It was a beautiful and rare, sunny afternoon in Seattle, Washington. I was walking down a hallway with Jane Addams Middle School principal, Paula Montgomery, when she stopped suddenly and stepped into a classroom. We had been chatting about that afternoon’s professional development that I’d be leading for her school’s English teachers. I assumed she was stepping into the classroom to redirect a student (the class had a substitute teacher that day). She did in fact address that student, but not for the reason I had thought. She pulled him aside and proceeded to ask him if he had finished reading Lois Lowery’s, Gathering Blue. He nodded excitedly in affirmation, and they went on to talk for a few minutes about why they both thought it wasn’t as good as The Giver, the first book in the quartet. Then, she smiled warmly, and made him promise to stop by her office the next day to pick up another of Lowery’s books. This whole conversation took place in less than three minutes and yet had an impact that would last far beyond.
In many of the professional development sessions that I lead, teachers often share their concern and frustration that their students won’t read. I hear the same scenario described in most every district I visit. Teachers explain that when they provide class time to read books of choice, there’s a large number of students that either don’t bring a book, bring a different book each day, or bring the same book all year (as long as the teacher doesn’t notice) and “fake read.”
I believe we can change this. I believe that we can intentionally create a climate and culture in every school, in every classroom, where every student can’t help but get swept up in the excitement of reading. Call it book “FOMO”, fear of missing out. This culture and climate cannot exist without adults who read. Jim Burke, author of The English Teacher’s Companion (Heinemann, 2012), says, “Nothing sells reading, like a teacher that reads.” If the adults in a school read, more of the students in that school will read and not just assigned reading. I’m talking about being authentic and self-engaged readers. I’m talking about the “I stayed up too late to finish my book” readers.
Here’s some of the ways I have successfully helped to encourage, nudge, and even at times, cajole school leaders and teachers into being the adult readers their students need them to be.
- This first strategy shouldn’t come as a surprise. I model living a reader’s life. I carry with me a small stack of books everywhere I visit. In that stack there’s the current book I’m reading (right now that’s Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance) a few “hot” YAL books, and maybe a book that I think might appeal to someone in the group that day. It’s not enough for me to just talk about the books I’m reading, there’s something different about having the actual book out on the table. Invariably, someone will ask me about one of the books, at which time I leap at the chance to give a quick book talk. In just a few minutes, I’m selling or “pitching” the book. But more importantly… I’m selling adult reading. If I’ve finished the book and someone shows an interest in reading it, I’ll give it away. I do this partially because I just love giving books away, but also to message that books are to be shared. Too often, I see adults get overly possessive with the books in their schools. They worry if they let students take them home, they won’t get them back. I recently heard Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009), say she’d rather lose a book than a reader. She’s a smart one, that Donalyn.
- In addition to modeling living a reader’s life, I also cite research that proves that in schools where adults individually recommend books to students, students read more. When I want to encourage a school to take action, it helps to build my case with research. Research shows that reading is relational. The catch is, we have to know what to recommend, and the only way we can do that, is to read ourselves. In a study published in The School Library Media Research, author, Bernice E. Cullinan cited the following: “However, research also suggests that some teachers are not knowledgeable about children’s literature; they are not able to introduce students to the wealth of books available, and they may not recognize the effects of their teaching methods on students’ attitude toward reading (Short and Pierce 1990).” In short, having a teacher that reads, matters-tremendously.
- As well as being able to recommend the right books, we have to have the right books. I help teachers envision enticing classroom libraries and come up with resourceful ways to build them. If we want students to read, we have to be able to say, “I have just the book for you!” and then immediately put that book in the student’s hands. Our libraries should hold a wide variety of books that reflect the diversity and uniqueness of our students. Our books should be windows and mirrors for our students. We shouldn’t shy away from buying and recommending books with challenging content. Nothing builds empathy like reading. If we want our students to build empathy for their peers, and themselves for that matter, we must encourage them to read books that center around real social issues. Issues such as racism, drug abuse, depression, bullying, suicide, violence, pregnancy, etc. The same principle applies to adults. If we want to better empathize with our students we should be reading books like Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. Being able to hand the just the right book to a student at just the right time, may end up having an impact of which we may never know the depth.
I’ve been a reader since before I can remember being anything else. I never go anywhere without a book. I’ve survived some of the hardest times in my life by reading. When I look back on my upbringing and ask how I became the reader I am, I attribute it to the adult readers in my life. I was extremely lucky to have teachers who were readers and constantly put the right books in my hands. (Thank you Mrs. Shumer, for handing me The Thorn Birds in ninth grade!)
I believe the most important work we can do is to empower our students to become readers. That work cannot be done without being an adult that reads. So, get reading. Oh, and follow me on GoodReads to find out #whatstheteacherreading.
Maria Losee is a national level consultant that specializes in improving student achievement by supporting districts in analyzing teaching and learning in order to create professional development for district leaders, coaches, and teachers. Her work includes designing and leading professional development sessions for both large and small groups, supporting teachers in planning for purposeful instruction, modeling classroom lessons, providing side-by-side coaching, developing effective assessment practices, and writing Common Core aligned units of study. Maria has a wealth of experience coaching Elementary and Secondary teachers not only in English Language Arts, but in content area disciplinary literacy as well. Her blog is The Literacy Maven.