Making independent reading a priority in the classroom

priority“This is your child’s lexile score.  We’d like for them to be at this level by the end of the year.  Make sure your child is reading for 20 to 30 minutes every night because that will help them improve their reading scores.”

I recited the aforementioned phrases to the parents, grandparents and guardians of every student that was in my homeroom during my first year of middle school Parent-Teacher conferences.  As any teacher (or parent for that matter) knows, these biyearly conferences are primarily an opportunity for the school to pass along a plethora of documents regarding district initiatives, state testing and report cards, with a small window of time also set aside to discuss a child’s academic and behavioral progress. My three-sentence platitude about the importance of a child reading on their own each night was a blip on the radar of the overall meeting.

I discovered during that first year that telling my students about the importance of reading on a daily basis at home had about as much effect as if I were encouraging them to eat 4 servings of vegetables.  The school where I work serves a student body in which over 92% of the population qualifies for free and reduced lunch.  In many of my students’ homes, there isn’t extra money lying around to purchase books; a lot of kids do not have access to reliable transportation that could get them to the local library.  I teach in a small college town with a population of about 150,000 people, and yet most of my students have never been to our county’s wonderful public library merely because it is located a little over 5 miles from where they live.

After reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer two years ago, I set out to create a culture of independent reading within my classroom.  The first step for me was to develop an extensive and diverse classroom library.  Once the books were in place, I had to figure out how to get my students to buy in to the idea of independent reading being a significant component of our time together.  Here is how I prioritize independent reading in my classroom:

Build time into the week for independent reading

If I’m going to preach the values of reading independently to my students and actually mean it, then as the leader of the classroom I’ve got to walk the walk.  When it comes to classroom expectations, no slogan could be more appropriate than “actions speak louder than words”.  Unless we are engaged in a writer’s workshop or state-mandated standardized testing, my students have two to three days in which they get 20 to 25 minutes of unencumbered independent reading time with books of their own choosing.  They are always focusing on a skill from the mini lesson (characterization, theme, identifying conflicts) and I typically have one-on-one discussions with each student as they read, but during this time they are sprawled out on the floor, under desks or up against the wall getting lost in their novels.  Students are far better at making inferences than we sometimes give them credit.  If you want the kids to read more, make it a priority in your classroom by setting aside dedicated instruction time for them to do so.  Believe me, if you value this time, they will too.

Talk about books

This advice may seem simple, but it’s incredibly important to establishing a reading culture in the classroom.  I give book talks to students at the beginning of the year to make them familiar with some of the more popular titles from a year ago so as to help guide them in their reading selections.  I also read alongside them one day a week in order to model, and I always talk to my students about whatever book I am reading at the time.  And guess what?  They love it!  I personally read The Girl on the Train this year, and several of my students in my 3rd period became so engrossed by the plot line that they were heartbroken to learn that our school library didn’t carry the title (truth: I dissuaded them from pursuing this book until they discussed its appropriateness with their parents).  As students progress throughout the year and they become more confident as readers, these book club-esque discussions will start happening organically outside of class.  I had several students in my homeroom this year that immediately retold to me significant events from what they had read out of their books the night before as soon as they walked into my room in the morning.  Some of my students would discuss what they were reading with classmates at lunch, especially if they had both read the same novel.  As teachers, we must afford students with the time to read on their own; but equally as important, we have to get them talking about what they are reading as well because that’s such an important part of the entire literary experience.

Celebrate their reading achievements

Whenever one of my students finishes a book, I always email our principal and ask her to include a special “shout out” to that student during either the morning or afternoon announcements.  Middle schoolers are fickle young people whose moods can shift on a dime, but they love positive praise, even if they may not openly admit it.  The announcements always include the title of the book along with the page count, just to highlight the weightiness of the achievement.  Kymora, a student in my 1st period this year, beamed with pride as she heard the principal proclaiming how she had read all 336 pages of Copper Sun by Sharon Draper.  Completing a book is a huge accomplishment for a student, and it should be treated as such.  I try to call home and let a parent or guardian know about the feat as well in the hopes that it might spark up a book discussion within the family.  Making a big deal out of students’ independent reading progress reminds them about the value of the endeavor.

Next week I will be discussing the tricky task of creating engaging assessments that can be used to monitor students’ independent reading.

Three tips to creating an engaging classroom library

I cringe whenever I think back on the pitiful shelf and a half of books that I had in my classroom during my first year of teaching middle school.   I couldn’t even fill up both levels of a small two-shelf bookcase.  The books that I had were castaways that I had hastily grabbed during preplanning from the 7th grade book room.  The titles were dated and unappealing.  There was a reason these books had been collecting dust in a large, glorified closet.  This meager hodgepodge of antiquated literature sat tucked away in the far left corner of my room.  I wouldn’t be surprised if half of my students weren’t even aware it existed.  I was a language arts teacher, yet my book collection looked like the dregs of a yard sale that was coming to an end.  What message did this communicate to my students regarding my relationship with books?  The only excuse that I can offer is that I was a novice teacher.  I have improved my classroom library tremendously since then, however, and it is something that I take great pride in.  It’s the hub of my classroom; the most visited place by all of my students.  Below are my tips on how to create such a space in your classroom:

Actually finding the books

Unfortunately, teachers have to go out of pocket for most of the materials in their classrooms, which includes books.  I have acquired a number of titles in my room via a “Striving Readers Grant” that my school received due to our Title I designation, but most of the books on my shelves (yes, I have more than one now) came out of good ole’ Mr. Smith’s paycheck.  I have, though, found ways to acquire books in a way that still leaves money on the table for things like food, rent, bills, etc.  First, find out when your local library has used book sales as this is a great way to obtain a lot of titles for a low cost.  The library where I live – Athens, Georgia – has two such sales per year, and for $10 patrons can fit as many titles into a box as they can carry.  I’ve gotten loads of popular novels like Divergent, The Hunger Games, and Twilight for a fraction of what they might cost new at a Barnes & Noble.  Another great way to get books on the cheap is through AbeBooks and Amazon, though I prefer AbeBooks because it tells you how many copies of the title the seller has in stock, and you can contact the seller to negotiate shipping costs when buying more than one of a book.  I always try to buy more than one copy of each title in case multiple students are interested in it; plus, this can allow student-led book conversations to happen organically both in and out of the classroom.

Choosing books for YOUR students

My school’s student population is just 12% white, yet in my first year at the school 3 of the 4 whole class novels that we read featured white authors and characters.  Nowadays, my students regularly read independently during class, and my library features books by diverse authors such as Jason Reynolds, Sharon Flake, Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes, Pam Munoz Ryan and Ann Jamarillo.  All American Boys was wildly popular amongst many of my African-American boys this year because they said they found both the characters and the dialogue relatable.  The Skin I’m In was passed around by half a dozen African-American girls who told me they shared similar insecurities as the main character, Maleeka, regarding their skin tone.  However, do not assume that just because a student is black or latino that he or she will gravitate to titles featuring characters that resemble themselves.  I had a number of these same students devouring just about any graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier as well as After Ever After by Jordan Sonneblick, a novel that highlights the struggles experienced by two very white 8th grade boys from the suburbs outside of New Jersey.  The best bet is to offer a variety of choices for your students, but make sure that you have books that reflect all the various backgrounds and ethnicities that are present in your classroom.

Helping students choose books

I’m not trying to brag, but I can give a heck of a book talk.  I make dramatic facial expressions and use theatrical body language.  I constantly shift my intonation for effect.   However, no matter how good of a show I put on, it pales in comparison to the feedback that my students receive from their peers.  Each student in my class gets a sticky note that they personalize as their own bookmark.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, sparks a student’s interest in a book more than when they notice that one of their friends is already reading it.  Plus, I can use those bookmarks to help recommend books to students as they finish titles when I know that a friend of his or hers is currently reading it.  Another great way to use peer pressure for the greater good of enhancing student literacy is by having students fill out a quick book review whenever they finish a novel.  I put the reviews in a binder next to the library so that students can use their classmates’ opinions to help guide them through their next book choice.

The summer is a great time for teachers to review and revamp their classroom libraries. Next week, I’ll be discussing how to prioritize independent reading and student choice in the language arts classroom.

We read a lot in Mr. Smith’s class

Hi, my name is Matt. I’m a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, and my classes do not finish our whole class novels together. I can hear the collective groans of my colleagues across the country.   To many Language Arts teachers, not finishing a novel with a class is down right blasphemous; it’s an act of treason against English teachers everywhere. However, if I’m going to prioritize independent reading in my classroom, I had to make a choice: I could read one book in its entirety with 80-something students, or I could have 80-something students reading 80-something books on their own. I went with the latter.

I didn’t just come up with this idea all willy-nilly on my own. Two years ago, I received a copy of The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller in a professional learning session at my school. Some of my colleagues held reservations about the effectiveness of Miller’s approach, and they questioned whether her successes could be replicated at a school like ours.

Allow me to provide some context to some of my coworkers’ concerns. I work at a rural Title I middle school in which over 90% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch.   Most of the students at my school have parents that did not go to or finish college. For a lot of these kids, reading is not an activity that occurs regularly throughout their households. I usually start the year with 5% to 10% of my students reading on grade level, with many of them reading several grade levels below where they should be. Near the beginning of every year, our school tells parents that their child should be reading for 20 to 30 minutes a night. However, how likely is that going to become a routine for a child that doesn’t have access to books at home and rarely sees an adult modeling reading for pleasure?

After reading Miller’s book, I decided that if my students were going to learn to love reading, if they were going to learn to navigate genres and if they were going to realize that they could in fact spend twenty to thirty minutes of their lives reading, I was going to have to provide them with a chance to do it in my classroom.

I had no idea how I was going to be able to tell if they were actually reading or not. I also wasn’t sure as to how I could assess them on what they had read, since I hadn’t read every book in my classroom library. I also wasn’t totally confident that they could sit still and focus on a book for nearly half an hour.

Despite all these unknowns, I went for it. Independent reading became a regular activity in the “Work Session” portion of my lesson plans. My first year of implementing this approach was not without its struggles and shortcomings. But by and large, the kids bought in. They finished entire books on their own, something that many of them had never done (we didn’t count whole class novels in that category since many times their previous teachers had read a great portion of the book aloud to the class). Students began to discover the kinds of genres they favored as well as the different writing styles that they preferred.   A lot of kids came to the realization that they actually enjoyed reading, and they saw themselves as a part of a greater reading community.

In addition to all of the emotional successes that my students attained, they also realized substantial gains in both their lexile levels and end of year test scores. Since I began making independent reading a significant part of our daily routine, my reading and test scores gains have continued to be higher than both the county and state averages.

Teaching 12 and 13-year-old kids how to become independent readers is hard, if not exhausting, work, but it’s also invaluable. This blog will be a place where I hope to share with other educators the journey that my students and I have taken into the world of literary exploration.