Tag Archives: reading culture

The Winds of Change Smell Like Books

Everywhere I look, I see books. bookshelf

Open in the hands of students.

Shared at the hands of teachers.

I’m dreaming about books. Like the pursuit of the one that got away, I am chasing after unopened books in my sleep. Waking in a state of minor panic – When WILL I have time to read all of these books?  I need a prep period just to read. I need an extra hour in the day. I need a sabbatical.

In the days since TTT came to share their wisdom and enthusiasm with the English Department at Franklin High School, literary excitement is wafting through our hallways and it’s all about books, books, and more books.

Students are buzzing about books.

As I walked through the commons a few days ago, I saw one of my AP Language students, Maddie, reading during her free block. I smiled and walked on. Then, I stopped, turned around, and went back to talk with her.

It was the best move of my day.

Sitting on the table next to Maddie was a copy of A Monster Calls (Since I sobbed over this book and poured myself into sharing it  with students in a book talk a few weeks back,  I’ve acquired six copies for my classroom and not seen one of those copies in days. Kids are handing them off in the hallway. Meeting for coffee to discuss. Making their parents read it. It’s beautiful) and in her hands The Girl on the Train. I asked her how it was going. “Ugh! Mrs. Dennis! I can’t read fast enough. I need to meet my reading goal and finish this book so I can start A Monster Calls.”

I almost hugged her.
I hugged her.
Maybe a second longer than was necessary, but I think we had a moment.

Only a few weeks earlier, before I had recommitted to book talks every day and conferring with kids about their independent reading, we had talked in class about how independent reading was going. Maddie had shared that while she likes to read, she wasn’t making time for it. She had been enthused earlier in the year, when getting time to read in class was something new and different, but hadn’t kept up with the expectation to read 2 hours per week.

I was reminded that Penny Kittle says teachers sharing their passion for books is contagious. In this area, I needed to do better.

While I was giving time to read, sharing lists of books to choose from, and piling books on the shelves, I had let my own passion for texts slip away into the haze of curriculum redesign, semester exams, and lesson planning. In essence, I was asking students to make reading matter without me. Not cool.

So, I grabbed a copy of Stiff, by Mary Roach and got reading.

Of course, I couldn’t put it down. Of course, I wanted to tell my kids all about it. So,  I shared my passion in a book talk, we ended up chatting about the use of humor in nonfiction, and my students were reminded that we are a community that makes time for what matters. READbooks

Reading matters.

And our commitment to that as teachers needs to be visible and constant if we are to have any hope in keeping kids enthusiastically discussing what they are reading and reaching for more.

My colleagues are buzzing about books.

I’ve been wonderfully lucky to work with brilliant and passionate English teachers for each of the thirteen years I’ve been in the classroom. In the past two years, I’ve even been lucky enough to be their department leader and do my best in recent weeks to facilitate our move toward workshop.

While we all share the very traditional love of To Kill a MockingbirdPride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby, our passion for reading runs so much deeper. In workshop, it’s our responsibility (and pleasure!) to get kids reading all manner of texts. Not just glancing in the direction of a book, but digesting it.

In short, we know that to get a majority of our students excited about reading, their teachers need to be readers.

Tickled to share a passage, can’t wait to see what you think too, ask a million questions, highlight in multiple colors, adorkable readers. The classics have a role in this, but so do countless other styles, genres, and soon-to-be classics.

Our district has blessed us with a huge surge in classroom library materials in preparation for our shift to workshop instruction. This puts dozens of books in the hands of teachers who are now chatting about Patrick Ness in the hallway between classes, feverishly searching for texts that are suddenly in high demand (Anyone have a copy of Columbine? They are ALL checked out! How about The Nightingale? I’ve got a wait list. With six names on it. For a book)and frequenting Thriftbooks.com to compare how much money they have saved to add even more titles to their libraries.

When in doubt, promote. We enlisted the help of some art students and had a poster made to show how super cool it is to read. A nicer group of people, you will never meet, but this poster says read, or else.

Reading Poster (1)

The students think it’s a riot…and have asked on more than one occasion which books we are reading in the picture.

Mission accomplished.

So, as the wind ushers in both spring and a journey with workshop, let the books come raining down as well. The more I see, the more I want to read. And the more I want to read, the more excited I get to prove to kids that we can all be readers.

How do you keep the beautiful buzz that surrounds books going in your classroom? Please share your ideas in the comments. 




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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