by Lesley Roessing
My students were expected to read every day. The only requirement for reading in my ELA class was that readers choose books they could read and in which they were interested— not only in the topic, but also the author’s writing style. The classroom library and how we tended it nurtured our readers-choose philosophy.
Sometimes we all read the same texts (whole-class, shared reading): poems, short stories, novels, and nonfiction articles and books; sometimes we read in book clubs (small-group, collaborative reading); and sometimes we all read different, self-selected books in the same genre (verse novels, graphic novels, nonfiction, memoir) or centered around a common theme or topic (the Holocaust or tolerance issues). But most times my classes all read self-selected, choice books in any genre and length and on any topic.
Because they were continually reading—during class reading workshop or at home for 25 minutes (plus writing a 5-minute daily Reading Journal response to what they had read), my readers increased their interest in reading, their quantity and quality of reading, and their reading comprehension skills. I do not believe that readers themselves have a reading or Lexile level, but readers did increase their comprehension and interest in texts written at higher reading levels during the year. Readers get better by reading—not fake reading, not compliant reading, not SparkNotes reading, and not reading for testing—but reading for enjoyment and information.
And if teachers require, or reward, a certain number of books or pages to be read, readers will begin to choose shorter books at lower reading levels. Since my only requirement was that students read every day and write about what they read, there was no incentive to read books other than those that interested them. I remember when my reluctant readers tackled the Twilight series, books well over 400 pages, and others found authors such as Agatha Christie that they admitted were challenging for them (but worth the trouble)!
Some readers obtained their books from bookstores, some from the local or school library, but most students—especially the reluctant readers—chose books from my classroom library. How I stocked and organized my classroom library became pivotal to our reading experience.
One year, as we studied the literary term “genre,” I pulled books off my library shelves and asked students in pairs to read the covers and skim through the books, agree on a genre designation, and label the books with sticky notes. When they returned the books, neatly labeled, I decided to re-shelve the books by genre. A library that had gone nearly untouched suddenly had books flying off the selves. I realized that those readers who were not familiar with authors or titles knew topics that interested them. Given a few skimming guidelines, they could narrow the books down to the ones they most likely could, and would, read.
It became important to have a balance of genres and topics on hand. I had to put aside my personal preferences and think of the tastes of my students, which varied from year to year. While I am not a fantasy enthusiast, several years, many of my students were fans. Luckily when I started teaching middle school, my own children—avid readers—were also adolescents and so, within a very few years, I had books I could add to the library.
I became creative—I went to book sales, wrote grants for certain genres (such as a picture book grant and a memoir book grant), and picked up a lot of books in conference exhibit floors, such as National Council of Teachers of English. Many times at the end of conferences, exhibitors give away books so they do not have to cart them home. I attended the ALAN conference and was given forty new Young Adult books each year. I requested that students donate books to our library that they had bought and read but were not planning to read again and parents to donate books in their children’s names for birthdays.
I did find out many adolescents don’t like books that look old or worn, so I did avoid yard sales but some of the libraries had sales of books that looked barely used. Some of my students became interested in reading classics and books such as the Agatha Christie mysteries; soon I was bringing in appropriate books from my personal library.
I also borrowed books from our school library for weekly book passes and book talks to inspire students to check out these books on their own. In this way I was teaching the more reluctant readers to navigate a library that can seem overwhelming.
What were my criteria for choosing new books for our classroom library?
I looked for books that were well-written. This is not to say that we read Pulitzer-prize winning works, but one goal was to train reader-writers to read as writers. I wanted my readers to be able to notice good writing—especially devices and techniques we were discovering in writing workshop—to share examples with others and become more discriminating readers.
- issues that lead to discussions from multiple perspectives
- contemporary issues that open readers’ worlds
- books that serve as mirrors to the readers and their lives and issues they were experiencing since everyone should see themselves reflected in books
- books that served as windows into other worlds as readers should also use books to learn about diverse peoples and issues
- books that could serve as maps as my readers navigated though their adolescent lives and our contemporary world
- a lack of inappropriate language or language that makes sense in context
- a lack of focus on sex or a novels which relate the consequences of sex; even though I am not naïve about adolescent life, many novels encourage or commend sex
- humor, if possible and appropriate, because readers should enjoy reading
- most of all, books adolescents would read; sometimes adolescent readers’ standards were dissimilar from mine, but I had to remember that the only “bad” book is one that is not read
I usually did not spend money on series books that would fade quickly from fashion; however, at the time they were published, I invested in two copies of each of the Twilight books because so many of my reluctant female readers were devouring them. Therefore, it depended on my book, and personal, budget and how long books needed to last in popularity.
As readers discovered favorite authors—Woodson, Sones, Myers, Halse-Anderson, Lupica—and favorite genres—memoir, historical fiction, sports fiction—and talked more about books with their friends, I would find notes on my desk on Fridays, “Mrs. R, If you are going to the bookstore this weekend, we would like ….” The classroom library truly became the students’ library filled with books they cared about and valued—and read.
Lesley Roessing was a high school and middle level teacher in Pennsylvania for over 20 years before packing up, moving south, and becoming Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University, Savannah, Georgia. She has written four books for educators and students: The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin Press, 2009); No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011); a picture and song book, Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed; The Sentences They Saved (Discover Writing, 2013), and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).