Guest Post: Changing the Reading Culture in Our School One Book at a Time

Both Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher have transformed my thinking as a high school literacy coach.  As a former elementary school teacher, I had always used reading/writing workshop, literature circles, and choice in my classroom.  When I transitioned to being a reading specialist/literacy coach in a high school, I really struggled with the whole class novel approach.  It didn’t work for me with the little ones and I saw more and more of my students struggle with it at the high school level.  Attending workshops offered by Gallagher and Kittle, along with reading everything they have written has given me the reassurance and the research that this approach CAN work in a high school.  Here is what has happened at my high school in just six months:


More and more teachers are trying it…

It all starts with one teacher and the support of a department chair.  Last spring after sharing what I learned at Penny Kittle’s Book Love workshop, one teacher decided to drop everything he has been doing in English and take on the “Book Love” approach.  He had so much success getting students to actually read books and improve their writing that two other teachers decided to jump in second term and teach English through choice and mentor texts.  The results were astounding. Word spread at lunch and in our PLCs – students were engaged and excited to come to English class.  Then at the beginning of term three, we had four more teachers jump in.  I am not sure if it was the “positive peer pressure” or hearing about students’ engagement, but little by little teachers have been asking about how to structure their classes in a way to make this work.


Teachers are reading more and talking about books…

At times during lunch teachers used to vent about the struggles they had motivating students to complete the reading from the previous evening, or how students bombed the reading check, but now the conversations are about books. We are talking about what we are reading, what our students are reading, what mentor texts we are using, and what changes we see in our classrooms.

Thanks to one teacher’s organization and determination, staff members are swapping rooms once a week and book-talking to students that they don’t teach.  The other day the principal’s secretary came in to our freshman class and book talked The DaVinci Code.  After she left, I saw that several students had added that book to their to-read list.

None of this would even be possible if our teachers weren’t willing to read new books.  Teachers are setting their own reading goals, keeping to-read lists, creating book trailers, etc.  For the past two years we have had “I am Reading” posters outside of our classroom doors, but this is the first year teachers are updating their posters more often and students are noticing the books.


Our library is busier than ever before…

We have a beautiful library that has a lot of books that just didn’t get checked out.  This year that has changed.  Last year from August until the end of February, only 4821 books were checked out and 63 books were placed on hold.  This year in the same time period 7333 books have been checked out and 137 books were placed on hold.  That is over 2500 more books being checked out and 74 more books being asked to be held.  Why the change?  Student choice!

Students now come to the library with a purpose.  They have a to-read list (some that are pages long) and if all the books they want are checked out, they can give us a good idea of what they want to read next.  As one of our English teachers told me, “They are thoughtful about what they are looking for if they go to the library.”  He doesn’t worry anymore about students going up to the library trying to “leave class” or “waste time.” Another teacher shared how his students “know their favorite authors and/or recognize titles that have been book-talked.”  They are talking to each other about books and recommending new titles to each other.  They are even checking out 2-3 books at a time.

Our library staff is also trying hard to find ways to get books in our students hands.  Our librarian has shared ARCs with classes and spends time in the classrooms promoting tons of books – the new ones and some of the oldies but goodies that haven’t been checked out in a while. The staff has started creating competitions each month to encourage students to read (Abe Lincoln Award voting, March Madness book bracket challenge, etc) new books.  The library is no longer just a place for students to come and get homework done.


Students are reading….

They really are reading and not just the “YA” books that naysayers worry about.  Prior to taking this approach, students came into classes either as students who read all the time (1-2), students who only read assigned books, students who fake read assigned books, and students who didn’t even try fake reading the assigned books.  As one teacher pointed out to me, “As soon as choice became an option, reading, for the vast majority of the students, became fun again!”  They began forming a reading habit that had been lost so long ago.

The issue is no longer trying to get students to read anything. They are reading more consistently than ever before.   Instead of dealing with them reading zero pages in a week, teachers are finding ways to increase student stamina from 50 to 150 pages in a week. That in itself is a huge success.  Students come to class early and start reading their books.  They can even be found reading as they walk down the halls. One boy almost knocked over an upperclassman in his attempt to finish the chapter of his book.  Once a week I co-teach in a freshman English class.  Of those twenty-one students, I think only two students have finished three books.  The rest have read an average of six books in nine weeks (snow days and all). Instead of worrying how to encourage our students to read common texts and pass the reading checks, the challenge is having enough books that interest all of our readers.

Our students ARE challenging themselves – reading more, picking nonfiction, moving up the reading ladder, and trying new genres based on what others have recommended to them. I had one boy in my homeroom start with Hatchet by Gary Paulsen in January and stretched and read Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden for book two.  It was definitely challenging for him, but he didn’t give up on it and was so proud when he finished it.  Other teachers are finding the same thing – students are willingly picking up books from Fitzgerald or Vonnegut, or Hemingway and are able to have real conversations about these books from their perspectives. Students are talking about books with each other AND coming up to teachers and discussing books with them. Because of the location of my office (the library), I tend to do book talks quite often when kids come upstairs and are looking for something new to read.  One of my favorite memories from this winter was a girl who had seen my Goodreads list and made her to-read list off of some of my favorites.  After she finished To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, she asked her teacher if she could come find me and talk with me about it.  She had loved it so much and wanted to thank me for introducing her to that book.These students aren’t afraid of looking smart or nerdy – they are proud.


The culture is changing…

Students are now immersed in books wherever they turn.  Between our March Madness Book Bracket challenge, I am Reading posters, Classroom Reading Trees, the Health class independent reading project, random teacher book-talks, etc. students are reading more than ever before.

Melissa Sethna @msethna23 is a high school literacy coach in Mundelein, IL. She has always had a passion for books, technology, and working with adults. In her free time, she loves to read.  She’s a strong believer in book choice and sharing her joy of literature with her family and students. She says, “I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without my reading heroes: Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, and Donalyn Miller — who inspire me to take risks, and I try to encourage others to do the same.”


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5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Changing the Reading Culture in Our School One Book at a Time

  1. […] more great ideas about creating a culture of reading in your school and your classroom, check out Melissa Sethna’s post on the first steps you can take in transforming a […]


  2. Erika B. March 16, 2015 at 7:45 pm Reply


    Wow! What a transformation taking place in Mundelein, IL. Your thought, “The challenge is having enough books that interest all of our readers” really spoke to me. The beauty of student choice keeps us (educators) on our toes in keeping up with the voracious hunger for new knowledge, story lines, characters that speak to our young readers….and so much more.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us all here on TTT and I look forward to following your progress…and sharp ideas…on twitter.



  3. Curtis Rasmussen March 16, 2015 at 1:22 pm Reply

    Amy! This is brilliant and persuasive like nothing else you could say!

    *Curtis Rasmussen* 469-879-9615


  4. Ruth March 16, 2015 at 9:07 am Reply

    Reading this makes me feel so hopeful. As a recently retired teacher, I am so inspired by these stories. I know students, learning, reading, books, and education are is good hands.


  5. Whitney Kelley March 16, 2015 at 6:33 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Along for the Write.


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