Monday, September 7, 2015

Your Students Need A Reading Champion | Giving Yourself Permission To Read

I've been thinking a lot lately about my own life as a reader.  We didn't have a lot of books in my home growing up and those we did have were lost in a fire when I was pretty young.  My mother, a single parent, worked all of the time. And I imagine making sure we had food to eat was often a greater priority than making sure we had access to regular reading material.  Still, for reasons I've already recounted in this space, I managed to become a reader.  A reader who has devoted her life to creating other readers.

Which is why I'm more than a little haunted by the years I spent as a classroom teacher. Years that I've openly referred to as my "lost years" as a reader, because apart from the novels, short stories, poems etc., that I assigned my students during that time (and the mountain of papers they wrote in response), I rarely, if ever, read anything else.  While I cherish that time in my life, and am so grateful for the privilege of working with some of the most amazing young people I could imagine, if I could go back and do it all over again, I'd change some stuff. LOTS of stuff.  But most importantly, I'd read more.


  • Because I'd have been better at connecting my students with the right book at the right time.
  • Because I'd have been better at understanding their journeys. 
  • Because I'd have had more and better conversation starters.
  • Because I'd have been that much smarter and, probably, a little happier.
  • Because students need reading role models.
  • Because stories connect us.

The list goes on and on.

These days, when I feel compelled to prioritize "real work" over reading, I create reasons to read. I give myself permission to read for pleasure, because doing so is also reading for purpose. That's one of the reasons I created #2jennsbookclub with my friend Jennifer Northrup... and it's also part of why I've been heartened to see so many classroom teachers (in addition to school librarians) take part.

So... if you're waiting for someone to give you permission to read (or just read more) for pleasure. Here it is:  The top 5 reasons (in no particular order) why you should stop what you're doing and join #2jennsbookclub.

  1. Your coolness factor will go way up. Yeah. I said it.  There's never been a time when being a nerd has been cooler. And there's no cooler nerd than a book nerd.  
  2. You'll be better at your job.   CS Lewis famously said that we read to know that we are not alone. Adolescence can be a time of trauma and isolation, as a reader, you'll know just the right books to help your students know that they are not alone.
  3. Free books! At the end of each of our twitter chats, I give away copies of the books we're reading!  
  4. You'll gain (or add to) your very own "reading posse." The people who participate in #2jennsbookclub are smart, thoughtful, and generous.  During the course of our conversations they share teaching strategies, ideas for connecting kids with books and their passion for growing readers.  They are truly the best part of our virtual bookclub experience.
  5. Reading is awesome. Enough said. 
Join us! OR join my friend Tavia Clark's #yearofya bookclub OR the incredibly awesome #sharpschu bookclub (started by John Schumacher and Colby Sharp) OR the ever popular #nerdybookclub (started and maintained by, among others, Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp)! Whatever you do, don't let being a grown up keep you from reading.  Because reading is the real work of all learners.  Because reading is not something extra. It's something essential. And because your students need you to. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Learning To Read Alone Is Not Enough. Your Students Need A Reading Champion.

I don't know about you, but... 
  • I did not become a reader because someone held me accountable for reading. 
  • I did not become a reader because someone offered me "points" or other incentives for the quantity of books or pages I read. 
  • I did not become a reader because someone limited my reading selections to only to those titles on a certain reading level or within a specific lexile band. 
  • And I did not become a reader because someone forced me to complete reading logs, write book reports or create (and then reuse) the occasional diorama. 

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I became a reader because a kind librarian, whose name I do not remember, at McDermoth Elementary School, (in Aberdeen, Washington), found me hiding under a table in the library on my first day at that school. But instead of forcing me to go out to recess, where the traditional "new kid" bullying, (that I was all too familiar with), awaited, she chose to pass me a book under the table:  Judy Blume's Blubber. And then she let me sit there until I was finished reading it. (An act that I would attempt to repeat, often successfully, at many, many other new schools to follow).

I became a reader because one of my 4th grade teachers, Miss Lynch at Madison Elementary School, (in Olympia, Washington),  read Wilson Rawls' Where The Red Fern Grows aloud to our class.  And I was so taken by its magic, I begged my mother to take me to the public library in order to get my very first library card - which I then used to check out a dusty copy of the book, so that I could read along, reread and, yes, read ahead.  As it turns out, this would also prove to be my first (but not last!) overdue library book and my first (but not last!) library fine.  But I digress.

I became a reader because my 10th grade English teacher, Sharron Coontz, at Olympia High School (in Olympia, Washington), tossed out the idea of the "whole class novel" (one of many instructional strategies that I have since come to realize put Ms. Coontz WAY before her time) and instead let me choose every book I read for her class. I'd never had this freedom before, and it lead me to discover works by Upton Sinclair, Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck and VC Andrews (lest you think me a literary snob), all of which would change my life in varying ways and help me see reading as a necessary part of living. 

Call me Captain Obvious, but I feel the need to point something out: none of the instances that I can identify as having made a difference in my life as a reader involve reading instruction. I can't point to the teacher who helped me master consonant blends. I have no idea who taught me to recognize (or indeed spell) onomatopoeia.  I'm not sure in what grade I finally figured out how to identify the main idea of a reading selection. And I have no idea when I discovered the glory of non-fiction text features. Clearly. I did learn those things. But I've also learned this:

Learning to read alone is not enough.

Reading instruction and developing the habit of reading are two very different, but equally important instructional goals. However, in recent years, a greater emphasis has been placed on the former, relegating "the love of reading" to fluff status: something that is nice but not necessary.  And, in my estimation, we've paid a heavy price for it.  For all our emphasis on reading interventions and "research based programs" that are "guaranteed to improve test scores," those pesky test scores don't seem to have gotten the memo.  Further, students who have endured this particular swing of the pedagogical pendulum are, and at alarming rates, leaving school as nonreaders. Even those who can read, simply choose not to once they leave school.

That said, I wrote this post, in part, to thank those people who, by chance or by choice, helped me develop a love of reading. I will be forever grateful and shudder to think what my life might have looked like otherwise. However, this post is also for all those classroom teachers and school librarians (along with the people who support and evaluate them) who are (like it or not) getting ready to head back to school for another year.  To them I say this:

I hope you'll consider the following fundamental truths as you plan lessons and activities for the young (potential) readers you serve:
  1. Our most successful students tend to have one thing in common: they are readers. And by successful I don't just mean that they perform well on standardized tests (although they do) I also mean that they are better at doing other things that actually matter. Time and time again, studies have shown that students who are readers out perform their non-reading counterparts in multiple subject areas. But recent studies also suggest that students who read for pleasure also develop stronger senses of empathy and personal wellbeing.  In short, readers win at school and they also win at life.  That said... 
  2. Our students are most likely to become readers when: 
    • they are given choice in what they read,
    • they have teachers who also read for pleasure,
    • they see reading as an essential part of  their lives and not just something they have to do for school, and...
    • they develop a habit of reading grown out of having made authentic and meaningful connections with books. 
Then, think about your own life as a reader. Can you, as I have above, identify one or two pivot points in your development as a reader? That is to say, can you locate some crucial moments that helped transform you from a non-reader to a reader?  If you can, I'm absolutely convinced that they will look a lot like mine, insomuch as they'll have nothing to do with incentives or accountability, but will instead have everything to do with one (or more) exceptional teacher, librarian or some other adult and one (or more) exceptional book.  If you are really lucky, and are still in contact with that person, take a moment to thank them.  But even if you're not, hold onto those memories and make this the year that you become (or continue to be) that person for someone else.  Your students need a reading champion now, more than ever.  Let that person be you.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Just Read. And Let Them Just Listen: The Case for Reading Aloud to Students of All Ages

A classroom teacher friend recently asked me to recommend a book to read aloud to her 8th grade students to kick off the school year. The question immediately took me back to my own days as an English teacher and the precious 5-10 minutes I spent at the beginning of (almost) all class periods reading to my students.  Back in those days, I felt guilty about giving away that much instructional time to an activity that I couldn't directly connect to my state standards and their ever looming test.  Now, if I could go back and do it all over again, I'd spend more time reading to my students and I wouldn't spend a second worrying about whether or not it was the right move.

Reading aloud to students of all ages is a sound instructional practice for so many reasons.  Here are just a few:

  • Reading aloud to students models and helps develop a daily habit of reading as an essential part of life and learning. 
  • Reading aloud to students introduces them to books and authors they might not otherwise connect with.
  • Reading aloud to students exposes them to new vocabulary and helps decrease existing word gaps among students living in poverty or those living in homes where English is not their first language.
  • Reading aloud to students connects students to texts that help build empathy and community or that promote healing after a shared trauma.
  • Reading aloud to students demonstrates how stories connect us.
  • Reading aloud creates a shared, joyful experience between you and your students.
  • Reading aloud to students is fun!
  • Students, of all ages, love to be read to.
In my experience, not every book makes a great read aloud choice, however. Over the years, I developed a checklist of criteria that I used when selecting books that I would read aloud to students. Books that made the cut were:
  • Fast paced and often contained many quick chapters.
  • Ripe with cliff-hangers. (The best books lead to near student rebellions when you shut them for the day).
  • Heavy on suspense, conflict and drama.
  • Sleepers. The most popular books on the shelves are ones your students are likely to select for independent reading, so use the read aloud as a chance to introduce them some hidden library treasure. 
  • Light on exposition and heavy on action.
  • Would help kids see reading as something joyful and necessary (as opposed to a chore associated with some type of assessment or task).
During my tenure as a classroom teacher, some of my favorite read alouds included:
  • Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher.  Full disclosure: This book deals with some fairly touchy subjects, like child abuse and abortion.  And while that didn't stop me from reading it aloud to my students, (and it was never challenged) you know your students and your school community better than I do and I encourage you to always consider those factors when selecting your own read aloud books. That said, my students loved this book. In fact, when I run into my former students (who are all fully grown adults now) the number one question they ask is the title of the book we read in class about the kid who stayed fat in order to save a friendship.  And several have reported reading it again as adults or sharing it with their own children or, indeed, students. 
  • The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding.  This book is about, at least in part, a serial killer called Stitch Face, run amok in Victorian London, so clearly playing it safe when it came to picking books to read aloud to my students was not my MO!  An aside: for many of the 11 years I taught English I subjected my students to A Tale of Two Cities (which I love but they mostly hated).  I now wish I'd thought to compare the two versions of Victorian England presented in these books... but I digress.
  • Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen.  This is a great book for kids who came to me in the 8th grade reporting that Hatchet was still their favorite book.
  • Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick.  My students loved this book almost as much as they hated its title. 
As a middle and high school librarian, who was not on a fixed schedule, I still read aloud to students, but the opportunities for those interactions looked a little bit different than when I was in the classroom.  Here's how I created those opportunities as a secondary librarian:
  • Classroom Visits: I offered to do go into classrooms and read to students.  You'd be surprised how many middle and high school teachers took me up on this offer.  And I'll be honest, the first time may have simply been because they wanted a day to sit at their desk while the LaGarde show was going on in the front of the class, but that's okay. Without exception, me reading to a class lead directly to that teacher wanting to bring their students to the library because they were all suddenly and inexplicably "excited about reading" as well as to future invitations to return tp spark that excitement again.  
  • Book Talks:  Reading a passage of the book was ALWAYS a part of my book talks.  And these few minutes always created lengthy hold lists for whatever book was being shared.
  • Story Time:  Yes, that's right.  I held recess/lunch story times in both my middle and high school libraries.  This was simply an opportunity for kids to come to the library and be read to during their "free time."  Sometimes I would read. Other times they wanted to read. Either way, I always had somewhere between 20-50 students per lunch or recess period who were hungry for the experience.
These days, if given the chance to read entire books to my secondary students from start to finish, my list would definitely include:
The important thing to remember is that reading aloud to students should not look like the other reading instruction that takes up the bulk of their day.  Don't stop in the middle to quiz them on the details they just heard.  Don't hand out a vocabulary list.  Don't make them create a diorama, storyboard or book-cover.  And by all means, do not create assessments, of any type, but especially not those modeled after standardized test questions to accompany your read aloud choices. 

Just read.  And let them just the listen. 

While reading aloud to students has varied effects on literacy development this part of your students' day should be solely about building the habit of reading.  If we want our students to be more than proficient decoders or words and instead grow into avid readers (which our most successful students always are) we must provide them with opportunities to fall in love with books and to see reading as a necessary part of their lives.  Reading aloud to them does just that. 

Finally, as school librarians I feel we have an opportunity and an obligation to model this practice - not just for our students, but also for their teachers who have either forgotten that reading aloud is good for kids or who, like this former English teacher, felt pressured to forego the "fun stuff" for more serious pursuits.  What's more, reading aloud to kids helps position the library as a place of joy for the young people we have the privilege to serve.  A place where books do more than take up space on dusty shelves.  A place where stories are lifted from the page in voice and spin through the air, growing and changing each listener they land on. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

We're All In This Together: An Opportunity to Help One of Our Own

Let me start with an apology.

I've never shared anything purely personal on this blog before and I'm feeling a little weird about it. But I've decided to take the plunge because these last 6 months have been a dark and difficult time for me and I'm starting to care less and less about what's appropriate and more about what's right.  And about what makes a difference during the short time we have on this planet.  And about the stories that as, my good friend John Schumacher might say (when quoting Kate DiCamillo) connect us.  So... I'm sorry if you've come here looking for ideas to power up your PLN or make your school library even more amazing.  You won't find those things in this post.  But I hope you'll read on anyway.  I promise to return to our regularly scheduled program soon.

In the meantime, let me tell you about my friend William.

I've known William Kline for almost 25 years now.  I don't remember the first time we met, but I do remember the shared love for Seinfeld, Radiohead and Peeps that made us fast friends in college. Although we haven't lived near each other since graduating as shiny, wet behind the ears, ready to conquer the world (if not our student loans), English teachers in 1997, we've kept in sporadic touch over the years: the occasional text, email, phone call, random dinners whenever one or the other of us are in town and even some old school letters, back in the day. (An aside: William was actually the first person to ever send me an email through our university's intranet system. I still have it.  For whatever reason it felt like a significant moment, so I printed it on the campus library's massive dot matrix printer on super wide green and white spooled paper. Go figure).  Whenever we connect, the conversation is easy and I find myself grateful for our friendship for many reasons, not the least of which being that I never would have become a school librarian had he not gone there first and encouraged me to also take the plunge.

I bring all of this up because now my friend, who has given so much to me, to our profession and to countless public school children, is in need.  I won't attempt to tell William's story here because, frankly, he does a much better job of it on his own blog, where he is is chronicling his family's journey with mental illness. But I will say this:

I love the way William writes. I love the honesty in his posts. I love that he is stepping way outside of his comfort zone to share this incredibly personal story with the world.  He's doing this not simply because it's cathartic or because others may gain a deeper understanding of mental illness from what he shares or because still others may feel a little less alone when they read his words. He is doing this because caring for a mentally ill child costs a tremendous amount of money. Money that William (a school librarian) and his wife Melanie (a classroom teacher) simply do not have. 

Which is why I'm writing this post.

Now, in their time of need, William is reaching out to the world (to me and to you) through his blog, and more significantly, through this fundraiser, for help. If I could, I would fund this entire campaign without thinking twice. But I cannot. So I'm sharing their story with everyone reading my words because William and Melanie are beautiful people with two beautiful children, who find themselves in the terrible position of having to rely on the kindness of strangers to help them provide appropriate care for their son.

This is a beautiful family.

Plus, William is one of us.  He's a brilliant, dedicated school librarian in Wake County NC whose ideas, passion and sense of humor have both influenced and inspired me.  I'm proud he is my friend and thankful that he serves young people as a high school librarian.  So... I'm sharing his story with you in the hopes that you'll do the following:
  1. Help if you can.  No donation is too small.  It's cliche, but every little bit helps. 
  2. Share their story with others.  This journey is not a sprint.  It's a marathon.  And they will need sustained support for some time to come.  This will only happen if more people know about their story. 
Again, I know this isn't the reason you came to this blog.  And maybe this post will keep you from coming back.  But if there's one thing I've learned to be true about our community, the network of school librarians from around the world that I've come to rely on, it's that we're always there for each other.  I hope this proves true now.

Thank you.

Update:  As of this update, William and Melanie have managed to raise a little over $11,000 through this campaign.  This is amazing and wonderful and, sadly, not nearly enough.  I've since learned that the $50,000 they are trying to raise is really just a fraction of what they will need to provide care for their son, Ethan, over the next few years.  Please help if you can.  And please continue to share their story.  Thank you.