The Ups and Downs of a Reading Life

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Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

When is the last time you led a conversation with students about reading habits and you shared, “You know, I just haven’t had time to read lately.”?

I know; some of us might have to get rid of our perpetual “read 20 minutes a day” assignment for our students. Or, add –ish after “20” or “day”. We may have to update that “What Real Readers Do” anchor chart with statements like “Sometimes have other things to do” or “Binge-watch the Netflix series based on the book you just read”.

Because that is what real readers do, right? Who reads 20 minutes a day? Last night I read the last 150 pages of A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Today I might search for online articles, blog posts, and reviews that analyze this novel. Tomorrow I might not find that next book to read. This morning I’ve thought about Tremblay’s story, asking myself questions about certain events and character actions. If reading is thinking, then does this time to reflect on the book count? Or is it “fake reading”?

Let’s get to the point: if we are going to model and share what real readers do, then we need to be transparent and a little more honest about our own reading lives. That means divulging our personal challenges as well as the positive actions that have solidified reading as a lifelong habit for us. By painting a more accurate picture of our own relationship with books and other forms of text, students can start to build their own identities as readers. Reading is not simply a science as some might want to suggest; there are social and emotional underpinnings that need to be considered.

So what might this look like in the classroom? Maybe it comes back to the tasks, rituals, and expectations of the reading classroom. Here are some initial ideas.

  • Have students keep a log of their reading habits for one week. Document how long they read and what they read. Then have the students share their findings as a class. Using this information, come up with an agreed-upon guideline for daily reading, for example, “Read around 25 minutes a day”.
  • Offer a variety of authentic ways for students to respond to their reading. Examples include but are not limited to documenting books read in reader journal, preparing a book talk, write a review on Biblionasium, and write an essay about a book or article that made an impact. Offer prompts and protocols only as needed.
  • Revisit your classroom’s or school’s current homework policy. Ask important questions such as “Are the assignments being asked of us critical to our education?” or “Is homework getting in the way of our reading lives?”. This doesn’t have to be a debate about the idea of homework as much as a needed discussion around the school’s authority in deciding how students should spend their free/family time.
  • Give students more say in what books are selected for the classroom library. (And if you do not have a classroom library, today is a great day to start!) One of the teachers in my school has her students write requested titles on sticky notes and post them on the side of a bookshelf. She uses Scholastic book club points, her classroom budget, and her agreeable principal to get these books ordered and in kids’ hands. This process becomes an opportunity to teach students about genre, cultural representation in literature, and strategies for self-selecting texts.
  • Prepare personal stories about times in your life in which reading was not a daily habit. Maybe a loved one became ill. Or, a book stayed with us long after the last page was finished and we needed time to process through the experience. These stories can be shared orally during readers workshop or as a personal essay written in front of the students as a shared demonstration.

The idea that’s revealed itself here is that for students to build their identities as readers, they need to see and experience authentic reading lives. That means negotiation, that means ownership, and that means making it, yes, okay to not read at times. Real readers are real people, full of contradiction and complexity. If students can see that in ourselves, I believe they are more likely to emulate it in their own lives.

Build a Classroom Library with Students

This post is actually a grant my wife and I are sending to a local community foundation. She is getting back into the teaching game and is lacking in books for her classroom. We are sharing this proposal so that others may also use it and find the same success that we hope to see.

1. Purpose Statement

When I walked into my new 2nd grade classroom this summer, my first thought was: “Where are all the books?” Nevermind the staplers, the bulletin board paper, or the dry erase markers. For my students to be successful this year, they needed books. Lots of them. Preferably of high interest and readability.

Resources are tougher to come by in today’s educational world when compared to the past. And no resource is more important to my students’ success than access to high quality and engaging books. While I first viewed this situation as a problem, I quickly observed that there were opportunities here as well. I could create my own classroom library! Better yet, what if my students and I chose the books we wanted to read together during the school year?

The purpose of this grant is to create a community of readers. We will do this by using the funds from your organization to build a classroom library together. These selections will be made collaboratively by the students, their families, and me. Literacy expert Stephen Krashen notes that research shows that classrooms with more books result in students who are better readers (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec97/vol55/num04/Bridging-Inequity-With-Books.aspx). Another respected reading researcher Richard Allington found that having ownership in the process of selecting books for independent reading only furthers to enhance the benefits of access to many texts (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar12/vol69/num06/Every-Child,-Every-Day.aspx). Access and ownership– this is the foundation for the purpose of this grant.

2. Innovative Programming to Build Trust and Sustain Relationships

This project finds itself relying on trust and relationships. While I will have to make the initial purchases before schools starts, starting second quarter, students and families will be asked to identify texts that are of high interest, readable, and increase their knowledge as learners. We will make regular book purchases once per quarter.

To start, I plan to wrap new books in butcher paper and display them in the classrooms. On the front, five to six key words will be printed on the paper. They may include descriptions of the main character, the type of genre, whether a boy or girl might like it, and related titles. The idea here will be to pique the students’ interest. As the first quarter progresses, we will “unwrap” these books through read alouds, reading with a partner, writing about what we read, and sharing our favorite titles through book talks (a great way to practice speaking and listening, also essential literacy skills).

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We got the idea for wrapping books and providing key descriptors from a Barnes and Noble in Madison, WI.

Through this collaborative inquiry, students will develop a deep understanding in how texts are categorized, what separates a picture (everybody) book from a chapter book, the importance of understanding genre and knowing authors, identifying text features, discovering new words from reading, and how books can make us feel. This last factor is one of the most crucial. In fact, Nell Duke and P. David Pearson found that associating pleasure with reading is the one of the most critical drivers in developing life long readers (http://www.learner.org/workshops/teachreading35/pdf/Dev_Reading_Comprehension.pdf). Motivated readers read more. Success begets success.

Starting second quarter, we would take this new knowledge and apply it to selecting books to add to our classroom library. We will use online book sellers, such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble, to search for texts that meet a certain criteria for our library (interesting, readable, unique, balance of genre, relevant). Parents would be invited via safe social media tools into our Wish List to add titles themselves. Once we had enough books selected, we would request that these titles be purchased. I can only imagine the anticipation that my students will show as we wait for our collaboratively-selected texts to arrive at our classroom. Once they get here, my guess is I will have to prevent arguments about which students could read certain books first, instead of negotiating with students to just get them to read, period. Including my students and families into the process of building our classroom library seems like a perfect way to build trust and sustain relationships.

3. Objectives and Measures

My two objectives are:

1. Engage my students and families in collaborative inquiry by selecting titles for our classroom library, based on a rubric created with my class that will identify appropriate texts for a 2nd grade classroom.
2. Increase my students’ ability to read by a) suggesting books they are interested in reading, b) involving them and their families in the selection of future titles, c) giving my students time to read, and d) sharing our reading lives with each other, our families, and a global audience.

These two objectives will be measure by the following assessments:

1. My students’ families will be asked to complete a pre- and post-survey about their reading habits and dispositions.
2. My students will complete multiple reading assessments throughout the school year to measure growth in their skills.

4. Community and Family Involvement

Parents and community members will be invited into my classroom to experience our learning environment throughout the school year. These interactions will be facilitated through both formal (parent conferences, portfolio night) and informal (classroom celebrations, guest readers) events.