OK, Radical Nation, here’s a simple question for you: Do you believe that there is a fundamental difference between developing kids who CAN read and kids who WANT to read?
And here’s another question: Which of those two buckets would YOUR district, school or classroom fall into? Are your practices and processes around reading instruction sparking a love of reading in kids — or have your practices and processes become so directive and scripted that kids might master the skills necessary to read and then never willingly pick up a book again?
Those ideas have been roiling through my professional circles lately, sparked originally by this Kylene Beers quote:
— penny kittle (@pennykittle) June 25, 2018
And this Pete Caggia response:
This is the problem with pre-packaged curriculum. We’re making kids read but not making them readers. If kids can read but don’t, what have we accomplished? #wonderwake #projectlitchat @ProjectLITComm https://t.co/7NZk70mUYm
— Pete Caggia (@pcaggia) June 25, 2018
My guess is that if we asked kids, they’d tell you that they can’t stand reading. Here’s why: It’s become the ultimate “carrot v. stick” subject in our schools.
Everyone — the students in our classrooms and their parents and their teachers and their district level leaders — knows just how high the stakes are when the end of grade reading exam is administered each Spring.
Newspapers and political commentators eviscerate schools with high percentages of struggling readers. Schools are labeled “Fs”, a scarlet letter that brings with it higher levels of public scorn and external supervision. And educators respond, retaining kids who are struggling with reading — or forcing them into extensive summer remediation programs, or stripping away their elective periods and choice activities to deliver extra interventions when their marks aren’t high enough.
We also respond by turning reading class into a clinical experience.
We teach kids to annotate text and to apply active reading strategies — and then require them to make a thousand annotations every time that they read, and then we grade their annotations, sending the message that the primary purpose of reading is to earn points. We require kids to dissect every passage, looking for author’s purpose or analyzing word choice or looking for implied meaning. We sit kids behind computer screens for hours on end, reading prompts and answering questions all in the name of “progress monitoring” — or more insidiously, “personalized learning.”
So how DO we develop a love of reading in our students?
My buddy Pete Caggia — the librarian at my school and the mind behind The Ones We Needed — has convinced me that developing a love of reading in our kids depends on our ability to get the right book into the hands of the right kid at the right time. Here’s why: Convincing kids to love reading depends on helping kids to realize that books can change who we are and what we think about ourselves and about others. They give us chances to see ourselves — and others — in new ways. They can challenge us and inspire us and reassure us.
And here’s the thing: No scripted curricula or adaptive computer program can get the right book into the hands of the right kid at the right time, y’all.
That’s YOUR job — and it’s your unique strength. YOU know your kids — their needs, their fears, their hopes, their challenges. And YOU know books — their themes, their characters, their conflicts, their resolutions. That means with a little deliberate effort, YOU can play matchmaker — recommending a title to a kid that can reignite the love of reading that has been lost as we march students through experiences that sell reading as a skill to be mastered instead of a lifelong practice to be cherished.
To help you, I’m going to start another series here on the Radical called Read Smarter.
My purpose is simple: I want to spotlight books that I’m adding to my classroom bookshelf because I know that they are the right title for some of the kids in my classes. I also want to tell you the stories of the successes that I have — the times when I succeed in changing a child’s view of reading by making the right recommendation at the right time.
And my hope is simple, too: I hope that some of you will add my recommendations to YOUR bookshelves, too — and work to get those titles into the hands of the kids in YOUR classrooms. Together, maybe we can turn reading into something that kids love to do again.
So here’s my first recommendation: I think you should have a copy of All of the Above by Shelley Pearsall on your bookshelves.
It’s often sold as a great STEM read because it tells the fictional story of a group of kids who start a math club that is determined to set a world record by building the largest tetrahedron — but I think that description sells this book short.
All of the Above is REALLY about is the hopes and dreams and challenges of kids and families that live in high poverty communities — and I know that the kids in my classroom are going to be able to identify with someone in the story.
They may see themselves in James, who lives with his uncle. He fends for himself a lot because his uncle has to work hard to keep a roof over his head — and he’s heartbroken when he has to move away unexpectedly because his uncle struggles to pay the bills one month.
Or they may see themselves in Rhondell, who lives with her mother — a nurse that works long days to provide for her daughter and an anchor in her community and for her family. The stability that she provides for the people around her is an inspiration to everyone — evidence that success is possible in spite of the cards that life may deal you.
Sharice — who remains determined to learn even after spending most of her life hopping from foster family to foster family — may look familiar to some of my students. Or they may see themselves in Marcel, who has to work after school in his father’s barbecue restaurant in order to help provide for his family.
And for my students who have never experienced poverty, All of the Above might just be the window that they need to better understand the challenges that some of their peers wrestle with on a daily basis.
I know that it served that purpose for me. It was Ghost meets Wonder — and it left me determined to never second guess the commitment of the kids in my classroom who come from our toughest communities.
Long story short: Pick up All of the Above. I promise you that it will be the right book for someone in your classroom this year.
Related Radical Reads: