Independent Reading

Part of the classroom library. Photo By Jen Roberts
About fifteen years ago a really smart person, and I wish I could remember who, asked a group of teachers, "What do you want your classroom library to teach your students?"

It was one of those pivotal questions that, as Fitzgerald would say, "I've been turning over in my mind ever since." It was the beginning of my understanding that teaching is implicit as well as explicit. That the way we spend our time says something about what we value, that the way we treat books says something about the importance of reading. What follows from that then, is not a formula for getting students to read. It's an explanation of what I value in my classroom and how I make time, space and resources available to students based on those values.

We read every day for at least the first ten minutes of class. Really. Everyday.  My students think I have a special talent for recommending the right book to them, but really I just know a lot of good books that almost any reader would love. My signature opening question is, "Tell me about the last book you liked." Some of them still fake read, a few still grab the closest book leading to some hilarious choices, but most beg me to extend reading time. "Are we ever going to get to read for the whole period?" is a common question.

For several years now I have "required" students to read two self chosen books for each six week grading period. Sure there are caveats about the books needing to be appropriate for school, but more importantly they should be appropriate for the student. I want students reading books they like.

When I taught 11th grade I insisted at least one book come off of the very long "recommended" list. Most of that was cannon American Lit, but I also used it to slip in titles students would love, but probably not choose without a push, The Life of Pi, Tuesdays with Morrie, The Things They Carried and lots of Toni Morrison. On to the recommended pile I threw recent bestsellers in nonfiction, The Tipping Point, Moneyball, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Book reports suck, but I still want them writing something about what they read, so we use Goodreads and their reviews contribute to a larger reading community. It's not as authentic and "real" as I'd like, but it's better than reading logs, or something without any audience at all. I've written about how I use Goodreads a few times.

I buy a lot of books.  My local library has a great used book sale and I pick up 10-30 books a month that way for under $20. Anything that sold well in the last ten years eventually shows up there and there are lots of classics too.  When I go to NCTE and ALAN I bring home (or ship home) over 100 books, many of which are brand new titles and even advanced reader copies that you can't buy yet. My students love being able to read books that aren't on sale yet.

I have a check out sheet for students who borrow books, but I know many titles never get written down and lots don't make it back to the classroom, despite my nagging. I'd venture to guess that half my former students have at least one of my classroom books. There is no real limit to how many a student can borrow at once, though I start to tease students who have more than seven. Once in awhile I find a book from a former student left in my box in the office. It's always a happy moment.

Okay, if you are still reading you will probably understand why I cover paperbacks in clear contact paper. (Well, technically I train some students to do it for me every year.) This makes the books last so much longer and they look good on the shelf for many years of readers. Obsessive, yes. Effective, also yes.

I'm a realist.  I know all this emphasis on reading and books does not make readers out of all of my students, but I also know there is a significant proportion who read way more than they otherwise would because they are in my class. There is also a portion who come to me without any interest in reading for fun and leave my class with a new appreciation for books and favorite authors they are super excited about. They shake their fists in mock anger and say things like, "You did this to me Mrs. Roberts." and send me angry text messages when the book takes a twist they don't appreciate.

Research has shown  that children do better in high school when they read for pleasure. (Sullivan and Brown 2013)  But I don't need a study to tell me that copious reading will boost long term academic achievement for my students. I know it will expand their vocabularies, broaden their background knowledge, make them more empathetic, and help them connect with other successful readers. I also know it will give them pleasure, transport them away from their daily lives, and show them new possibilities.