Encouraging Nonfiction Reading During the Summer

Every year we purchase reading tote bags for all of our students. On one of the last days of the school year, we allow students to check out up to ten (10) books to take home and read. We reopen our library once a month during the summer, which allows students and families up to three times to check in old books and check out new ones.

The biggest expense in this initiative is not the books or the minimal staffing to run the program. It’s purchasing the tote bags which run around $1 a piece. They are necessary as we have found a number of students have nowhere to store their books once they bring them home. It’s an effort in being more culturally responsive, as we work in a Title I school.

This year we receive a donation from an energy distribution company. The funds have to be used toward science and mathematics education. This led to developing a slightly different approach to encouraging reading during the summer months. We will now ask all of our students to select at least five (5) nonfiction books out of the ten books they would pick for the summer months. Below is a screenshot of that letter.

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By taking this approach, we are utilizing available funds in a smart way as well as encouraging students to read more widely during their summer vacation. Time will tell what if any impact this change might have on student reading engagement and achievement.

What does your school do to promote summer reading? Please share your ideas in the comments.

Dinner Before Dessert? (or, Should We Really Be Pushing for More Nonfiction Reading?)

I was in the staff lounge grabbing a cup of coffee recently. Next to the Keurig machine is a lending library. No one really runs it. People just put books on the shelf, assuming others might want to read what they are sharing. I think there is a decent amount of traffic in what is coming and going.

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Even at a glance, this collection would not be Common Core-acceptable in any classroom. Way too much fiction, and not enough informational and explanatory text.

But before I go back to the lounge and start sneaking in nonfiction books into this library, what do we see here? First, we have a lot of avid readers on our school staff. This alone is cause for celebration. Second, the books here are fairly complex texts, having read a number of them myself. In addition, this activity is independent of any requirements. As the school’s principal, I have not mandated that every staff member bring in “x” amount of books for this exchange. It just happens. It should also be noted that we have a book-a-day calendar next to the Keurig machine, as a daily recommendation for our next potential read.

I share this because of a recent article regarding the lack of nonfiction reading that is observed in today’s students. In this report, students’ reading habits and willingness to tackle complex texts start to decline after 6th grade. The journalist suggests that U.S. students will not be college and career ready at this rate, noting that “a key cornerstone of reading comprehension is vocabulary” and that “words that need to be encountered are in literature”.

What is not focused on in the article are the possible reasons as to why students are reading less once they hit secondary school. Maybe this is too simplistic in thinking, but could it be that independent reading – the time in which students are reading what they want, and often fiction – starts to go away in favor of the more traditional, departmentalized schedule? In my experience, the subject of reading is renamed “English”, “Language Arts”, or “Disciplinary Literacy” once students hit adolescence. Sounds depressing, if you ask me. No wonder kids are reading less.

Instead of assigning fiction with the blame of lower reading scores, what if we reconsider the way we promote reading in general? As an avid reader myself, I find fiction to be the gateway to a host of possibilities for reading in other areas. The thinking required for some of the novels I choose is deep, comprehensive, and often demanding of a second perspective. These inquiries naturally lead to book clubs, where a reader can share questions and become a better reader than they were before. Deep and complex thinking, asking questions, seeking new information…these strategies are the same that we demand of learners tackling nonfiction.

So if fiction is more than fluff, in comparison to the “rigor” of nonfiction, what are the implications for literacy instruction? It is much easier to teach anyone how to do anything when they are engaged in the process of actually doing it. We are giving them a taste of what is possible. Dangling dessert in front of our kids so they will eat their supper might work at the dinner table. But for more complex activities such as lifelong reading, we should reconsider our approach.

Nonfiction in the Cafeteria

Nonfiction in the Cafeteria

I am starting to realize that one of my ultimate goals as an elementary school principal is to have books available within 200 feet of any student. Case in point: We just resupplied the shelves in the cafeteria with nonfiction titles from the National Geographic for Kids series. They are strategically placed; the K-2 students eat breakfast and lunch on this end of the room. Reading can commence while they wait for dismissal. I believe this sends a strong message: Readers read when there is time, and it is always a good time to read a good book.

In Praise of Nonsense and Nonfiction

In the wake of the Common Core and the call to read more complex texts, I fear that some genres and titles may get lost in the shuffle. I believe our more light-hearted texts such as the ones I list below should stand side-by-side with the nonfiction titles in our classroom libraries. Here is a post I recently wrote on my school’s blog about some of my favorites.

I recently shared with a group of parents some of my favorite books for reading aloud to kids. Because it can be hard to decide where to start if you have not read aloud to your child before, I thought I would recommend two types of books, nonsense and nonfiction. Both genres are high interest and fun to read.

Nonsense

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

This picture book is about a boy who gets his kite stuck in a tree. He starts throwing items at the tree to get his kite down, but instead they also get stuck in the tree. The boy continues to find new things to throw, which get larger and more strange with each page. This is an enjoyable book to predict with your child what will happen next.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

The bear has lost his hat. He asks many of his animal friends if they have seen it, but they have not. One animal is not being truthful, though, and soon the bear realizes who the guilty party is. The ending is very funny and allows for the reader to determine what really happened.

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

This anthology of poems is a classic. It may have been around when you were in school. Some of the poems use nonsense words even in the title, such as “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too”. Kids (and adults) at any age level love hearing these poems over and over. That makes this book a great choice for families with more than two kids to read to and not a lot of time.

I Must Have Bobo! and I’ll Save You Bobo! by Eileen & Marc Rosenthal

Bobo the monkey is a favorite stuffed animal of the main character. Unfortunately, Earl the cat is also very fond of Bobo. He works hard to steal him away from his owner at any opportunity. The facial expressions of Earl are hilarious. The illustrator also does a nice job of giving you clues about what that cat is up to before it happens.

Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin

Ever wanted to host a dragon party? Then you must have tacos! Just don’t bring any spicy salsa. This everybody book gives the reader step-by-step instructions for feeding and entertaining dragons. Of course, someone didn’t check the label on the salsa, which contains jalapenos. Can you guess what might happen next?

Nonfiction

Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz

The author describes his four dogs and their jobs on his family farm. Rose, Izzie, Freida and Lenore all fulfill different roles, like guard dog. But what does Lenore do? This question is asked throughout the text, as her job is not as clearly defined, but it is just as important as the others.

The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story by Pegi Deitz Shea

Although this story would be found in the fiction section, it is based on the many stories of the Hmong people’s journey from Southeast Asia to the U.S. It is told in two different settings: The present time as Little Mai patiently waits for an opportunity to leave her refugee camp for America, and the past which details the hardships she encountered up to now.

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki

Similar to the last title, this book describes the internment camps the Japanese Americans were sequestered to during World War II. To pass the time, the prisoners create a baseball field and start to play games. Their sense of purpose and community helped keep their hopes up during this dark period in America.

Testing the Ice by Sharon Robinson

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Now retired, his daughter tells the story of her family wanting to ice skate on the frozen pond. The author shows a different and yet familiar side of Jackie, one who is deathly afraid of water, but goes out to test the ice in spite of his fears. This biography is a profile in courage.

Dreams: Listen to Our Voices by Regie Routman and 5th graders from Denver, Colorado

Immigrant students from Mexico share their aspirations, with guidance from Regie Routman, an expert in literacy instruction. Some of their stories are funny, some are sad. What all the students’ stories have in common: they are real, and they are full of hope. It is a very inspiring read.

Surrounded by Nonfiction

In my first year as an elementary principal, one of the many nice things I inherited with my new school is a drive by staff to utilize every minute for instruction. This is evident as I observe classrooms during instructional rounds.

Taking this philosophy another step, what about student down time when kids aren’t in class? An opportunity arose from what at first seemed like a problem. When students arrive at school in the morning, they are directed to the cafeteria whether they are having breakfast or not. As you can imagine, this time has been mostly crowd control and not the best way for students to start their day. See Example A:

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Being an educator, you may have noticed that the panels on the bottom of the wall are totally being underutilized (what 20% rule?). To fill this gap, metal magazine racks were ordered from Amazon at $13 a piece. They are what you might normally see hanging in a bathroom. Keith the custodian put them up in a jiffy.

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Next step was to order the books. Knowing that time was limited to start a novel, nonfiction easy readers were purchased from Scholastic. What is nice about nonfiction is kids can pick them up and read them in short bursts, perfect for the morning wait time. Also important is that most reading students will do as they get older will be nonfiction.

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*This side of the cafeteria is where all K-2 students sit. Books displayed are at their reading level.

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*Grade 3-5 level books displayed by the older students’ side include biographies and history.

Before I even had time to announce the new materials to the school, students were asking me, “What are those metal things for?”. Having the books displayed at their height caught their attention right away, similar to how grocery stores shelve all the sugary cereal at the bottom. After explaining the concept of reading during down time, students forged ahead:

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For around $500, we created a nonfiction library in our cafeteria. Next step: Little Free Libraries