Engaged teacher, Engaged readers…

This is my 7th year teaching in Michigan State University’s Teacher Education Program. I have taught students at almost every phase of the program. Because Michigan State’s program is so large, I often don’t see or hear from my students after I’ve taught them. I think of many of them and wonder how they are doing, what literature they are sharing with their students, and how they are managing their first years of teaching. Today – I got to visit one of those students. It was so amazing for both of us. I looked at her and said, “Do you still have days when you can’t believe you are doing what you love?” She smiled widely and I said, “me too”.

Then, Ms. C lead me to the back of her classroom. “This is the first thing I want to show you.” I walked around a corner to see her classroom library. She told me about how she has built it up so far (books, shelves, book boxes, beanbags) that she has implemented student librarians (“we’re still working out some of those kinks”), and that she can’t wait to meet Donalyn Miller at MRA this year. She has used donors choose to fund numerous projects in her room and is always trying to add more books for her students.

I stayed in her classroom for almost an hour during their “read to self” time. I watched third grade children, some of whom are still learning English, select their own books and read. They read deeply and widely. They read non-fiction books about Penguins and tornados. They read Skippyjon Jones, Clifford, Little Critter, Junie B. Jones, and Froggie. They read picture books, chapter books, and graphic novels. They abandoned books when they needed to, and selected other ones instead. As their teacher walked around the room and conferred with students, I joined in asking them to share with me. Some read outloud to me, some showed me a favorite illustration, and another boy showed me a cookie recipe he copied from Clifford. They were so ENGAGED in reading. And this was after lunch and after recess on a warm day.

Then they each wrote a short “review” of one of the books they had read. Each card included the title, author, star rating, if the book was fiction or non-fiction, and 1-2 sentences about what they liked or what it was about. THEN they booktalked in pairs. Did I mention how engaged they were? How they were asking each other questions and asking to share with me?

It made me think about Donalyn’s newest book Reading in the Wild and her premise that we don’t just want students to read in our classes, we want them to keep reading afterwards. It doesn’t matter their age. This is what I hope for my own teacher education students; that they will be engaged readers in our classes together and then want to help their own students develop as not just competent readers, but also as engaged readers As I looked around the room, I saw that Ms. C had taken time to find a book of her own, sit down next to a student and read. She not only set up the environment, procedures, and instruction for her students – she herself was an engaged reader.

As Junie B would say, “It was a thing of beauty I tell you.”

Book Whispering with Undergrads

The first time I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, I felt like I had found a kindred spirit. The ways that she writes about matching books and readers to increase engagement and interest aligns with my thinking when I was a classroom teacher. It also made me think about how I teach children’s literature to future teachers.

Last semester I incorporated choice into our book discussions (the students also write a paper before each discussion). We all started out reading the same picture books: Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne and The Three Pigs by David Wiesner.  Then I began scaffolding choice by asking them to select between Artemis Fowl and Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel by Eoin Colfer. Next they could select between four different Biographies (Knucklehead by Jon Scieszcka, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, The Voice that Challenged a Nation by Russell Freedman, Charles & Emma by Deborah Heiligman). For our last of five discussions, they could select any realistic fiction book that they wanted to read – the only parameters were that it needed to be children’s or young adult literature and needed to be a “chapter book.” This idea of scaffolding selection to increase interest is thanks to my friend and colleague Laura Jimenez, who was determined to figure out a way to help her students because more engaged readers.

This semester I’m trying something a little different. I adapted the Reading interest-a-lyzer from The Book Whisperer. I wanted to really get a sense of who these 25 readers are sitting in class with me each week. As we begin to learn about different genres, I’m trying to incorporate interest and choice. For instance, this coming week we are going to be talking about biography and historical fiction. Students are reading about the genres from their textbook as well as from Family of Readers (Sutton and Paravano). In addition, I brought two boxes of biographies and historical fiction books to class and asked students to select one to take home with them and read. One goal for asking them to read a piece of literature at the same time as the textbook is that their understandings of the genre will be more tangible. Another goal is that by giving them choice, that maybe they will remember or experience for the first time what it feels like to be really engaged as a reader. While I was gathering books together, I realized that I won’t be able to match up each individual with a book unique to their interest each week (I’m dealing with my limited personal library, and not everyone likes every genre). But I shared with the students that I will match up a book for them personally at least once during the semester, hopefully twice.

This week I was able to give Drawing From Memory to a student who is a graphic design major, and Those Rebels, John and Tom to a student who is a social studies major and read about a review of this title in a blog.

As my pre-service teachers experience engagement and interest with literature, my hope is that in the future, they will remember the feelings of being engaged (or not engaged) readers, and will make a commitment to creating similar connections between their own students and books. In this time of standardized testing and implementing basal reading series, I feel even more strongly about preparing professionally-minded teachers who will work to help their own students become engaged readers. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going!