Why We Read: Reflections After Completing the Goodreads Book Challenge #NCTE15

50 books. 365 days. This was the goal for my reading life starting in January 2015.

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Having completed the challenge early, I had time to reflect on this experience, share what I learned about myself as a reader, and offer suggestions for educators who help students become lifelong readers.

1. Setting goals is important, so long as the goal doesn’t become the goal itself.

I set 50 books as my goal with the knowledge that I can read a book within a week on average. Sometimes I flew through a text. Examples include The Martian by Andy Weir and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. With other texts, such as The Art of Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk and Mindfulness by Ellen Langer, I took my time while reading. My deliberateness allowed me to reflect on the information and consider how I could apply this knowledge to my current position as an elementary school principal. With every book I read, I selected it because I wanted to read it, not to meet my goal. The goal of 50 books served to keep me accountable for reading more,  but not to simply read.

Implications for the classroom: If you are a classroom teacher, how are you developing reading goals with students? I emphasize “with”, because if you are doing the goal setting for students, there will be little ownership for the student. Also, the goal has to be meaningful. If it is a goal based on a skill or on volume of reading, do students understand the goal and what the results mean? If not, we promote compliance instead of engagement in our classrooms.

2. Fiction is not just for entertainment, and nonfiction is not just for learning.

I had little knowledge about space explorations before starting The Martian. But I was motivated to read it, with the movie coming out along with friends recommending it. I struggled with some of the science concepts and acronyms. Yet I persevered because the story about Mark Watney stranded on Mars was just so interesting. In the two days that I read The Martian, I explored various online webpages via NASA to learn more about Mars expeditions and what the future holds. I couldn’t “count” my additional reading, but that didn’t really matter to me. Fiction sparked interest in informational text.

Implications for the classroom: With all due respect to E.D. Hirsch and his acolytes, having enough background knowledge about a complex text before reading it should not always be required. Creating a dichotomy between engagement and information promotes the misconception that reading is done either for entertainment or for learning. The Common Core State Standards perpetuates this idea by separating informative and narrative reading. Educators need to embrace reading as a complex experience that can offer multiple benefits simultaneously. In other words, discovering new information can be enjoyable, and you can learn a lot from a story. Context matters.

3. Be intentional about the role of technology with reading.

One of the biggest surprises for me during this Goodreads challenge is how much I prefer reading on print versus eBooks. Also surprising is how my wife, a 2nd grade teacher and less techy than me, reads almost all of her books on her eReader. So why the difference? Because we read for different reasons. Lately, I have had a passion for learning more about education as a profession and writing about it. This situation created a necessary demand that I have print versions of the texts on hand for easy reference.

In my wife’s case, she connects with other readers/friends on Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads. They recommend books to each other in their ratings and reviews, and want to read that next text without the wait. We also have two young children, so the natural light from her eReader allows her to enjoy a book when the opportunity presents itself in our busy lives. She is a part of a reading community, much like a classroom that promotes authentic reading experiences. These digital resources are necessary for some readers.

Circumstances change. Technology can also help readers adapt. For example, once I finished writing my most recent book, I welcomed the opportunity to read more fiction. A brief scan of my visual reading log on Goodreads confirmed that I had been favoring nonfiction lately. If my list of previously read titles had been text only, I would have had a harder time determining this. The ability of Goodreads to not only track my reading life but also to offer a visual summary with book covers provided this information more quickly. Goodreads also allows readers to create groups around a genre or topic to read and write about online. Currently, I am facilitating the group “School Leaders as Readers”, where we read and discuss texts relevant to our positions.

Implications for the classroom: Technology can be a necessary part of our reading experiences at school. Online reading communities and the availability of more books via the Internet and eReaders can serve to expand our students’ access to texts and how they interact with others about their reading.

Technology can also simply be nice. Take the one-to-one initiatives that put a device in the hands of all students K-12. Does every 1st grader need a tablet like they need paper, a pencil, and a good book to read? What opportunities for conversation and collaboration do we give up for students when we place a priority on being connected?

The biggest thing I learned from the Goodreads Book Challenge is that reading is a personal endeavor. If we are to create a personalized learning experience for our students, then educators need to make sure that goal setting is collaborative and meaningful, that the complexities of fiction and nonfiction are deeply explored, and that technology serves to support students’ reading experiences instead of driving them.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, also in Wisconsin (http://mineralpointschools.org/). He also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

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