A Principal’s Bookbox

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I never really understood the purpose of student bookboxes until I spent the day reading in the hallways of my school.

On November 15, 2013, I participated in the Principal Challenge. It is hosted by the Book It! program. Principals who choose to read all day at their building qualify their school for a chance to win 101 copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck by Jeff Kinney. Unless you have zero interaction with elementary students, you know how popular these titles are. Besides the fact that I can win books for students, this was a good opportunity for me to model what life long readers do.

So here is my day. I list the time, the title, and the location of my reading spot in the school.

8:45 A.M. – I Must Have Bobo! and I’ll Save You Bobo! by Eileen and Marc Rosenthal (Kindergarten)

I had several books to choose from in my bookbox; Everybody books, professional resources, children’s literature, personal nonfiction and fiction titles. I chose the Bobo series to read because a) I needed a good laugh, and b) five and six year olds love the antics of Earl the cat trying to steal Bobo the sock monkey away from his young owner. I brought these books out later, when I was hanging out in the 1st grade wing at the end of the day.

10:00 A.M. – Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller (2nd grade)

I think there were a few jealous teachers when they heard I already had a copy of this new release. My 4th and 5th grade teachers plus an interventionist heard Donalyn speak not long ago in Wisconsin. Her wise words and practical advice resonate with all educators looking to bring authenticity back into their classrooms. My purpose for reading Donalyn’s new title was to find some ideas of how to better facilitate our after school book club. Here are the notes I have taken through Chapter 1:

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11:30 A.M. Online Stories, Lunch with the Student Leadership Club (LMC)

Book It! is sponsored by Pizza Hut. Our local franchise heard about me participating in this challenge and offered pizza for select students. I invited the student leadership club because of their various volunteer work, including setting up a book swap in our school. Their advisors do this without getting paid or expecting recognition. We had a nice lunch, just enjoying each others’ company. We also watched and listened to the digital books on the Book It! website via the SmartBoard.

12:30 A.M. No More Taking Away Recess and Other Problematic Discipline Problems by Gianna Cassetta and Brook Sawyer (playground)

Very appropriate location. This book is a part of the “Not This But That” series from Heinemann, edited by Nell Duke and Ellen Oliver Keene. I have already read No More Independent Reading Without Support by Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss. I found this resource well-researched and easily applicable, so I looked forward to reading this next title in the series. I walked around, part of me being present while I read. Kids came up to me, asking what I was reading, much like I experienced throughout the morning.

1:30 P.M. Student Writing, by 3rd graders (3rd grade)

When I came back in from recess, I had a message waiting for me. A teacher requested that I read some of her students’ writing about pumpkins in the hallway. Once I arrived with my bookbox to the 3rd grade wing, I was tasked with identifying the writing that had the strongest voice and word choice. It was a hard decision. There were several pieces that were strong. Here is one of them:

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2:30 P.M. Loser by Jerry Spinelli (4th, 5th, and 1st grade)

The end of the day was filled with some odds and ends. As a principal you don’t get a sub when you are gone. However, I did manage to start this novel for older elementary students. It’s been sitting on the shelf in my office for years. I think I haven’t tried reading it because there isn’t a summary on the back or in the copyright page. The Principal Challenge, plus various recommendations, made for a good opportunity to start it this day. After getting through about 25 pages, I found that this novel somewhat resembled Spinelli’s Newbery winner, Maniac Magee. Having fond memories of teaching reading with that title, I look forward to finishing Loser when time allows.

A Principal’s Reflections

As I stated, I didn’t truly understand bookboxes until after I took on the Principal Challenge. Having options for reading was really nice. Sometimes you feel like reading nonfiction, sometimes fiction. That my school staff strongly supports this practice is affirming. I hope to continue to allocate a significant amount of school dollars toward this essential element of the literacy block.

I guess this day of reading would constitute a no-office day. it definitely felt like a no-office day. Because I was expected to read, I wasn’t checking email or falling into other distractions. To be honest, I almost felt guilty just sitting around and reading. Was I shirking my duties? I don’t think so. Many kids came up to me, asking me why I was reading in the hallways or on the playground. Just starting that conversation about a book is at the heart of what we do as educators.

I hear about no office days being taken by other principals. Are they really no office days? That is, are they taking the time to leave not only their physical space, but also all of the tasks that come with it? I wasn’t in classrooms doing walkthroughs or having coaching conversations with teachers. I was reading about best practice in the classroom, and thinking about how I could convey these ideas with my staff. It was about me becoming more reflective and well-rounded. I don’t know if we as principals are taking a no-office day if we bring our office with us.

Another moment of clarity I had during the Principal Challenge was my selection of texts. All of them were self-selected. Yes, a number of them were related to school. But they were on my terms. To be clear, every day is a Principal Challenge day when it comes to reading. I read all the time – email, letters, my own writing for newsletters and correspondence, student writing in the hallways, professional articles, current events, and so on. The only difference between today and every other day is who chooses what I read. Obviously I cannot self-select every text for my position. But I had a lot of fun with this challenge. I think it is important that I start carving our more time in my day for at least professional reading, even personal if the situation is right.

I learn so much from the recreational reading that I do. Take my current selection, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. It is about a strange bookstore that houses tomes that cannot be read by the newest employee, also the protagonist. That’s all I know so far! But from reading the reviews, this book explores the virtues of both print and digital texts. How this type of reading may be viewed by others could be considered less than academic. But I think it is essential for us as educators to be well versed in a variety of knowledge areas. I am a better principal, educator, and overall person when I explore different genres. These habits are a hallmark of life long readers. Donalyn Miller and many other respected educators encourage these types of expectations for our students. I am not sure why this should stop when we grow up.

I would like to make more time beyond the Principal Challenge to engage in reading as a real reader. Not necessarily just as a principal or as an educator in general, but as a learner who seeks both information and enjoyment. The explorations, the discoveries, the conversations, and the reflections that lead to new thinking: This is true learning.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 17-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt is now an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

5 thoughts on “A Principal’s Bookbox”

  1. It sounds like a real good day. The titles sound fun and, even if you read everyday, I don’t think the usual e-mails or letters have the same tone or lightness. I hope the reading and discussions with the students do make them read more – it’s such a nice passtime, and so good for the brain.

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    1. I agree Brian. Emails and letters require a different sort of motivation to read. Recreational reading more often invites interesting conversations about what is being read.

      Like

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