The book which you read from a sense of duty, or because for any reason you must, does not commonly make friends with you. ~William Dean Howells
How do we create readers?
We posed this Essential Question to drive our thinking and conversations this year when we meet together in our Read 180 teacher cadre or talk in school. It’s a big one. It’s essential. By the time we have youngsters enter our Read 180 classrooms in middle or high school, they have a host of hidden and not-so-hidden beliefs about what readers are, and how they themselves therefore are not. So one of the most important early-on things to do is have that dialogue with your students, if you have not already, to break down the walls and challenge them with questions they might not expect a teacher to ask. “Who has chosen a book because it is short? Who has chosen a book to read by checking how long it is? ” The crux of such a discussion is to bring to light what these youngsters may have come to believe through years of classroom experiences are cheating reading, or not really reading. Then revel together in the realities of what all readers actually do! Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer) charts book selection techniques with her students, digging until they are finally convinced it’s OK to be honest, and not parrot answers they think a teacher expects. Some examples of what her students say when the discussion finally turns real:
I like to read some books over and over.
I read the ending first, and then if I like it, I read the whole book.
I read the first paragraph, and if it doesn’t grab me, I put it down.
I read books that are easy.
I read fantasy books. My mom tries to get me to read something else, but I just don’t like her books.
And so on. As teacher, you are modeling in this discussion, honestly sharing your own reading life, habits, and preferences. This is where I used to reveal to my students that I still have a hard time with any book where an animal dies (because of Old Yeller when I was very young), so avoided the best-seller Marley & Me but will read Where the Red Fern Grows with my grandson because I know him well and know he’ll love it. If I had students now, I would tell them I tried to read one of the popular vampire series books, but couldn’t get past the first page, so abandoned it. I’d share I’m currently rereading the last Harry Potter book because two movies on it will hit the theaters over the next few months, and I like to have the book clear in my mind just before I see the movie. I just finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird for the third time because it made an indelible impression on me when I read it in high school–and this is its 50th anniversary of publication (!) If you belong to a book club, share that experience with your kids. It is essential to be a model for your students, and help them see that all readers “cheat.” And…it’s really reading.
Nancie Atwell, well-known author and teacher, talks about Daniel Pennac’s book, Better Than Life (1992), calling it his “paean to reading.” Both she and Donalyn Miller use the frontispiece of the book to reinforce the conversation about book choice with their students. Atwell notes,
The frontispiece of the book is Pennac’s list of what skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers know but that teachers and parents can forget, don’t understand, or do appreciate for themselves but withhold from children. My students and I read and debate it the first week of school:
The Reader’s Bill of Rights
1. The right not to read something
2. The right to skip pages
3. The right not to finish
4. The right to reread
5. The right to read anything
6. The right to escapism
7. The right to read anywhere
8. The right to browse
9. The right to read out loud
10. The right to not defend your tastes.
This list is also available on the Web as a downloadable poster with appealing and colorful Quentin Blake illustrations at:
Donalyn Miller subtitles her book The Book Whisperer, “Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child,” in which she lays out chapters of solid practice based on this core belief that every child has the ability to be a reader, and can become a joyous, prolific, habitual reader. Nancie Atwell subtitles her book The Reading Zone, “How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers.” Sometimes I worry that we attend so much in our classrooms and in the Standards to those first and the last adjectives Atwell lists, that we overlook the research-based fact that “passionate and habitual” readers will also become skilled and critical. Sheer quantities of books, no matter the quality, in your opinion, will, over time, lead to evolving and maturing tastes in kids’ choices. Richard McKenna says, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” Does it go too far, when talking about turning struggling readers around, to remember that quantity leads to quality? Explore your own literary histories. I remember reading all the Nancy Drew books, then all the Hardy Boys, then all the Oz series–all chosen by me myself from the little children’s library tucked in the basement of the Public Library in Helena, Montana. Several years later, I ventured upstairs into the “big” library and discovered a whole new world, first finding displayed on a little bookshelf, Angel Unaware by Dale Evans Rogers. This poignant and loving memoir of the birth–and death–of their Down Syndrome daughter, Robin Elizabeth Rogers, had a powerful effect on my reading journey. About the same time, my English teacher at school handed me a biography about Albert Schweitzer and his work with the lepers in Africa. At home my mother hooked me on The Secret Garden, Little Women, and Brighty of the Grand Canyon. Variety and choice. My early “series” reading grew my reading confidence and ability and love of reading, nurturing me into new places to go, bolstered by adults who provided books they thought I’d like. But always I chose the books from many offered. (I did refuse Anne of Green Gables and The Bobbsey Twins.)
You, the teacher, are also essential and instrumental in this process, by providing them with great quantities of books from which to make choices: getting to know them so you can match them with suggested books, build their background knowledge, share websites of booklists (links to follow), take them to the library, and talk, talk, talk about books and–not their reading deficits–but reading as pleasure. Choice is the key. Nancie Atwell says,
In the classrooms at CTL (Center for Teaching and Learning), choice is a given: kids choose what they read because children who choose books are more likely to grow up to become adults who read books. Students who read only a steady diet of assigned titles don’t get to answer for themselves the single most important question about book reading: why does anyone want to? I could no more pick the book that would invite a whole class to make friends with reading than I could decide who my students should grow up and marry. It’s that personal, that chemical, that idiosyncratic, and, yes, to me anyway, that important. For students of every ability and background, it’s the simple, miraculous act of reading a good book that turns them into readers, because even for the least experienced, most reluctant reader, it’s the one good book that changes everything. The job of adults who care about reading is to move heaven and earth to put that book into a child’s hands.
Now there’s a job description for a reading teacher.
Useful Websites for choosing books: (from Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer)
• Goodreads www.goodreads.com Goodreads is a free social networking site for readers. Members create bookshelves of books they have read, are reading, or plan to read, and share lists with their invited friends.
• teenreads.com www.teenreads.com This Website is not meant for teachers; it is meant for students. The futuristic layout and features like “Videos/Podcasts,” “Cool & New” and the monthly poll skillfully integrate the latest networking tools to create a fun, modern site about reading for today’s teen readers. Check out the up-to-date “Ultimate Teen Reading” list for over 250 books that were voted perfect reading choices by readers of the site.
• Jen Robinson’s Book Page http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/ “Prolific blog and web postings filled with detailed reviews and personal reflections about the world of children’s books, their authors, and children’s book publishing.”