Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Book Whisperer

When I was in elementary school, I was not a reader. My ADHD and LD made it challenging to learn to read. I was the epitome of a struggling reader. In fourth through sixth grade, my mother bought me a subscription to the Scholastic book of the month club. She continued it because those were the only books I read. Scholastic had hit upon a winning formula for me: a mix of fiction and non fiction selections that were short so I could read all the material in a month and feel like I had accomplish something. Even that did not make me a reader. It wasn't until the summer after seventh grade that I discovered reading as a way to escape the chaos that characterized my childhood home.

Fast forward to my adulthood. When my son was an infant I read books of nursery rhymes and poetry. I set a goal of memorizing two a day. My current repertoire is huge. As he grew we read constantly. I had a rule where I would read a book only once a day. Then once a week. We read as many as twenty books a day sometimes for as long as 45 minutes at a time. He loved being read to.  When he was 3 he could recite all of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel as well as dozens of other books.

When my daughter was in kindergarten she was assigned the task of counting all the books in our house. She is a rule follower; her teacher said all, we had to count all. I taught her about multiplication. I figured the teacher's goal of practice counting would be achieved by counting all the books on one shelf and then counting all the shelves. We missed some in the basement and kitchen and ended up with nearly 5000. I read. A lot. And I like to own the books I read.

Donalyn Miller's Book Whisperer blogs and articles have intrigued me because I see her as a kindred spirit. Her book, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, has been on my to do list for a while. Over break I finally read it. Mrs. Miller teaches sixth grade in Texas. In her class, she devotes time every day to free choice, independent reading. Her results are that every child in her classes passes their state tests. Even the struggling students. She perceives her job is to develop a community of readers, of individuals who enjoy reading. She sets a goal that each student reads 40 books a school year. This is an ambitious goal that not all students reach, but every student reads more in school with her than they did in previous years. Most read more than they have ever read before.

She acknowledges that students come to her as a variety of reader types: developing readers (struggling readers), dormant readers (reluctant readers) and underground readers (want to read but do not do so in school). She uses these labels because they are less negative than the more traditional ones. She surveys students at the beginning of the year to identify reading behaviors and interests so that she can point students towards books that might interest them. Her classroom is full of thousands of books, most of which she has purchased herself. She takes the surveys and develops preview piles for each student. As she gets to know her students better, she continues to refine the idea and encourages her students to build preview piles themselves. This means that Mrs. Miller has read all these books and works to ensure that students are presented with ones that are likely to inspire. This is a monumental task.

Back when I was in college the big movement was whole language reading instruction. I thought this movement had two challenges. One, most teachers did not independently know the scope and sequence of reading phonics and skills to teach a cohesive plan- especially new teachers. Two, most teachers had not read enough books to be able to identify stories that would be good representative of the key ideas they were trying to teach. Unfortunately I was correct. The pendulum swung and we moved back to an eclectic style of reading instruction. Guides were produced by major publishers to highlight their books and sequences of instruction. I see Mrs. Miller's  approach as one that many cannot follow for similar reasons. Unfortunately too many teachers do not spend time reading so they can make recommendations to students about book choices.

The author talks about closely examining traditional teaching moves and determining if they suit the purpose they are designed for. One example is reading logs. Getting parents to sign off often means parents do nothing about monitoring and ensuring home reading, but sign where their child tells them to. Students who do read are often frustrated by the accountability attempts. After all, as adults how often do we record the amount of time we read or how many pages? We read in bed and not with paper and pencil for recording purposes. We read while waiting for something and are happy for the stolen moments of reading.

Another example she dislikes is the Accelerated Reader program that many schools use. Her argument is that while there is some level of choice, it is very structured- it needs to be at their level, on the list of books the school has tests for, and requires a limited recall of details to demonstrate comprehension. This goes hand in hand with extension activities that follow a book. Make a diorama of a pivotal point, make a poster of important people, a song about the story,... Her preference is to teach a skill- find examples of indirect characterization, imagery, theme in your book as a check for reading. Her move is always to ask if the activity will improve reading more than reading itself. Worksheets and vocabulary activities do not generally rise to this bar.

This book is an easy read with straightforward advice. She anchors her ideas in research and experience. This is not just about her one class. This is about her philosophy- get students to read and enjoy it. Read like adults read. Develop reading skills and vocabulary by reading.

The appendixes are wonderful. They include guidelines for a classroom library, a collection of surveys she uses and a book list from her students. While she acknowledges that any booklist is out of date as it is published, it is a place to start. She encourages exposure to great books off the Newberry list but does not nix novels that many would perceive as junk. Graphic novels are seen as just as valuable for developing reading habits and skills as award winning texts. Once students start reading books they enjoy, they are more likely to read more of different types of books. The key is to get kids to read more.

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