On Oct 9 I published a blog post about my 11 Grade 10 students having finished 10 books. We were so excited that I ordered everyone pizza. They could not believe that they had finished ten books in just over four weeks. I was excited and a little relieved that my crazy “read what you want” book experiment with “lower track” students appeared to be working. (Once again, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s work has really inspired me on this road.)
Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, today I bring you (drumroll…): FIFTY FIVE!
Just take a peek into our classroom:
And look at the readers:
And check out these reader behaviours:
Students are recommending books to each other. As of now, 3/4 of the class has read Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down and one student just convinced another that she “has to” read Carlos Luis Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind.
Students are reading at home. One girl lost phone privileges over the weekend and finished a book!
Students have their next book ready to go. They are developing lists of books they want to read.
Finally, let me tell you what we are reading right now because the sheer variety of levels and topics reminds me of why choice is so important as a motivator for these readers.
Nancy Drew, Amulet, Long Way Down, In Cold Blood, Shadow of the Wind, Tupac’s poetry, The Hate U Give, The Crossover, Skellig, a hockey memoir (forgot the title), The Lovely Bones
They’ve also read Trump’s Art of the Deal, Hatchet, Crabbe, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, 39 Clues, Rupi Kaur’s poetry, another one by Kwame Alexander, One of Us is Lying… and so many more.
So, four-ish more weeks of class, two weeks of Winter Break… We’ll keep reading – and I’m pretty sure that, in the end, we’ll have some readers.
My 10-year-old just wandered downstairs to get a book. Specifically, he came for Calvin and Hobbes. I can always tell when he’s reading Calvin and Hobbes because his giggles infuse the house; it’s not necessarily ideal bedtime reading.
I have no doubt that he wanted the book, but I think he also wanted to know what I was up to because I had refused to read one more chapter tonight even though the title of the next chapter is “The Basilisk” and even though we are pretty sure the dragon has unwittingly settled down for sleep in the basilisk’s cave. (Dragon Rider, Cornelia Funke, in case you’re wondering.) Normally I’m a pushover for “one more chapter,” so he really needed to know what had called me away. What could be more important than reading?
“You’re writing,” he observed nonchalantly, reading over my shoulder. “What do you write about?” I explained the idea of a slice of life and confessed that I was stuck tonight. He had a few suggestions for topics, including favourite books. His faves include the Spy School series and, he thinks, probably the Dog Man series because “even though they’re easy to read they are really funny.” But his favourite of all is The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. It took us a while to read that one aloud, but both of my children were rapt throughout. As he recalled the story, he remarked that he also really loves Witch’s Boy and Iron-Hearted Violet, also by Barnhill. In fact, I think Kelly Barnhill is the first author he has fallen for. He likes his series, but he loves Barnhill for her style and storytelling.
On a whim, we looked up her website – perfect activity for a parent procrastinating writing and a kid avoiding bed. Her tagline reads, “Author, teacher, mom. Newbery medalist. Terrible gardener. Maker of pie.”
“Mom!” he practically shouted, “you’re a teacher and a mom, too. Maybe you could write a book.” He paused, then mused under his breath, “And she makes pies. That’s really good. Grandma makes pies. That’s good.” He leaned in towards my computer and we began to peruse Barnhill’s site.
“She’s writing MORE books! I hope they come soon. I wonder what they’ll be about. I like the titles.” He was so wiggly with excitement that he did a kind of tap dance around the kitchen table. (He will be unhappy if he reads this. He will say he did NOT dance. Twirled around my chair? Moved his whole body with excitement in a little circle?) He stopped, suddenly serious. “Is she a New York Times bestseller? She must be a New York Times bestseller. Can you look?” I asked him why this mattered. “Because that means that so many people like her books. They know about her.” His eyes were starry with the idea that others might have experienced the magic that he knows.
I was about to suggest that we could write to her when I realized that his head might explode at the mere thought. And it was past his bedtime. So tonight I will hold the brimming potential of his excitement in my heart; tomorrow, together, we will write.
Ah, Kelly Barnhill, and all the writers out there, thrilling the hearts of readers, thanks for the magic.
He’s reading! He’s really reading. Just look at this picture – reading at the breakfast table this morning, ignoring his pancake.
I actually had to tell him to put the book away. And I’ve had to add “make sure he’s turned the light out” to our bedtime routine. I can’t quite believe it.
Eric has dyslexia. We knew something was not quite right by the end of Grade 1, but we couldn’t put our finger on it. He was in the highest reading group in class, but he regularly “read” without looking at the pages. He learned many things quickly and easily, but he didn’t like school and he just couldn’t seem to get along with his teacher. This made no sense: she was experienced and beloved by many; he was funny and eager. They hit an impasse and, bless her, she just kept saying “I don’t know what it is, but something isn’t right.” Finally, despite my misgivings about testing young children, we took Eric for an assessment. And it turned out he was reading at the 3rd percentile for his age. THE THIRD. He was fake reading all over the place.
We are incredibly lucky that we figured this out early. I learned about dyslexia and found a tutor who uses a researched method with proven outcomes (The Barton method – Orton Gillingham based). She’s amazing and Eric, the trooper, has rarely complained about two hours of tutoring a week. Still, frankly, the progress has been slow. I know that the tutoring is not simply supposed to teach him to read but rather to actually rewire his brain so that reading becomes easier, and I know that takes time, but knowing something and believing it are two different things. In grade 2, he read dutifully with me every evening but nothing else. This summer he basically avoided reading altogether. I was beginning to despair.
And then, three weeks ago, he picked up a book and read it. The whole thing. He stayed up until 10pm. I was on my way to bed when I noticed his light on – talk about a shock! He was three pages from the end and so excited when he finished that he couldn’t go to sleep. The next day he read the second book in the series.
Soon, confidence growing daily, he enlisted others. He read out loud on the couch to his brother. (Thomas was really encouraging: “Wow! That was a big word! Good job, Eric!”) He told a friend about his reading, and the friend showed up at our house with the rest
of the Dog Man series and a new series to start. Unbeknownst to me, Eric devised a reading plan. Dog Man => Bird and Squirrel => Bad Guys => something? => Wings of Fire. Wings of Fire is his ultimate reading goal. He watched his brother read it two years ago and, apparently, has been desperate to get to it *by himself*. He has every book in the series lined up on his bookshelf, ready to go. And until he gets there, he’s planning to read all the time. Which explains the reading at breakfast. And after school.
And here he is in the car in the driveway, reading in the backseat, refusing to get out.
On Friday, we unboxed the books. Brand new, hardcover books.
“These are for us?” asked one boy, incredulous.
“Yes!” I laughed, “but you have to give them back.” He made a funny face and shook his head a little, dismissive of my excitement. Why would he keep a book?
“Can I use the stamp?”
“Can I choose the number for mine?”
“Yes!” I said yes over and over. Yes, these are for you. Yes, they are new. Yes, you can stamp them. Yes, you take them home.
“This book sure has won a lot of awards,” marveled a boy near the front.
“How’d you even get these, Miss?” asked another student, turning his brand new book over in his hands.
I laughed again, “I begged, borrowed and stole!”
His face got serious. “You didn’t steal, Miss. Don’t say that.”
I took it back. I should know better than to joke about stealing.
On Friday, we started reading Jason Reynolds’ novel in verse, Long Way Down. I had offered the class several options for reading – book clubs, individual choice, whole class – and they told me flat out that they would never read a book on their own. “No point in that,” muttered M.
We’ve been reading all semester, but always short pieces. In general, my students are a little wary of my ways, but they were willing to try poetry with me last month, so I knew we were making progress. Still, they were nervous about reading a book, like maybe I’d gone a bridge too far – a whole book. Some of them are enthusiastic readers, but many of them haven’t read a book for years. When I told them that I would NOT read the entire book out loud, one boy looked down at his desk, shook his head and made a loud “tsk” sound. “That is NOT gonna work.”
And then came Jason Reynolds. Actually, first came the discussion about a shooting death in the neighbourhood. I was shocked to learn that gun violence is a part of so many of my students’ lives, then I was surprised by my own shock. (That’s a reflection for another post altogether.) Then I got upset because I realized how little support these students were receiving for their reality (also a reflection for another time). I had a long talk with the (amazing) EA who works in my classroom who insisted, “That book you’ve been telling me about is the right book for this class.” And she issued a challenge: “If anyone can get them that book, it’s you.”
So I begged. I told the principal I would buy half with my own money. I talked about the awards, the subject matter, the poetry. I told him about our progress, the growth, the learning. I found other pots of money. Finally, I said, “I have to teach these kids this book right now. I just have to.” Hats off to my principal and our Student Success teacher: they bought the books.
On Thursday I gave the students photocopies of the first few pages. “AW! It’s more poetry,” groaned one kid. But they tried it. We used the same technique we used with Nikki Giovanni’s kidnap poem a few weeks ago: students wrote back to the text right on the paper. They asked questions, made comments and generally had their say. When we shared, they had made lots of inferences and had plenty of evidence to back them up.
Friday was the new books. After everyone had one, I explained that they could take a few minutes just to read. No set goal, no required number of pages, no plan – just read to see what’s there. My goal was 15 minutes. Boy did I underestimate them.
They would not stop reading. T looked up after ten minutes and said, “Can we read as far as we want?” I nodded, he gulped some air and dove back into the book. S turned around and said, “Did you get to the part where he took the gun yet?” H nodded and kept reading. Silence. No phones. No sleeping. Eventually, one student lost focus, and I decided to stop them before the magic spell broke: “Hey, let’s take a break and see what we’ve discovered so far.”
They took a break, talked about the book, started to do the activity… and then I noticed that one, two, three kids had snuck back to their books. Then another. I asked if they wanted to just go back to their seats and read. “YES!” So we did.
As class came to an end, I found two kids surreptitiously trying to slide the book into their backpack. “You’re allowed to take it home if you want,” I said.
One book went right into the backpack, but T hesitated. Finally, he put it back, “I want to make it last a little longer, Miss.”
I have a feeling that, for some of them, this will last for a long time.