Ten Ways to Grow Readers (out of System & Self-proclaimed Non-readers)

When I began a new position as our school’s literacy specialist in August, I knew my first step was to hook kids with a love of books. How else would I get students who are reading 2-6 years below their grade level up to their current grade level within one school year? I teach 34 reading intervention students in grades 6, 7, and 8. Right now, at the end of first semester, all students have shown growth on our district assessment and 18 of 34 are reading at their current grade level. I have one more semester to get the other 16 students there, and I will. (Why do I say that? Because part of the definition of “teacher” is someone who believes in growth and equity. How will I do it? I’ll share that in a later post, but I have additions to the plan that I list here, because we cannot expect different results from doing the same things, right?)

Looking back on my first semester as a literacy specialist and my 13 years as a language arts teacher, this is what works for my students:

What works?

  1. Read aloud. Read to your entire class, to small groups, and to individual students. As soon as you notice a student’s disinterest in reading, read aloud. You can do this during conferences or ask for volunteers from the community. Emily Bushwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” When we have school-aged students who aren’t readers yet, we need to recreate that experience for them. No kidding, even my 14 year-olds love being read to.
  2. Beg, borrow, and buy to create a diverse classroom library that promotes student
    img_0090-1
    Part of our classroom library- in this section, informational books are organized by topic.

    choice in reading. Students who don’t love reading yet need quick access to a wide variety of high-interest books and they need your help finding the needle in the haystack.

  3. Design comfy reading spots. Make your classroom feel like a living
    img_0087-1
    Our meeting place- for lessons, discussions, and reading. We have lots of other nooks and crannies perfect for curling up with a book. My intention was to mimic the places all readers love to read.

    room, bookstore or cafe. Think of the places you learned to love books and recreate them for your students. I wrote about this idea in “This I Know: On Becoming a Reader.

  4. Let students know their reading levels and teach them why levels matter. This might seem a bit dramatic, but it is heartbreaking to hear my reading intervention students say that they had never known why they were in intervention classes, that they hadn’t been told their reading levels, and that they’d been told that the district and state assessments aren’t really important, so they shouldn’t worry about them. If you work with children, you know that this translates to “reading well doesn’t really matter and these tests are a waste of time.” Students should know their levels and know how and why to raise them. Point blank- people who cannot read don’t like to read. People who cannot read are taken advantage of. It is our responsibility to change this.
  5. DO NOT make students read books within their current reading levels. Reader leveling is a tool to monitor progress, and it serves its purpose well when kids know how to use it. Teach students how to find books that are a good fit and teach them what to do when they really want to read a book that feels hard for them. We cannot expect students to adopt a growth mindset if we don’t have one ourselves, and we cannot change non-readers to readers without the mindset that allows for change and growth. *Picture this: Say you have a New Year’s resolution to exercise more. So, you sign up for a 5K. You see that this race, a race that seems out of your league but sounds like a ton of fun, will motivate you to begin walking each day! You know that you’ll eventually begin running a bit, and next you’ll be able to run the entire 3.2 miles! Now picture this: Your personal trainer tells you not to attempt it. She says that no matter what she tries to teach you, you cannot even get close to that level of fitness. How do you feel about that?
  6. Target instruction based on student needs, and give kiddos tons of time to read. Use assessments, reading conferences, student reflections, discussions with your students’ content area teachers, and their own books in instruction. Keep in close contact with your students’ other teachers and let students know that all of you are in on the same goal: making them readers. Teach students to monitor their progress and to become part of deciding what they need in instruction. When we use their own books to do this, they’re more likely to practice these strategies on their own. This doesn’t mean we should stop using shared excerpts and articles, but it does mean students who cannot read yet, need instruction in their chosen novels.
  7. Teach students what readers do. I encourage all teachers to study PEBC’s Thinking Strategies. Teach these strategies directly, then model them, and gradually release students while giving feedback as they practice them. The thinking strategies are life-changing for non-readers. Once these kiddos learn the thinking moves proficient readers use, they feel such relief! These are strategies that all good readers use, but our struggling readers don’t realize they should.
  8. Share your reading life. Show students the books you’re reading, share your thinking and your struggles with them, and do the assignments you ask kids to do (If  you don’t want to try an assignment, then assign more interesting work- work real readers do.) I bring my current novel to and from school, even if I don’t plan to read it. I put it on our coffee table where we meet, and I refer to it on the fly and use it when I’m modeling a strategy. At this point in the year, kids ask me about what I’m reading all of the time. Kids who wouldn’t have given a second thought to care six months ago! I also share the professional books I use (I wouldn’t be surprised if some students know the authors of Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading and Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by name!) Students need to see that we are teaching skills and strategies that are based on research and that we are always learning new things ourselves.
  9. Visit your students’ other classes to help bridge what students are learning about reading in your class to other contents. This has been most helpful to my eighth graders, and
    d13aaf80-770c-455a-8b9d-f9a25c5ed849
    Student replicas of  parts of the brain (an idea from the book The Growth Mindset Coach)

    after visiting their classes they asked if they could start staying after school to get help with homework from their content classes. It’s been helpful to teach them how to use the thinking strategies in math, science, and social studies.

  10. Teach students to adopt a growth mindset, set goals, be assertive, confront inequity, persevere, and believe in their worth. We teachers know that we teach more than content and standards. Students and I begin each week with a motivational lesson that I see students need. Some examples are growth mindset, reflection, perseverance, equity, and positive thinking. If you’re interested, you can read some of these lessons under the category Friday Reflections in the main menu.

When I met my students in August, I let them know that my goal was for all 34 of them read at grade level by the end of the year. I shared how we would do it, I shared their current reading levels, and against all odds, I managed to create a safe place for kids to struggle, be honest about their hurdles, and cheer each other on.

Keep Moving Forward

For a minute, I felt really good about 18 of 34 students reading at grade level this point in the year, but that vanished quickly. We owe learners more. Within the 16 who need to keep moving toward grade level, ten students are on the right track, but we aren’t even close to easy street yet and six students need something different or more or… I will figure it out. Next year, I will do better quicker because I’ll have this year to reflect on.

In the spirit of full disclosure and the importance of reflection, I’ll share one of my biggest and most embarrassing mistakes from this semester.

One BIG Mistake

I have a sixth-grade student who seemed to become less shy as the year wore on: eventually, she’d asked to come in during my morning planning time to read alone and with me, to get help with writing and she’d started talking more in class. She’d been telling me for months that she’d been reading at night with her mother and sister, and I could sense that she really was. When we took our district MAPS assessment at the beginning of the school year, she’d dropped 13 points from her 5th Grade score in the Spring. When we took MAPS again in December, she’d regained the 13 and added three additional points. I had been thinking that she would grow more than that because she’d been working in class and at home, I’d noticed her sharing her thoughts more often and she’d begun to explain to other students how to figure out reading struggles.

This child is identified by our English Language Acquisition Department, so when she and I saw this test result I asked her whether she comprehends better in Spanish or English. Without missing a beat, she nodded yes. Then I asked if she ever reads in Spanish, and again with out missing a beat, she said, “Yes, every night.”

EVERY NIGHT? Why hadn’t I thought to ask that before now? I would have asked her to come in and read one-on-one in English long before she’d decided to do it on her own! Here is a child who had put in the effort and had grown more confident as the year led on. I mistook that confidence as a result of increased comprehension ability, and part of it clearly was, but I see now that a bigger reason she became more outspoken is that she was speaking English more often now because she was back in school where English is the primary language.

Huge mistake on my part, and its not one I’ll make again. It’s embarrassing because it reveals my English-speaking egocentrism. It didn’t even occur to me that she’d be reading in Spanish at home even though I knew her family spoke Spanish at home. I LOVE that she is reading Spanish at home! Being able to speak AND read in another language has so many benefits- personally, socially, in her education and eventually her professional life!

Needless to say, I’ll ask her to come read with me during non-teaching times, and I’ll figure out how we can maintain her English during the summer. I’m learning a lot this year, and there will come a day when my all of my students do grow 6-7 grade levels in one semester. Don’t believe me? Keep in touch. I love a challenge.

A Friday Reflection in the Spirit of Halloween: On Gut Feelings & Questionable Decisions

Why Take Time to Reflect?

Reflecting on learning and making plans for success accelerates growth. In our classroom, students reflect on their learning often. We do this at preset points in the process, and we do it naturally when one of us realizes it’s time to take a minute to look at what we’ve been struggling with or accomplished. We also do it every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals.

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a theme relating to one of the characteristics we need in order to overcome adversity, media of some kind, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for us as a group or for individual students. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it, and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Weekly Theme

“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You Haven’t”

-Thomas Edison

Media

Animated short “Francis” directed by Richard Hickey, and written by Dave Eggers. From production company CGI Brothers: The story of ‘Francis’ came about interestingly from the famed radio show ‘This American Life’. Broadcaster Ira Glass asked 6 American writers to create a short story about Adventure. One of these stories, written by novelist & screenwriter Dave Eggers, was read on the show to much acclaim and praise. Richard worked with producer Kevin Batten & a team to turn the words into this short film. The film has been shown at Cannes Film Festival and Raindance.

(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for seventh and eighth graders and high school, but please view it before showing it to them; it’s creepy. I will choose another video for my sixth graders when we do this reflection.)

*My students will watch this video once before our reflection on its themes and how they apply to our lives. We always use the  Notice and Note Signposts to analyze character motivation, predict plot, and uncover themes. We are several weeks deep on practicing the signposts, so students will be able to recognize the signposts and ask and answer the signpost questions quickly with this film. (For more information about teaching the Signposts, see “Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment” and “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts“)

Reflection Prompt

  • Francis is a bit of a rebel and lives according to her own terms. The night of her “accident,” there were several points that she should have had, and even might have had but ignored, the gut feeling that she was doing something wrong and possibly dangerous. Eventually, she made too many wrong decisions, gave up, and… well, you know what happened in the end. Why do you think she didn’t listen to her instincts? What do you think she should she have done differently? 
  • We are not in the middle of a lake with no one around to help us get back to shore, but it is a good metaphor for some of the things we struggle with.Think of a time when you struggled to learn something new or with having to do something that seemed so hard that you wanted to give up. What did you do: Give up? Avoid the difficult things? Find a way to keep trying hard? Did you stop to think about what people who care about you would want you to do? Did your “gut” tell you what to do?
  • How can we use the themes in “Francis” in our lives? 

Discussion

  • We’ve inferred that Francis didn’t like listening to the advice of the adults in her life (She was a rebel. She sneaked out of her tent in the middle of the night. She smoked cigarettes- yuck!) Sometimes kids decide not to listen to their parents’ advice, and rely on their friends. If you were giving advice to people in this class on how to become better readers, what would you say?
  • What compliments do you have for each other? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)

 

What types of reflections do you do with students? The more we share, the more we learn!

Friday Reflection: What Can We Do to Support Each Other So That We All Reach Our REAL Potential?

Why Take Time to Reflect?

Reflecting on learning and making plans for success accelerates growth. In our classroom, students reflect on their learning often. We do this at preset points in the process, and we do it naturally when one of us realizes it’s time to take a minute to look at what we’ve been struggling with or accomplished. We also do it every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals.

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a theme relating to one of the characteristics we need in order to overcome adversity, media of some kind, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for us as a group or for individual students. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it, and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Weekly Theme

“Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible.’” -Audrey Hepburn

Media

Animated short Zero directed by Christopher Kezelos. The producer, Zealous Creative, describes the film: In a world that judges people by their number, Zero faces constant prejudice and persecution. He walks a lonely path until a chance encounter changes his life forever: he meets a female zero. Together they prove that through determination, courage, and love, nothing can be truly something.

This film is incredible- it captivated my daughter when she watched it, my students when they watched it, and my colleagues when they watched it! Even if you do not think you’ll use this reflection, I recommend watching Zero!

(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for middle school and high school, but please view it through your students’ lenses before showing it to them; it addresses sensitive social issues. This reflection does not go into depth on these issues, but as students study stereotypes and discrimination the next several weeks, we will use this video as means to recognize the stereotyping and discrimination in our society.)

For younger students, substitute the movie with a book with a similar theme. Oneby Kathryn Otoshi, is a story about accepting each other’s differences.

*My students watched this video twice this week as we discussed the Notice and Note Signposts. We use signposts to uncover the themes the video presents. (For more information about teaching the Signposts, see “Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment” and “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts“)

Reflection Prompt

Zero is born into his place in society and not allowed to break out of it. Eventually, he does bust out because he and his friend believe they are something, they have courage, and they have love.  Looking back on our first 9 weeks of this school year, what have you achieved that seemed impossible in August? Which people in your life and what behaviors and mindsets helped you achieve it? (Consider all of your family members, friends, and teachers.)

Discussion

  • Think about the time we’ve spent together since August, and consider how you’ve grown more comfortable each week. Think about Zero and the challenges he was able to overcome once he met his friend who accepted him. Use your experiences in this class and Zero’s experiences in overcoming his challenges to answer this question: What do people need in order to feel safe enough to learn? *I will ask students if they think it would be valuable to list these things on an anchor chart so that we can see them and think about them daily. Most will think it’s a good idea, and then we’ll have a good part of our learning about how to learn from 1st Quarter right there for us to use during 2nd Quarter.
  • What compliments do you have for each other? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)

 

What types of reflections do you do with students at the end of the quarter or semester? The more we share, the more we learn!

Notice the Tiny Triumphs

We need to celebrate the little things. These little bits of triumph are setting the course for the individual goals, benchmarks,  leaps, and bounds students need to make in order to be real thinkers and readers and doers and changers.

My Top 5 Tiny Triumphs of this School Year:

  1. A student who has hardly spoken until this week, who shook with fear during his first assessment, and who fake-read for a good three weeks (despite all I knew to do to make him comfortable), came to me and said that he thought his book was too easy for him. He wanted to try something harder. HE WANTED TO TRY SOMETHING HARDER.
  2. A kiddo who has made it his school-life’s goal to goof off and avoid all work has repeatedly run into my classroom because he cannot wait to find out what will happen next in our read aloud. I wait to hear that door open every single day. I cannot wait. His enthusiasm is matched by the others
    in his class. I love hearing their loud footsteps down the hallway.
  3. That same kiddo also told a knock-down, drag-out, perfect retelling of our read-aloud to another student who’d been absent… ARE YOU SERIOUS? That was better than I could do! He was my language arts student last year. This year, he’s in a class of 5 reading-intervention students. He is a completely different learner. Frankly, I’m very much the same teacher. What made the difference? *Too much to tackle in one writing.
  4. A student who has a really difficult time forming coherent thoughts, asked this question as we ended our study of schema, “So, is it like if you learn something new, then a new web is made in your brain? Then when you learn another thing new that connects to it, it can stick to make another web?” YES! YES! YES! And now when this kiddo is confronted with new material, he might not turn away. He’ll have an opening to it.
  5. One of my eighth grade classes, filled with kids who weeks ago wouldn’t speak directly to anyone but me and spoke in mumbled whispers for at least the first week of class… who’d also thought liking books and actually reading books was not for them, asked if they could Facetime their absent classmate to show her the two books they’d decided on for our read aloud and ask her which book she wanted to choose. Unfortunately, its against school policy to use Facetime, so I had to say no. WHAT? Not. A. Chance. They Facetimed. Truth be told, I would have looked up her number and handed them my cellphone if one of them hadn’t had her number.

Not Without Worry

I could go on with triumphs, but I won’t. Our triumphs are not without worries and failures. One night this week, I stood in our school book room talking with my friend about the issues I noticed with my eighth graders. Another night, a friend and I talked about our seventh graders. She said that she knows when kids are struggling that she needs to hold up a mirror and figure out what she’s doing wrong. And I joked that sometimes I want to pound the mirror against my forehead a few hundred times. In another meeting, I laughed and laughed with someone who only came to our school this year, but who thinks about kids and struggles with ideas, and asks for thought like all of the rest of us. We all struggle, every single one of us reading this, and we all have moments we can celebrate. In fact, I was just stopped in the hallway by a friend who told me that a kiddo we share (Kiddo from #1 T.T.) went from 2/20 on a vocabulary quiz last week to 11/20 this week. Is there still work to do? Yes. Approaches to figure out? Yes. Should we even celebrate growth that still amounts to an F? Yes. Yes. Yes.

Focus on Growth

I also want every teacher to know that the fact that I could have gone on with positives is most certainly the result of a decision I made long ago. At that point in my life, I needed to look for positives. It had nothing to do with teaching, and everything to do with the very most important part of life: family. When I was much, much younger than I am now, and my family would talk about positive mindset and focusing on the good, I thought that that mindset was “living in fairy tale” and unrealistic. But years later, I needed that mindset, and it worked. In about a thousand positive ways, it worked.

The five little bits of happiness listed above are not the end-all. I have not grown lifelong readers yet. But we have planted seeds. And if I focus my energy on the growth, then they’ll focus their energy there too.

 

 

 

 

This I Know: On Becoming a Reader

Next year, I’ll begin a new role in our school as a Literacy Specialist.  Initially, this position entailed teaching one class of partially-proficient readers at each grade level (the readers we know as “bubble kids” because they are right at the edge of being proficient).  When I use this term, I always picture being able to fill that sweet “bubble kid” up- with enough enthusiasm, skill, and inertia- to let them pop to the other side of the chasm which is cut between partially-proficient and proficient readers. My principal, assistant principal and I had planned on having the rest of my time spent in classrooms working with small groups and with teachers.  Sounds perfect, right? It’s my dream job. It always has been.

But it didn’t feel right.

If the bubble kids float over the chasm with my help, what do the other kids do? Sit and watch. Stare. Ignore us? Cope? Yep. They do all of those things as they realize they’re being left behind. We hadn’t planned on leaving them behind.  We have interventions in place and we have skilled teachers who individualize and differentiate as students need, but it still didn’t feel right. The need is too high.

Luckily, my assistant principal and I both felt this “not right” feeling at just about the exact right moment, so there was no time wasted trying to convince the other person of what we needed to do: We’d fill my time with our kiddos who are hanging out on the wrong side of the chasm.

That felt right.  But then I panicked!

I do not just want to try to help these kids.  I will not just help them. I will make them readers. Period. End of story, as my dad always said.

That’s really not that hard of a task with most of our non-readers, right? A good classroom library, book talks, targeted instruction, conferring, goals, progress monitoring, teacher enthusiasm… In 13 years, I can’t think of a kid who didn’t have that aha moment we all had when we realized that we love reading.  I still remember my own aha when I was in seventh grade and read The Outsiders with my teacher’s guidance. Then I went on to read And Then There Were None and Lord of the Flies the same year. My reading enthusiasm fluctuated for years until I was in college, when reading became a staple. I know that all my non-readers leave me with a newly uncovered appreciation for books, and many realize they actually love books. I know that that love either dies or flies as their lives change. I’m good with that. But until next year, the majority of my kids have come to me reading at the 25th percentile and higher. Next year, the game is changing.

I’ll need to instill a love of reading with these kiddos who can’t even see the chasm from were they stand.  If the chasm is halfway between here and there, these kids have only seen others attempt the crossing and assumed that they aren’t up to the challenge.  These kiddos have spent all of elementary school not being able to read. Many of them have come to hate reading because they can’t read- it’s not fun, it’s too hard, it’s embarrassing. It breaks my heart, and I won’t have it. So, we’re going to try something different.

This is what I know about becoming a reader:

  1. We learn to love reading on the laps of those we love.  Picture yourself reading as a child. What is the lighting like?  Where are you sitting?  Who is with you, and how do you feel with them?  Is there soft music in the background?  Is someone cooking
    Dad and Brady reading
    My dad and Brady (at 11 months) reading

    dinner? Humans associate. We can’t help it.  It is our nature. I know that I need to recreate this safe, comfortable, exploratory environment for my very lowest readers. What will I do? I’ll take my alternative seating further.  My classroom will look like a family room. I talked with my principal today about ordering rocking chairs. You have to love this: His only question was, “We can do that. I mean, it’s not like you want thirty, right?  Just a few?”  I also talked with him about having a large, round table (much like the kitchen table we all grew up around) for our book groups to meet. I’ve never had a typical classroom setting, but next year, I’m giving it my all. I will do everything I can to help these kiddos correlate learning to read with comfort, kindness, safety, and companionship.

  2. We learn to love reading because someone let us pick books ourselves. Picture yourself reading as a child. Where were books displayed?  Who was in charge of
    Ryder Reading
    Ryder (at 1) choosing books

    taking care of the books? Who was in charge of buying books? When I was growing up, we had books everywhere. There were books on shelves, in piles, under our beds, on my parents’ bedroom shelves. We got to choose what was read to us each night, and as we began reading ourselves, we got to choose which books we read. As a teacher, this has always been nonnegotiable for me. Kids will choose their own books. I read a ton of YA LIT so that, if needed, I can match books to readers in terms of interest, level, or etc. But they’ll choose their own books. Period. End of story.

  3. We learn to love reading because someone showed us reading is loved.  I vividly remember trips to our library with our dad: My dad is shuffling through each of our library cards, with the librarian grimacing, because we have too many books OUT and
    Brady books sleeping
    Brady (at age 3)

    LATE on this card or that card! My dad, my siblings and I parade out the sliding doors with armloads of books. I also remember my Grandma Phyllis reading to us the nights we spent at her house. Grandma Phyllis cherished books. Ah! The way she read, her interest in spending time on each page of a picture book, letting us each share one detail we noticed… Period. End of story.

These moments! Picking our own books, keeping books far past their due dates, books piling and spilling and left under our beds! These showed me that books are important.  I really don’t remember my dad ever telling me books were important.  I remember him reading.  I remember my mom, my dad, and my grandma reading to us.  I remember my older sister reading, reading, and then continuing to read more.  I remember worrying that I was “not a reader” until seventh grade when I found chapter books I loved. I remember wondering “am I really a reader” until I went to college, when I had the ability to reflect, slow down, and remember all of my reading moments.

I’m not panicking anymore- at least not at the same level.  Now, when I meet my kiddos who can’t see the edge of that chasm, I know what I need to do to help them build their bubble. And I know what I won’t do: I won’t start with formative assessments so that I can determine where they are and what they are lacking.  I won’t show them all of our books and ask them to find one they like. I won’t put them through the awkward “get to know you” games. I won’t even tell them how incredible books really are. Nope.

I will welcome them to our space. I will ask them to come sit so I can read to them.  And I’ll smile a lot. Read and smile. And when they come back the next day, I’ll read and smile. And read and smile and talk. And guess what? About three or four days in, someone will look over at our bookshelves. Someone will ask about our books. Someone will wonder if they can look at them. And then we’ll have our reader beginning.  Just like I did. Just like you did. They’ll discover books.

P.S. Once they’ve done that, I’ll formative assess their little hearts out.  I’ll show them books.  I’ll ask them to find ones they like!  I’ll tell them how incredible books are!  But only after they’ve had a new reader beginning. Period. End of story.

Are you interested in reflecting on your own reading evolution in the effort to help students understand theirs? These reflection questions will help you begin:

  1. What are your earliest memories of reading? Do you remember reading before you could read words? Who read with you? How often?
  2. Did anyone in your family or close circle read often? What did they read? What did you learn from watching them?
  3. Think back to when you began school. What was reading instruction like? How did you feel about it?
  4. What reading experiences stand out as important to you? Positive or negative, these will give you insight into what students might need.
  5. What did you need from a teacher when you were a K-12 reader? If you were ahead of the class, what did you wish your teacher would do for you? If you were behind, what did you need? If you right in the middle, what were you wanting?

I’d love to hear from you as your think through these questions. Let’s keep this conversation going.

60 Books in 6th Grade

This year I decided to do something kind of crazy:  I asked my 6th graders to attempt to read 60 Books in 6th Grade!  I based the idea on Donalyn Miller‘s work in her book The Book Whisperer. I liked the seemingly insurmountable challenge Miller described,  but I wanted more kids to be able to access the varying genres without being frozen with fear by book length.  I co-teach LSS (learning support services) and ELL (English-language learner) classes, and I have many kids who enter sixth grade with reading scores below grade level. I needed to make Miller’s challenge appear a bit more accessible, so I lowered the number of chapter books and increased the number of overall books!

Miller is adamant that teachers not change the book challenge in ways that negate its original purpose; she writes about this in a blog post titled The 40 Book Challenge Revisited. I read her book ages ago, and I’d felt like I’d found my kin.  The reason I’d connected to Miller’s ideas was her main message: Find what you love to read. Read a lot. Those aren’t Miller’s words, but that’s what I gather from her work, and it was just what I needed to hear since I’d struggled with “being a reader” until I was in college.

Another way to illustrate the purpose of Miller’s work is this: This year, I did the 60 Books in 6th Grade Challenge along with my students. Guess what? I did not read 60 books, although some students did. What did I do? I read more than any other year of my life. I found a lot of new authors I like. I realized I like science fiction. That’s HUGE!  And it was huge for my readers to see me grow with them.

Believe Me- This is not as crazy as it sounds!

In today’s high-stakes testing environment, many companies have developed computer-based reading programs that promise to increase test scores.  Yet we all know what students really need to do to improve reading skills: They need to read.  And read.  And read.   Students need access to a variety of books, they need targeted instruction, and they need time to read.

That idea alone is what makes 60 Books attainable.  Students spend a lot of time reading in 60 books quote 2my classes.  The 60 Books log helps them track which genres they read most, it is a record of author’s they prefer, it asks them to step out of their comfort zone and try new genres, but does so by including picture books as an introduction to the various genres.

Believe Me- They’re all reading more!

Some teachers have asked how I make sure students don’t lie and just fill in book titles. The truth is, there is no reason for them to lie.  This assignment isn’t worth points.  We talk a lot about the fact that it really doesn’t matter whether you get to 25, 40, or 60.  What 60 books class photomatters is that this year we are reading more than any other year of our lives! Students feel really good about that! Challenge by choice is a perfect term to describe this assignment- Students are given the task of reading 60 books of various genres and lengths. Students decide how far to take it! The only “requirement” is that students go further than they ever have before!

And you know what?  They are reading more!  We all have students who are shocked because they suddenly realized that they love to read.  When the appropriate structures are in place, students do unearth a love for books.  Yet, 60 Books was a game changer in my teaching and in student growth.  Students have noticed themselves changing as their book logs got longer and longer, and now they realize that attempting to accomplish something that seems really overwhelming and out of their league, can actually happen.  They just need support, time, materials, perseverance, and a plan to get it done.  Intrigued? I hope so.

5 Tips to Help:

  1. Designate independent reading time every day.  Period.  Don’t get rid of it when time is short and you feel like something has to give.  Time to read is exactly the one thing we can’t give up.
  2. Schedule extended reading time once or twice a month. This time should be set aside just for 60 Books!  (Our school has shortened class periods about once a month BeFunky Collagedue to PLC meetings, so we used these days to celebrate our successes and look into what we still had to accomplish on our 60 Book logs.)
  3. Talk about the 60 Books log often.  As soon as a student says they’ve finished a book, celebrate, and ask if they’ve added it to 60 Books.  When a student is looking for a new book to read, ask them to open their 60 Books log and help them narrow down which genre they want to try next.
  4. Talk about effort and honesty often. All year long, discuss that getting to 60 is not exactly the point. The purpose is to read more than ever before, to discover new genres, and to learn about and reflect on reading habits.
  5. Do 60 Books along with your students. This is a huge challenge- there is no way around it. Even when we focus on growth, even with all of the support we give students, this is a big challenge! So, I did my own 60 Books log. I shared my reading challenges- like having to read science-fiction!  I shared my choices- books I knew they’d love too. Seeing me attempt this task alongside them, helped make it real.

If 60 Books in 6th grade (or 40 Books in 4th grade…) seems like a challenge worth your time, please let me know how it goes!  If you run into trouble, I’d be happy to troubleshoot with you.  I can say with all honesty, this task was worth every minute we spent on it.  Kids are really proud of how far they’ve come!