Time to Read: Making Independent Reading a Priority

Regie Routman is a great champion of reading. The kind of reading that is guided by a person’s curiosity, joy, and desire to fall deep into story. Pleasure reading. Real reading.

As a long-time educator and a self-proclaimed book nerd, like Regie, I believe that educators must support and encourage real reading. That is is our job to help our students become lifelong connoisseurs of text. It’s a big deal.  I mean, the research is in, folks who read tend to be more empathetic and as teachers we know, maybe better than anyone else, that we need more empathy in the world.  

One of the many  topics in Literacy Essentials that resonated with me was called, “Make Independant Reading a First Priority” (p. 204). Here Regie shares a tweet she once wrote, “Make daily indep[endent] reading #1 priority & work backwards from there. Use think aloud, guided read, shared read to support that end” (p. 204).

Regie believes that independent reading in schools must be more than just an ad-hoc, when-you’re-finished-with-your-work, kind of thing. Truly, she cautions, it needs to be even more than just a dedicated time slot for independent reading. Regie explains, that for maximum impact, schools must value massive quantities of free reading and students must be taught to choose just-right books ( books they can and want to read) and to self-monitor for comprehension. Further, she advises, a teacher should be teaching during free reading time, working with students one-on-one to help them learn reading skills and strategies and to help choose, discuss, and enjoy texts.

I am the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in rural Wisconsin. We serve a wonderful community that includes increasing number of students who live in poverty. Despite that fact, we consistently are marked as “Exceeding Expectations” on the state report card and have literacy scores that place us in the top 5% of schools in the state. Perhaps, most important, there is no gap between our students of poverty and their more affluent peers. We are all good readers and writers.

Over the last several years I’ve had many schools reach out to ask how we are so successful. I always say the same thing, “We let kids read. A lot.”  

In our schools every student enjoys a minimum of 30 minutes of free reading time each day. Most days, students have closer to an hour. Right away, beginning in kindergarten, we offer students books, books, books and time to read them. We teach students to pick books that fit their interests and that are within a level that is accessible to them (yes, we level our books, no, it doesn’t limit our readers or kill their love of reading.)  

I believe our emphasis on helping students learn to and love to read in massive quantities is why my school is one of the happiest and most successful schools I have ever had the pleasure of working in. And, that’s what I tell folks who ask “how we do it.” But, guess what? They don’t always believe me. They are often incredulous and profess they don’t have enough time in the day to offer that much independent reading time. They need that time to “teach” kids to read.

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it over the hearts and minds of educators everywhere so they could see that there is a simple way to help their students to be better readers, to love reading, and to grow and learn academically and in their social-emotional lives. All they need to do is give kids time and let them read. Anthologies, lesson sets, interventions, strategy instruction, guided groups, phonics, word study, and all of the other best laid plans of reading teachers will not work if they are not grounded in opportunities for real reading.

Let. Students. Read.

My school is successful in large part because our students read. They read a lot. But that tends to drop off as kids enter middle and high school. Of course, that’s not just in my neck of the woods, it happens in school districts all over the nation. A recent Edutopia article cited the following statistic from a study on the reading lives of school-aged children, “53 percent of 9-year-olds were daily readers, but only 17 percent of 17-year-olds were.” “Why? In large part, I think, because as our children move through the grades they have less and less dedicated reading time scheduled into their day. They read in content classes and in a literature course or two, but they do not have time for choice-based pleasure reading. That’s a problem. Again, if we want kids to read, we have to give them time to read.

In the spirit of Regies plea for schools to make“Make daily indep[endent] reading #1 priority,” I offer the tried and true suggestions below.


  1. Create a vision statement or set of guiding beliefs about literacy in your school or classroom. Below is a graphic that shows the philosophies that underpin literacy instruction at my school. Note: The three mentioned documents are here (1), here (2), and here (3).


  1. Allow students time to read in school every day and in every grade. A good friend, who is a high school English teacher recently told me that for the first time this year, she allowed students to self-select a novel to read in class. She raved about a boy who told her, “This was the first book I finished since elementary school!” Imagine if her school could find a way to adjust the schedule so that every student had 20 minutes for independent reading every day!
  2. Let go of programs and buy books. In an article I wrote for Educational Leadership, I detail the path my school took to move from good to great. One thing we didn’t do was buy a new program. Instead, we used what we had to help us build a culture that celebrated reading with a focus on time for choice reading. To support this effort, we spent time and money developing quality classroom libraries. Building classroom libraries can be done on the cheap by requesting donations (I often remind parents and others that I welcome their gently used books and placed a tote in the school lobby for donations), thrift shopping and garage sales, and inexpensive booksellers  (First Book Marketplace and Scholastic Book Clubs are good starts.)  
  3. Teach students to set and meet their own literacy goals. Helping students see themselves as capable readers who have autonomy over their own reading lives is a gift. Readers at my school set quarterly goals, read about how, here. It has been truly amazing to watch students continually raise their own bars, meet loft goals, and enjoy the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with it.
  4. Build a school culture that supports literacy as a natural part of daily life. Strategies we’ve used include encouraging volunteers to read with students and share their own reading lives (School Library Journal: Reading Friends), helping students to “Binge Read” (EdTech Digest: Next Read), getting free books into the community (School Library Journal: Free Bookstore Turbocharges Reading), using social media to create a community of readers (CUE Blog: I Saw it On Facebook, Focusing School Communities on Literacy with Social Media), hosting author visits (Edutopia: Virtual Author Visits), and harnessing the power of social learning to help students view reading as a normal life thing, not just a school thing (Edutopia: Building a Community of Passionate Readers Outside of School.)

I read Literacy Essentials soon after it was published and wrote a rave review of it for MiddleWeb. I truly think that all educators would benefit from reading parts of Regie’s book if not the whole thing.  My own copy is already dogeared and marked up and has a special place near my desk for quick reference. It is a part of my personal reading life to be sure.

Regie’s call for a focus on independent reading in schools fuels my passion for helping my students learn to and love to read. I hope that it does that for you too.

The Principal’s Bookshelf: What I’ve Read, What I’m Reading, and What I Plan on Reading

Summer has arrived, or is soon coming. The upcoming break offers school leaders time to read and learn something new, or simply to enjoy the written word.

Here are some books that I have read, am reading, or will read that I would recommend.

What I’ve Read

The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing — But You Don’t Have to Be
by Anya Kamanetz

A good overview of the testing dilemma in the U.S. The book is at its strongest when Kamenetz explores the possibilities of what testing could look like in the future. Specifically, how technologies could pull data about student progress while they are engaged in learning is intriguing. However, there was a lot of research left by the wayside, with the author too often utilizing anecdotes and quotes to support her position. Still, The Test is a very helpful guide for someone looking to better understand this topic.

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig
by Chris Kurtz

I enjoyed reading aloud this chapter book to my daughter. It follows a similar narrative to Charlotte and Babe, yet the setting and major events make this book a unique read. Flora, a pig looking for adventure, gets hooked up with a team of explorers heading for the South Pole. She thinks she is destined to be a “sled pig”, but the ship’s cook has other ideas…

The Third Teacher
by OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture, Bruce Mau Design

Are you involved in the building or redesign of a new school? Thinking about installing a makerspace? This book is an essential resource for reconsidering how the learning spaces in schools serve students and teachers. There are many ideas and examples that educators can pull into their own buildings. The book itself is a product of design with unique fonts and compelling images.

Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time
by Michael Perry

I started reading this book shortly after hearing Michael Perry speak at our local public library. It’s a treat to hear a good author speak. They talk as they write – with the ability to spin a good story out of the ordinary. Population: 485 serves as a memoir for small town life in Northern Wisconsin. It also reminds the reader about being more present in our everyday experiences. For me, both hearing the author speak and reading his writing has helped me take life more slowly and deliberately.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

The things that bring you joy tell you a lot about who you are. (p. 126)

Life is a preservation project. Our instinct for preservation plays out in everything from the depth of our breaths to an affection for bricks. Even as we flail and cling, trying to bottle time, to save it, we love only through its expenditure. Memory is a means of possession, but eventually, the greatest grace is found in letting go. (p. 178)

It is occurring to me that to truly live in a place, you must give your life to that place. It is a dynamic commitment, but it is also a manifestation of stillness. (p. 210)

Three Times Lucky (Tupelo Landing #1)
by Sheila Turnage

Wow, what a book! This necessary read aloud for middle level classrooms highlights one of the most original characters to come to modern children’s literature, Moses “Mo” LeBeau. She was washed downstream and discovered by The Colonel and Miss Lana, now her adoptive parents. Mo frequently writes to her “upstream mother”, while investigating a recent murder in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina with her best friend Dale. Mo’s witty quips and heartfelt efforts to find balance in her life makes Three Times Lucky a favorite of mine for children’s literature.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

by Peter Gray

If you are a public educator, read this book with an open mind. While the author does not hide his disdain for public education as a squasher of children’s creativity and love for learning, the research and experiences he uses to support his position are difficult to refute. I took the points that he made throughout this engaging informative text and considered how I might apply them in my current context as an elementary school principal. For example, can a school offer daily opportunities for kids to explore learning of their own choosing? I have a hard time seeing why not.

What I’m Reading

Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others
by Tom Romano

This resource will sit alongside my other writing references, such as On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott. Romano is a long time writing teacher at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio. Each short chapter serves as a quick lesson on one aspect of the writing process. Much joy, honesty and reflection inhabit this very personal book, which also serves as a memoir of sorts for Romano. Read Write What Matter slowly, and apply each bit of instruction to your own writing life.

Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure #1)
by Stephan Pastis

This first installment in a children’s book series, which I am reading aloud to my son, is within the same vein as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Timmy is a clueless kid detective who lives up to his last name by not noticing the obvious when taking on cases. We are only a third of the way through it, and so far we are appreciating the author’s unique sense of humor and the realistic family dynamics of Timmy’s life that add some heart to this series.

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
by Atul Gawande

This book has been highly recommended to me. The author, a practicing surgeon, shares anecdotes and research about how the best organizations and individuals continuously focus on becoming better in their practice. Gawande’s writing is general enough that any professional can apply his principles to their own work. (For a good example of the connection between the author’s ideas and teacher practice, check out this article by Susan L. Lytle from the University of Pennsylvania.)

What I Plan on Reading

The Together Leader: Get Organized for Your Success – And Sanity!
by Maia Heyck-Merlin

I am reading this productivity resource to review for MiddleWeb. Getting more organized and efficient in my daily life as a principal is always an area of interest. In my initial preview of this text, the author offers several self-assessments to help the reader identify their strengths and areas for growth as a leader. Heyck-Merlin also offers a digital newsletter for readers to subscribe to with new strategies for becoming a better manager and leader.

The Art of Coaching Teams: Facilitation for School Transformation
by Elena Aguilar

In The Principal, Michael Fullan shares his belief that school leaders should focus on building the capacities of teacher teams instead of individuals. Aguilar offers specifics on how to make this happen. The author provides several protocols and templates for facilitating professional learning, as well as advice on how to work with different personalities within a school. The Together Leader and The Art of Coaching Teams are the resources I am exploring as I prepare for a new position in Mineral Point, WI.

Beastly Bones (Jackaby #2)
by William Ritter

The second installment in this YA series continues to follow the story of junior detective Abigail Rook and her eccentric employer R.F. Jackaby. They specialize in the supernatural and unexplainable. The book starts with Rook and Jackaby discovering creatures that physically change into the prey they are hunting. Ritter’s stories are full of creative ideas. It is hard to anticipate where the writer will go next, which makes these Victorian-age mysteries all the more fun to read.

So what have you read recently or are currently reading that you would recommend to other school leaders? Please share in the comments.







School Leaders as Readers: Education for Outcome

The following passage is my most recent post I shared in our Goodreads community, School Leaders as Readers. This fall we are reading Mindfulness by Ellen Langer. If you are a school leader, I encourage you to join the group.

“From kindergarten on, the focus of schooling is usually on goals rather than on the process by which they are achieved. This single minded pursuit of one outcome or another, from tying shoelaces to getting into Harvard, makes it difficult to have a mindful attitude about life.” (p 35)

Have truer words ever been written? This is the one of the biggest problems with standards, Common Core or otherwise. They become the product in themselves, instead of a general focus for teaching and learning. Forgive my football analogy, but standards should serve as the yard markers, not the end zone.

I was watching a video today on the Teaching Channel. The teacher had “buckets” on the wall, paint cans that had labels detailing a few words which culminated high school literacy standards. In each bucket were specific skills written on paint sticks related to each standard. The teacher would pull sticks, and this is what the students would focus on that day.

Buckets of standards
Buckets of standards

Source: Teaching Channel (click to watch video)

I almost sent this out to my teachers – mindlessly! – but caught myself. Thankfully I asked, “Is this what students come to school for? To master standards?” Of course not! They come to learn about great ideas, great thinkers, about our history up until now. Sometimes I think they come to get away from all of the connectivity too. Yes, students should also develop certain competencies, but not removed from the context of these big ideas and know-hows.

Langer emphasizes on page 36 that we need to retrain our focus, and that of our students, to asking “How do I do it?” instead of “Can I do it?”. This can best happen in the context of authentic and relevant learning activities. What are your thoughts?

Data Poor

Have you heard of “DRIP”? It stands for “Data Rich, Information Poor”. The purpose of this phrase is to convey the idea that we have all of this data in schools, but cannot organize it in a way that will give us the information to make responsive instructional decisions.

photo credit: Images by John ‘K’ via photopin cc

But what if this is not case? What if we are actually data poor? When we consider only quantitative measures during collaboration, such as test scores and interim assessments, we miss out on a lot of information we can glean from more qualitative, formative assessments. These might include surveys, images, audio, journaling, and student discussions.

In this post for MiddleWeb, I profile two teachers in my district who have leveraged technology to better inform their instruction and student learning. The videos and web-based products the students and teachers develop are captured as close to the learning as possible. The results are dynamic, authentic, and minimally processed.

In tomorrow night’s All Things PLC Twitter chat (follow #atplc), we will pose questions to dig more deeply into what data means in the modern classroom. There are too many ways for learners to show what they know to ignore the potential of connected learning and continuous assessment. Join us at 8 P.M. CST for this discussion.