How Can I Create a Culture of Reading?

Guest Post by Alex Murphy. I’m sure Shana, Lisa, and I have a ton of ideas for this new teacher, but we’d like to know your ideas. Dear TTT Reader, please read Alex’s post and share your thinking:

We have a chant in my English I classroom.  Every class before we begin our day’s work, I summon my best Nick Saban bellow and ask my students, “What’s our theme?”

“Stories have power!” they respond, sometimes with gusto, other times a bit more sluggishly.

Regardless of the level of enthusiasm, I have taught the kids to respond this way because I believe it to be deeply, potently true.  Drawing on the teaching of my all-time favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that stories indeed have more power to communicate truth and combat lies than even the best-structured arguments our expositors have to offer.  As Tolkien said in “Mythopoeia”:

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray

from gazing upon everlasting Day

to see the day-illumined, and renew

from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

As Shana Peeples reminded us in her keynote speech at the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts Annual Conference [this weekend], stories—“mirrored truth,” as Tolkien calls them—indeed have power to combat the Doublespeak we hear so often from the halls of power.  “Stories are political tools,” she reminded us.  It is a lesson well worth remembering.

But dearly as I hold these principles about the unmatched power of stories, the Friday afternoon workshop hosted by Holly Genova and Amy Rasmussen convicted me that I have not yet created a culture of reading in my room—a community of readers in which students devour books with purpose and swap stories with joy.  As I listened to Holly and Amy discuss the power that reading choice has in their classrooms, the desire to cultivate a similar culture in my own classroom washed over me.  Indeed, I was inspired to start right away.

It took about seven seconds for my inspiration to dissolve into fear.  I froze, half-way through tossing Monday’s lesson plans off the balcony, as the scenarios hit me one after the other:  What if I can’t convince my students that reading is important?  What if I don’t have time to encourage independent reading and also teach the standards sufficiently?  What if my administrators don’t get on board? What if my own inadequacies as a reader start to show through?   What if I fail?

This is my first year teaching; I don’t even have a decent classroom library.  It feels like an awful risk to undertake a paradigm-shift from assigned reading and direct instruction to instructing through independent reading, especially when the English I STAAR test is seven instructional weeks away. However, if my mission is to convince my students that stories have power, nothing could be more important.  So, to the wonderful educators at Three Teachers Talk, I have several pressing questions:

  1. How should I start the work of creating a culture of reading in my classroom this deep into the year? What should be my first step in the transition?
  2. How can I undertake this shift and still ensure my scholars are equipped to perform well on the skills-based assessments they will take in so short a time?
  3. I want to show my administrators the benefits of this shift while also acknowledging the risks. How should I communicate this plan to them?

Amy and Holly put together a career-altering professional development session this weekend, and now it’s time to capitalize.  Any thoughts you have on the best way to do this will help me.


Alex M.G. Murphy

Alex M.G. Murphy teaches English I and U.S. History in the beautiful community of southeast Fort Worth, where he lives with his wife Rebekah and pit bull Sullivan. He is a graduate of Rice University.



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4 thoughts on “How Can I Create a Culture of Reading?

  1. Erika B. January 23, 2017 at 7:45 am Reply

    Good Morning, Alex…

    Your enthusiasm this Monday morning is contagious!

    With that said, welcome to the Reading Writing Workshop…where miracles really do happen 🙂

    To answer your first question, I always believe that getting books (most often an offensive amount of books!) in your classroom is KEY! Students need to see, touch, open, play with, scan, oggle these books – some that tell their own stories and others that take them to places they never thought they’d go.

    When I was initially starting my classroom library, I (shamelessly) reached out to EVERYONE I knew. That email went viral and the next thing you know, box upon box was showing up at our classroom door with donated books. Here in Brooklyn, we’re huge proponents of the stoop sale, which is where I picked up books (both new and used) within my neighborhood. Library sales are also a way in which I scope out pieces that students will have access too.

    Additionally, check with your administration, there is usually money (that we educators don’t always know about) lurking in the budget to order literature – not class novels per se, but individual pieces (or a few copies) to provide variety. There is always which many educators have had success with. And, Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation is wildly generous with quantity and quality…

    Lastly, you don’t have to read them all yourself either — many, yes. But all? No. Students’ interest in exploring a book together through a Book Talk, when I’m honest about not having read it, is always intriguing. Students ask me how can I know ‘that much’ about a book if I haven’t read it…so that lends itself to the opportunity to show students how to really scope out literature (prior to reading) to see if that particular book is a match for them. It sends them into the world knowing how to look for literature that they will want to explore.

    Wishing you a tremendous rest of the year…and kudos to you for being brave and bold enough to shift gears months into the school year. That, is educating at its best.

    Go get ’em,


    • Erika B. January 23, 2017 at 7:48 am Reply



  2. Amanda Palmer (@AmandaPalmer131) January 23, 2017 at 7:32 am Reply

    Hi, Alex. I am thrilled for you! It is a rare and precious gift to have a “career-altering professional development”, especially in your first year before you have firmly established a teaching identity. I applaud your willingness to take a risk. It exemplifies dedication to your students and our craft.
    For you first question, I believe you rely on your theme to make the shift. Stories have power. Be vulnerable. Tell the students the story of your epiphany and why you know this will make a significant change in their life. Be contemplative and excited. Then, peddle great books through book talks like you hair is on fire. These can be from the school library since your classroom library is still growing. It doesn’t have to be just books, either. Share the great article you read online, the poem that stayed with you all day, a clip of a documentary, etc.
    If you keep your instruction focused on the TEKS and the skills your scholars need to acquire, then the EOC will take care of itself. In your planning, make sure that your conferences and other assessments reach the depth of knowledge of the EOC.
    Finally, create a written plan that highlights the TEKS that you will be teaching as well as how and when you will assess student growth as you grow a love of stories. Have this with you when you speak with administrators. As an administrator, I can tell you that I am more apt to listen when I see a teacher has spent time planning and made sure to align their idea to the needed TEKS. Best of luck to you. I can’t wait to hear how your story continues.


  3. estersohn January 23, 2017 at 7:07 am Reply

    Alex, if I didn’t have much time or much budget, I’d participate in Pernille Ripp’s Global Read Aloud. Read out loud when you have those 3-5 minutes of time.

    You can also try Kelly Gallagher’s Reading Minute

    Good luck! Go Owls!


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