Drop Everything to Create Readers


"We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” — Franz Kafka

There has been no greater builder of relationships in my classroom than books. Whether we experience a book together, or I give my students choice in independent reading, the greatest side-effect of every book we read in our classroom is getting to know each other through the lens of the characters we connect with and the plot events that tear at our hearts. When a student comes running full speed into my classroom because they just. can't. believe. what. happened. in their book, my heart just about explodes. 

Through the years, I've taught reading in different ways. My methods teacher in my undergrad program introduced me to Nancie Atwell. I started my teaching career completely aligned with Atwell's teaching style. 

However, a few years in, I became quickly jaded. Too many of my students were passing (I heard this exact criticism from colleagues). Students lied about what reading they were doing outside of class (I've used reading logs successfully and unsuccessfully for years). I came up with some pretty awesome programs that worked for some kids; the problem was, I wasn't spending nearly enough time creating a culture motivated by the reading itself.

In the past, I worked to motivate students through grades and prizes more than through the joy of reading itself. When I looked at my students who struggled the most and saw that they still snarled at the sight of a book, I knew I had to shift from a culture driven by the extrinsic to one driven by the mere fact that reading teaches us how to live. 

I reflected on the ups and downs, what worked and what didn't and decided that it was time to drop everything to create readers. Here are the major shifts I made to create a reading culture and build reading relationships with my students: 

1. Drop the reading logs. 

Some of my former students swear by the reading logs I gave them (which, I confess, helps with my guilt that I've changed my program for the better since I taught them). For some kids in my classes, they did work. The problem was that the same kids, week after week, were not reading. 

Students brought in unsigned logs, or worse, they lied on their logs. Parents signed logs in haste, not really knowing if their son or daughter had truly read. Parents worked nights and were not available for signatures. The list goes on...

The most freeing thing I did for myself and for my students was to drop the reading log. 

What I do instead: 

Instead of getting reading logs signed, the focus in my class has shifted to building strong reading habits. I gave my students a reading habits inventory at the start of our independent reading. Similar to a reading log, students tracked their reading quantity, but the focus was not on accountability. Instead, the habits inventory led students to evaluate their successes and challenges in finding time to read. 

The habits inventory (click here to download your own copy) provided me with the narrative behind students' reading struggles and success. It also provided students with an opportunity to discuss what works with reading and what doesn't. I still had readers who barely read outside of class; however, this time instead of writing a zero in the grade book, I was able to use that information to brainstorm better habits with students. 

2. Provide in-class reading time.

Obviously, providing in-class reading time gets kids to actually read. It's a no-brainer. I have always provided 15 minutes... on Fridays. 

A major shift occurred when I sacrificed the first ten minutes of every class period to independent reading. My classes are only 42 minutes long, so taking 10 minutes away from normal instruction for anything is sort of painful for my teacher brain. However, I realized that teaching is not about me. I'm not the star of my own classroom.

Instead, my students feed their brains for the first ten minutes of every class. I spend a lot of this time reading with them. I read my novels; the students ask about them. They hear me gasp or laugh out loud when something crazy happens in my book. When the ten minutes is up, we often talk about what we're reading. 

I also use the 10 minute reading time to quietly peek in on students' reading. I call myself the reading ninja, because my goal is to allow students to get lost in their reading for a short period of time, and the last thing I want to do is interrupt their escapes. Quietly, I'm able to do status checks, record student reading, and reflect on student progress. When our reading time is up, we celebrate the books we've finished (we're averaging 15 a week). We also share any ice-breaking moments that occurred in our reading. 

If I need to encourage, look for better reading habits, make book suggestions, intervene with a struggling student, I can facilitate all of that in class instead of at a reading log check at the end of the week. 

3. I created an atmosphere for reading.

One of biggest changes that I didn't realize would have such an impact was in the atmosphere of my classroom. I've written blog posts about my shift to flexible seating. I am most thankful for that shift when my kids are immersed in books--with their feet up, cuddled into a ball in papasan chairs, or sprawled in the window seat at the back of my classroom. 

I wear nerdy teacher shirts that make reading cool and start conversations (thank you, Target and Amazon). My bulletin boards are covered in book pages. My back windows are covered in post-it recommendations from students. My goal was for students to feel like they are IN a book when they are in my classroom. Transforming this space into a warm, reading nook has been one of my favorite shifts.

4. I started reading more.

I've always been a reader. I've also been spread thin since I stepped into my classroom 17 years ago. This year, I promised myself and my students that we would take on our number one reading nemesis: time. If I want them to drop the phone, turn off the TV, read with their family members running around, read around their sports schedules, then I need to find a way to make it happen, too. 

I'm not home two days a week. Literally, not. home. I have three kids involved in sports. My husband, also a teacher, works a second job reffing soccer and basketball at night. And, I decided to start this blog! *insert audience laughter here*

I know my students have challenges, too. In Reading Habits surveys, their number one challenge is always time. However, we reflect together on the time we have that we don't realize we have. We strategize how to fit reading in the spaces in-between. We also talk about the reality that when we find the books that break the "frozen sea within us," finding time to read isn't so hard. It is then that we become driven by the reading itself. That is the goal. That is always the goal. 

5. We write letters.

The Library of Congress sponsors a contest every school year called Letters about Literature. Through this contest, students learn to write letters to the authors of books that have moved them. Letters are not summaries of the students' reading. Instead, letters are reflections on the impact a book has had on our lives. 

There is no greater gift than to read these letters from my students. Through their letters, I get to really know my students. I get a glimpse into their lives and into their hearts. I get to see, for each one of my kids, how reading has changed who they are and how they see the world. 

Since participating in this competition, I decided to stretch the contest out into less formal, weekly letters that students write to me and to each other. The focus, once again, is not on the content of the book, but on the book's impact on our lives. 

My students have written about how books have helped them understand their own lives, their family members' lives, that kid who gets bullied in school, and their views of history. I've laughed, cried, and reached out after reading letters from my students. Our letters to each other have changed us and our relationships not only with reading, but with each other. 

Through our letters about literature, my students and I have come to view reading and books in a different light. Books are the vehicle of change. They teach us how to live. 

I've written blog posts in the past about reading incentives and logs. I've seen results with both of these, but neither are perfect. This year, my goal was to get back to the heart of reading in the classroom. Through some simple shifts, my students and I are getting closer. 


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