Of all the things I did in the classroom, the most satisfying — and, I believe, furthest reaching — was getting kids excited about reading. I was still teaching when Donalyn Miller‘s The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child published in 2009, but I knew nothing about it.
It still feels like a missed opportunity.
This is an interview that I ran shortly after discovering The Book Whisperer. I still believe it’s one of the most important posts I’ve ever shared on the blog. If you are a teacher, parent, author, homeschooler, or book lover with young people in your life, I highly recommend this book.
I’d describe your beautiful book, The Book Whisperer, as a reading teacher’s manifesto for free-choice reading. You state “students in free-reading programs perform better than or equal to students in any other type of reading program” and that students’ “motivation and interest in reading is higher when they get the opportunity to read in school.” Could you briefly walk us through the changes you experienced as a teacher that led you to embracing this mindset?
When I first began teaching, I followed the other teachers in my department. I passed out reading logs, taught whole class novel units, and assigned book reports. I didn’t know any other way. I knew that there was a disconnect between what readers do away from school and what I asked my students to do, but I wasn’t sure what I could do about it. School reading and the reading I did on my own never overlapped when I was a kid. When I began questioning why this was still true for my students, I began to read and study reading workshop and look for ways to make school reading mirror what readers do “in the wild” as I call it. I gut check everything we do against these questions: Does this help my students become more independent readers? Do readers actually do this (or something similar)? If I can say, “No,” then what’s the point?
Students in your class are expected to read forty books from a variety of genres in their year with you. How do your students first respond when hearing this? How does this compare to what they feel about their reading at the end of the year?
I am known as the teacher who expects students to read a lot, so I think my reputation precedes me now. In the past, my students (and their parents) were shocked and worried about my reading expectations. I urge my students to try reading more at school and home. In turn, I promise them that I will do everything I can to teach them how to read and enjoy it more. We start with these mutual commitments. After a few months, students are amazed at how much they have read and feel more confident. By the end of the year, most of them have read substantially more than 40 books. For the past four years, our class average is 56. My students also discover that I don’t really care about the number of books they read. I just want them to find books that mean something to them. I want them to enjoy reading and find personal value in it. The children who read 20 books matter just as much to our class reading community as those who read 100.
One of the things I love about your classroom is the way you read alongside your students. In giving your students choice, you have shifted the power from the all-knowing teacher to a place where readers meet and learn together. While your young “apprentices hone a craft under the tutelage of a master, ” you feel strongly that “meaning from a text should not flow from my perceptions… [but] from my students’ own understandings, under my guidance.” This is a huge shift for children. How do you teach them to take the reins and trust their ideas?
It takes time to build a classroom community where everyone feels valued. The children don’t trust me at first because they think I don’t mean it when I say they can choose their own books, writing topics, and methods for responding. I work hard to encourage every student. I try to listen to them as a person before I respond as a teacher. When a student tells me he cried reading Love That Dog, he deserves to get an authentic reaction to his emotions before I ask him to evaluate how Sharon Creech crafted the story. I cannot tell you how many students tell me that they think adults don’t really listen to them or see them. Through feedback during conferences and one-on-one conversations, I encourage students to set their own learning goals and evaluate their work against standards and class-developed rubrics. Teaching students to critically look at their own work before turning it in for my evaluation is hard for many of them who seek my approval as indication that they are successful.
I love how you play book matchmaker for your kids throughout the year. Can you explain how you learn of their interests and pair books with readers?
I learn about my students because I talk to them constantly — about their life experiences as well as school assignments. I know who plays sports and who likes origami. I know who has a new baby brother and who is an only child. I also keep an endless database of books and authors in my head (and use Goodreads), and I read several books a week. If I see that a book is popular with my students and I haven’t read it, I get a copy and read it immediately. When I can’t find a book that matches to a student’s specific interests, I fall back on titles that have wide appeal to most kids like Holes or Number the Stars. I also ask students about the other books they have read and enjoyed. I read a lot of book reviews, reading blogs, and book lists, too. Remaining current on the newer books helps me provide titles that are relevant to my students. I also talk to a lot of teachers and librarians on Twitter who recommend books to my students and me. Knowing my students and knowing books — there’s no shortcut. I often joke that I spend my life introducing my shelf children to my classroom children and facilitating friendships between them.
Stay tuned for the second part of the interview, coming next time. This post contains affiliate links. More details here.