can confidently approach rigorous works.  I still believe that all students need exposure to Shakespeare, Milton, Hemingway, Austen, Eliot, Wharton, Lessing, and a host of other great authors. But I have had to learn that it is more important to help students fall in love with reading than to force and monitor reading experiences that I deem worthy of study. Students are more willing to read something challenging if their reading choices have been validated by their teacher. They are also willing to read challenging materials if they have built adequate fluency, a direct result of a rich reading life.  

When given the option to choose what they read, students have ownership in their own education.  They have an investment in the process because they are making the decisions about the books they read. I do have expectations about my classroom library and about the things my students read.  But within those parameters, students have choices; they have ownership. I asked my students about the things that made my class enjoyable for them, and unanimously, they agreed that being able to select their own reading materials made a difference in the effort they put forth in class and the investment they made in assignments. Jovany, a student whose energy had frustrated teachers before, honestly explained that he loved to read but rarely found teacher-selected texts to be of interest to him. He adored the opportunities to choose his own books and spent hours meticulously arranging images and words on every book talk presentation he created for my class.  In the final course evaluation for my language arts class, he explained that the book talk presentations were a favorite of his and he hoped he would have the chance to do more of them next year.  I hope he does too. When students own their learning, they take it seriously.        

Our students are counting on us. They aren’t waiting for us to get this right. They are moving to the next grade level, graduating, entering college, and accepting jobs.  I am imploring all of us to reflect on our practice.  Are we providing students with time to read, reflect, and discuss? Are we promoting a classroom environment that allows students ample time to find books they are interested in and get lost in them? I believe in the power of free choice reading because I have seen its potent magic in my classroom. Students weave beautiful stories about the things they love, and when they fall in love with books, those stories are magnified. We need a nation, a world of readers, and we can help build them. I’m encouraging you to fill your classroom with books that students will love and allow everyone a chance to select the ones they want to read. Then, allow them to get comfortable, whether it’s in their seats or a cozy place on the floor, and disappear into the beautiful narrative they have chosen. This is what enhances literacy. And above all else, it creates a reader.  


P.S. I am not the same teacher I was a year ago. This article is more for me than anyone else and it highlights part of my journey of implementing free choice reading. I am not writing anything that hasn’t been written before; however, I only want my experience to inspire others and to show that when we value students’ voices, our classrooms become centers of learning, not centers of compliance. Without the help of incredibly talented writers and thinkers, such as Donalyn Miller, Linda Rief, Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, Jim Burke, Mary Howard, and countless others, my understanding of the importance of free choice independent reading would have remained nonexistent.  This post is dedicated to each of you. Thank you for your commitment to young readers and for inspiring me to be better teacher.  


If We Let Them

“Student choice is synonymous with student engagement, in both reading and writing. It’s my responsibility as an educator to invite, nurture, and sustain every student’s engagement with literature.” -Nancie Atwell

I am not the same teacher I was at the beginning of this school year. Changing from a traditional method of teaching to a workshop model remains the largest paradigm shift I have ever implemented, and ultimately, it has proven to be the most successful. After this year, I am convinced that a workshop classroom is the only way to fully engage students in conversations about books and writing and to enhance their abilities to analyze and evaluate writing craft and literature. Engagement has increased exponentially as students have chosen their own reading materials, selected topics about which they wished to write, and collaborated with their classmates to enhance their writing abilities and expand their horizons as readers.  But this year, I was more of a student than the teenagers who filled my classes each day. They taught me a lot about teaching and the conditions necessary for a successful learning environment.

I had to listen to my students, though, before I learned this unique distinction. I had read widely and voluminously, including both professional and young adult literature. These readings formed my pedagogical knowledge and guided my thinking about books students will be interested in, as well as the best practices for reaching my kids. I’ve read about brain development, reading research, writing strategies, and problem-based learning in education, but none of that will ever supersede the knowledge I gain from conversations with students. I love Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them and Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. These works are rich with inspiration and guidance, but they are starting points, helping navigate the uncertain waters of the classroom. The greatest knowledge I gained this year came from my students, and these new understandings will be held in my heart forever.   

If we let them, students will write. I have never seen such passionate writing from students as I have this year.  During writing workshop, I’ve watched them linger over paragraphs and sentences, searching for the perfect words to express their thoughts. They long to tell stories, both personal and imaginative, but mostly, they needed a teacher to give them time to write and experiment with genre.

Mackenzie fell in love with books by Ellen Hopkins. Crank was one of her favorites, and during notebook time one day, she decided to use that novel as a mentor text, writing her own story while using Hopkins’s structure. It was her intense focus that caught my attention, and as she feverishly wrote, I looked over her shoulder. A story in verse was taking shape, and it was amazing. I prompted her to tell me about this story and she explained that she loved how the novel was written in poetry and just wanted to experiment with the style.  The powerful element in her writing was that she had had no instruction in this style of writing. She masterfully paired dialogue with an internal monologue, and a narrative took shape quickly. All I did was give her time to write.

Mackenzie's Writing

If we let them, students will read.  Many students entered my classroom this year convinced they were nonreaders. Never before had they had a classroom where time was set aside daily for independent reading. Several students admitted that they awaited the moment I would take independent reading time away from them and pass out a class novel, removing their opportunities to select their own books. That was what Kyler thought. His reading life had been limited to full class novels and teacher-focused conversation, and my independent reading expectation was cumbersome for him to think about. On the third day of school he approached me with The Shining by Stephen King, a book that he had checked out from the public library.

“Can I read this during class?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I replied. “But,” I continued, “I’d like to know why you chose that one in particular.” It was a copious novel, but his determination to read it was evident. “I just want to read one of Stephen King’s books,” he said.

It took over a month to finish the novel, but he was always engaged during reading conferences, and when he wrote about this book, his writing was lively. He spoke eloquently about characters and their ambitions, and after several months and several King novels, Kyler became our resident expert in the horror genre. Around February, he abandoned King for a bit to explore Lemony Snicket and some historical fiction, but eventually, he found his way back to the genre that had captivated him. Having time to read was a critical factor for him and for all students. Without time to read, students will not be able to explore genres that they may fall in love with or find an author to whom they develop an allegiance. I just let Kyler read. And read he did.

The Shining Cover Image

If we let them, students will choose challenging books. Teachers who talk with me about reading workshop usually voice a concern that when given opportunities to choose their own reading materials, students will choose simple books to avoid rigorous reading. I’ve witnessed otherwise. It was Teri Lesesne’s seminal Reading Ladders that helped me understand the importance of building bridges between where students are and where I’d like them to be as readers. Giving students reading choices is empowering, and when they know they have ownership, they will take it seriously. They will build a sophisticated reading ladder, and at the end of the year, you will celebrate their accomplishments with them.

Cassidy admitted that she was not as strong of a reader as she wanted to be. Her interest in reading was minimal, but if she had to read, she would. She started the year with books of 100 pages or less, but after a while, she began searching for other books, ones that would challenge her as a thinker.  In reading conferences she would talk about how she wished the story would develop more. So I suggested better books. She read Noggin by John Corey Whaley and Winger by Andrew Smith, identifying these as the types of stories she had been looking for. Her reading life took a detour when she read The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon, a memoir about an adolescent boy who set himself aflame and as a result had to endure the agony of multiple skin grafts. During various reading conferences, she explained that these books taught her about people and showed her a side of humanity that she had not seen before. Her reading life included over thirty books, but the one that impressed me the most was when I saw her reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2015. I did not assign any of those novels. She chose them. And she chose challenging books because she wanted to read them.

Cassidy All the Light

If we let them, students will teach us and our classrooms will change. Our lessons will come alive for students because we have included them by the simple act of listening and allowing choice. But we have to let them have a voice, and we have to give them a platform within our classrooms. If we let them, they will show us the type of learning environment that will work for them. Each group is unique and our knowledge of those groups must inform the lessons we use to captivate them. If we let them, students will tell us what works for them, the things they want to learn about, and the questions they have. If we let them, they will teach us how to be better educators.

I consider myself an experienced teacher. There is a stack of books on my desk that never shrinks. It increases as new books are released and I find out about new professional materials and current research. My success as a teacher this year hinged on the fact that I let my students be my teacher. I surrounded them with opportunities to read, write, and think, nudging them in the right direction.

Students will grow into amazing students. They will read with fervor and write with conviction, developing their identities as readers and writers. As they continue to read and write, they will challenge themselves, and seek opportunities to increase the rigor of their reading lives and the genres they choose to write. They will engage in conversations with their peers about books and writing and collaborate about ways to make their essays and stories come to life. And while doing so, they will educate us.

But only if we let them.   

Of Stories and Healing

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.” -Anne Lamott

The day I decided to share my personal writing with students, I was mortified.  Never before had I crafted, photocopied, and shared any of my work with a class.  I had also never asked students for feedback on a piece of writing.  But this year was different.  If I wanted my students to be real writers and readers, they had to emulate the practices of real writers and readers.  I renounced the worksheets and formulaic writing practices that used to dominate my classroom, and with my students, we studied author’s craft by analyzing articles, book chapters, poems, and short stories.  Getting to this point, however, took courage and a recognition that my students and I shared the same fears about writing.       

I knew that conversations about reading and writing were where the real connections were made; however, the dialogue in reading conferences with students unearthed stories of suffering for which there was little to no resolve.  They were reading books about controversial topics such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse, physical abuse, and foster care.  I would ask them how they related to these books, and they were honest, but they would whisper, afraid that others would hear.  Like many teachers, I have students who are dealing with emotional angst, trauma, even probation; for them these issues are daily battlegrounds.  They connected with the books because they saw themselves in the characters, and they could empathize with the pain and anguish often pervasive in young adult literature.        

In the midst of their problems, I was still expecting them to attend class and internalize curriculum, a necessity for passing my class and preparing for a future of writing and reading.  Internalizing content doesn’t really matter, though, when you’re facing problems like these kids.  Survival was what mattered, and editing a poem or reimagining an opening paragraph in narrative carried little weight.  During writing workshop, I noticed limited engagement as they pecked away on their Chromebooks, just fulfilling an assignment, biding time until the class ended.  Try as I might, they were unwilling to converse about current events, poems, or even short stories.  I was certain that they would find the morbidity of Poe’s Annabel Lee delightful and Gaiman’s opening paragraphs in The Graveyard Book lush with imagery.  These texts have captivated students of mine for years.  With this group, attempts at large group discussion elicited very little conversation, and when they responded through writing, they wrote superficial sentences, scratching the surface of the narratives.  I even asked them to create storyboards and character sketches based on these professional works, but they just weren’t interested in drafting something worthwhile.  Finally, I realized I was the problem.  

The writing I was asking them to complete held no value for them, and my class could hardly be considered a workshop environment.  I was giving them space and time to write, but I was still trying to control the outcome.  They needed a chance to connect with the act of writing.  In Read Write Teach, Linda Rief (2014) spoke eloquently about the importance of meaningful writing.  She wrote, “My job is to help them find that writing and that reading that matters so much to them that they want to keep writing and they want to keep reading” (p. 1). My shortcomings were easily recognizable: I had not given my students a foundation for writing, one that would carry them throughout the year.  Writing about literature is a necessary skill, but without the fundamental experience of writing from their own lives, topics about which they were experts, they had no investment in the writing process.  They had to start by writing about experiences that held value in their lives.  That was the writing that would matter to them.                   

Although I had not started my workshop in the most engaging way, I believed I could change its course and get them interested in writing.  Penny Kittle (2008), in Write Beside Them, explained the importance of beginning with story because “it is the most accessible form for writers” (p. 12).  My students are the experts of their pasts, and fusing that expertise with writing would empower them, giving them confidence, showing them that stories unite with readers (p. 102).  Personal narratives are powerful, and with the right blend of words, writers can craft passages with vivid imagery.  Getting them to write about the hardships they endured would not be an easy task, but Kittle’s words about modeling our writing for our kids resonated in my mind as I planned for the next few days of instruction.   And I wrote a memoir to share with them.

One of my most agonizing memories from childhood was the day I felt censure because of my family’s financial situation.  It was a painful, embarrassing moment; caustic words are emblazoned on the fabric of my memory.  Each of us in that classroom had experienced hurt, and I knew it would be a touchstone for class conversation.  Putting that moment from my history on paper was challenging, and I shed tears while writing it, but I was proud of the end result.  I began:

When I reflect on my past, vivid, colorful memories flood my mind.  My parents built a home full of warmth and love.  Both of them were hard workers and they instilled in me a drive to achieve greatness. My father bruised his hands from hours of hard labor, and he was willing to sacrifice his comfort for the sake of our family.  

And then to end, I wrote:

That day I realized the supreme importance of kind words and acceptance. It was the first time I had experienced judgment because of money.  Maya Angelou, one of my favorite poets, said people will forget things about you, but they will never forget how you made them feel.   Sure, I eventually healed, but I have never forgotten.


Having never read any of my work to a class, I was terrified of their reactions.  But after sharing my story with them, I noticed an immediate change in the tone of the classroom.  They were shocked that I had written something for them, and even questioned the authenticity of my memoir.  “It’s all real,” I assured them.  “Now, tell me what you noticed about the structure of my writing.”  The discussion wasn’t perfect, but they could point out the introduction and identify the paragraphs that focused on the central idea of the memoir. And when I asked them to write their own memoir, they didn’t hesitate.

Students began writing about heartache, loss, separation, death, and financial struggles that had left indelible marks on their memory.  One student, Faith, whose defiance had led to several suspensions the year before, wrote beautifully about the death of her grandmother.  She explained, “I didn’t show my hurt right then because I tried to act strong.  When I got home, I bursted into tears.  I felt like I was now alone, and she was the person I was closest to.  I could talk to her about anything.  I could trust her, but that day, all of that was gone for good.  I said “I love you” for the very last time.”  In her reflection about this piece, she stated that her grandmother’s death had been tragic, but writing about it helped get some of the anger and frustration out of her system.  

Another student, Annie, described the death of her father in ways that made me cringe as I read her words.  She wrote, “My dad passed away almost two years ago.  It was very hard.  I wanted to be with him in the ground.  I thought there was no purpose in my life.” At times while writing, she would start crying, declaring that the memoir was too difficult to write.  She persisted, though, and explained in her reflection that writing the memoir had helped her deal with her father’s death.   

During writing conferences, I asked them why they were suddenly willing to share such painful memories, ones they had avoided sharing before.  They cited my memoir and bravery to share as valid reasons for writing about these experiences.  Writing is a painful, searing experience that we resist undertaking because we do not want to resurrect the hurt.  Our students feel the same way.  But there is something cathartic about writing.  When we spill our emotions onto blank pages, we can see, through words, the problems that plague us.  It is a unique way of healing.  

I wanted my students to write, but I failed miserably until I began letting them write about the things that were meaningful to them.  As a teacher, it is easy to get lost in curriculum, testing, department meetings, and traditional methods of writing instruction.  But if we can get lost in the journey of writing, the rewards are far greater for our students and for us.  I believe that the best teachers learn alongside their students.  We become better writers by writing for and with our students, and ultimately, they grow in their craft as writers, too.