Over the course of my 12-year career in education, I have spent a great deal of time and energy marinating on what is truly important for students and teachers. To say this path has been arduous would be a vast understatement. In a sea of test-mania and ever-intensifying waves of demand, it is often difficult to swim through the state mandates and requirements to grab onto the life raft of true literacy practice. We can sometimes get lost along the way; I know I have, time and time again. In my career, I have often lost sight of what is necessary and what is simply nice to know.
When that happens, I try to come back to my core principle, the thing that–to me–is the most pressing in this role. My greatest responsibility is to to help create independent and empowered readers, writers, and thinkers. My measure of success as an educator is not if students pass or fail a test. Rather, it’s if I randomly run into a former student at Barnes and Noble. That is the greatest teacher win I could have.
So how do we do that? How can we impart lasting literacy love and understanding? How can we ensure that what we teach them doesn’t stay inside the four walls of the classroom but, instead, follows them throughout the course of their lives? These questions–and many like them–have plagued me since I started this career. And boy, have I failed famously at times when trying to answer them! But I’ve also succeeded. And when success happens, I get to see students fall in love with books and writing and thinking. I get to see students raise their voices, some for the very first time.
So what are the answers? I certainly don’t have them all; if I did, I’d be making a mint and living in a mansion. But, I do think I can speak from what my own experience has taught me about some of the most beneficial practices. The practices that can truly aid teachers in moving literacy beyond the bell.
If you could pick just one thing that seems to make the most difference in students’ reading and writing lives, choice is it. For the longest time, I have considered the importance of student reading to be tied to student engagement and motivation. And certainly, that is an important and happy byproduct of allowing students to choose the books they read in class. When students get to explore the things they love, they are more motivated. When they get to make important decisions about their learning, they are more motivated. When they get to choose books that mean something to them, they are more motivated.
This year, though, my understanding of the importance of choice had a dramatic shift. At NCTE I had the great pleasure of sitting in a roundtable discussion with one of my literacy idols, Pernille Ripp, writer of Passionate Readers: The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child. In our discussion, she said these words:
“When we remove choice, we teach helplessness.”
Let me say it louder for the people in the back: “When we remove choice, we teach helplessness.” Suddenly, I was faced with an urgency I’ve never had before. By always selecting the texts our students read, we are inadvertently rendering them incapable of making book choices in the future. If they never have the opportunity to meet a book they like, how can we ensure they will pick up another one in the future? If we don’t teach them how to select books they’d enjoy, we’ve ensured they are helpless to do so in the future.
I want my students to feel empowered and confident in making decisions. All decisions. Not just book decisions.
In conjunction with choice, book access is another key component to lasting literacy. We must have lots of rich texts for students to choose from. Not just the classics, but texts that speak to kids and give them an opportunity to explore their passions. Books about basketball and art and racial inequality and science and sexuality and culture should line our shelves, their spines aching to be cracked wide open by feverish readers! I am a firm believer that every student has a gateway book–a book that unlocks their desire to read more and opens their eyes to possibilities never known. The trick is to find that book. For me, I can’t remember what that gateway book was because I fell in love with books and reading very early in my life. Some students have never felt that. It is our great privilege and responsibility as teachers to help students find that book in our sea of books.
To be sure, the library is an invaluable resource when surrounding students with books. But, it is equally important to surround students within our own classrooms. Access isn’t just about availability; it’s about easy reach. Sometimes a student will grab something from our shelves when they wouldn’t make the trek down the hall to the library. Especially when a student is a non-reader. To non-readers or reluctant readers, the library–with its vast amount of titles and topics–can sometimes be threatening. In the comfort of our classroom, however, students are free to peruse and ask questions and grab and put back books. With a culture of book love, our students can feel comfortable asking for books they might not feel comfortable pulling from a library shelf. A student once told me that he didn’t like going to the library because he wanted to be able to put the book back easily if he didn’t like it, and he didn’t want to be judged by the book he selected. It’s not that the student didn’t want to read; he wanted freedom to make reading choices while being surrounded by those people he was most comfortable with.
I’ve had some teachers tell me that they don’t like having a classroom library because “students take the books and don’t bring them back.” To that I will quote Donalyn Miller, “I’d rather lose a book than a child.” Because some of my teachers were unafraid to let me steal books from their shelves, my home library is filled with well-loved books that have teachers’ last names on the inside cover or on the spine. (Thank you Ms. Whiddon and Mrs. Terry!)
Space for Dialogue and Discussion
Think about what you do when you finish a great book.
I am pretty sure you did not say, “Call up a friend so we can round robin read parts of it together!” Or, “complete a cut-and-paste of vocabulary words.” Or, “make a graphic organizer of the story sequence.”
When I finish a great book, the first thing I want to do is find someone else who has read the book and TALK! And talk. And talk some more. I cannot wait to share my thoughts on the book. I want to know if they fell in love with the characters the same way I did. I want to know if they thought the language was beautiful or jarring. I want to know if they’d read another by the same author.
Finding space to talk about reading is supremely important when leading students toward lasting literacy. Contrary to popular belief, reading isn’t a solitary act. Rather, reading creates connections that no other activity can–across cultural lines and political lines and poverty lines. It can teach us about how to better love each other despite our differences. Through books, we are able to see inside another’s head and heart. There must be a space for students to discuss those things. By stealing a question from Kylene Beers and asking kids “what’s worth talking about,” our students are able to explore themes and topics that have resonated with them. Allowing students to speak about their reading perspectives isn’t just a recommendation, it is vital to humanity. Sadly, in our test-crazed society, it seems that this is the first thing to go. There seems to be this vast misconception that students aren’t working if they’re simply talking. Wrong. Some of the best learning comes from speaking to another human who may or may not think similarly to you.
Time to Read (IN CLASS)
In one of my all-time favorite quotes, Nora Ephron said,
There’s something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a deep-sea diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he resurfaces, he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I resurface from a book.
Every student should have the privilege of experiencing the “rapture of the deep.” To enjoy that, time must be allotted for that opportunity.
Choice is awesome. Book access is awesome. But neither mean anything without allowing students time to read those books–in class. It takes time to get into the action of a book–to fall in love with a book. “But, Bridget, they should read at home!” Sure, they should. But most won’t. In this super-connected world, kids have the option of surfing social media, watching Netflix, or making YouTube videos about them unboxing shoes instead of reading. More than that, the kids today are more over-committed to extracurricular activities than ever before. Basketball or baseball or dance consumes many of our youth. For others, time after school is to be spent working a job or babysitting siblings. It is no wonder, then, that reading becomes an afterthought. That’s why it is so incredibly important to provide time in class to read.
Penny Kittle recommends at least 10 minutes a day.
“But what about the fact that there are only 45 minutes to most class days? Isn’t reading 10 minutes a day wasting a ton of time?” Sure. If you consider reading practice a waste of time. I would say that those 10 minutes are some of the most precious moments a student can have in your class! In The Reading Zone, Nancie Atwell wrote, “A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy or, more significantly, marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone ever grew up to become a reader.” So yeah. Maybe it isn’t super flashy when the administrator walks in, but it is the most valuable way for your students to begin the process of lifelong literacy.
Moreover, Richard Allington said that reading is less about ability and more about opportunity. It isn’t that kids today can’t read; it’s that they are not given ample opportunity to practice doing so. In the classroom. With teacher support. Reading regularly builds reading muscles, ensuring students have the stamina to read a book from cover to cover. After all, the most significant number tied to a students’ reading ability shouldn’t be their Lexile level or AR points; rather, it should be the volume of their book stack.
To be sure, my journey as a literacy instructor and leader has been one of many missteps and failures. But through those failures, I have learned that what is right for kids is not always popular. That I have to care less about what others think and more about what is truly important for my students. That, Like Toni Morrison, I can’t “be consumed by or concerned by” the gaze of others. So, I will leave you with this:
Students, even those who find reading challenging, thrive in classrooms that are filled with books at different levels, where the teacher celebrates books, and students are given choice in what they read, as well as time and support to read it.(Pressley, et al, 2006; Allington, 2012)