Slice of Life: Reading Community #sol14


Yesterday I was reading some letters the students in my children’s lit course wrote to me about their learning goals for this semester. Most students wrote that they want to learn how to get children excited about reading.

There was one sentence in particular that stood out to me:

“I want to make reading as exciting as Mr Sharp did in that video.”

On the first day of class, I showed two videos from Mr. Sharp’s classroom: Mr Sharp Loves Reading and his students’ reaction to the announcement of Mr Jonker’s and Mr Schu’s top 5 list. We discussed what had to happen in that classroom between the first day of school and that day in December when two librarians announced their favorite books of the year and Mr. Sharp’s students exploded out of their desks with excitement. Thanks to the glimpses Mr. Sharp shared of his Michigan classroom, my pre-service teachers in Chadron, Nebraska, have a new vision of what they’d like to happen in their own classrooms.

I tweeted about this learning goal letter, and Mr. Sharp responded:

Sharp tweet

I don’t think it’s that hard either, but believe me, this advice is going to mean a lot more coming from Mr. Sharp than it means coming from me!

I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about what turns a classroom of kids, some of whom don’t like to read, into passionate and excited readers. I see my elementary teacher friends on Twitter creating these kinds of classrooms, year in and year out.

When I was a high school English teacher, there were certain things about growing readers that I was very good at–and certain things I didn’t understand at all.

The good?

  • I was a teacher who read YA lit voraciously and modeled an engaged, even passionate literate life
  • I sat down to read with my students
  • I believed that ALL teens want to read and will read when given time, choice, and access to good books
  • I surrounded kids with books they wanted to read
  • I was a great book matchmaker, putting “just right” books directly into kids’ hands
  • I gave students time in class to read

The not so good?

  • We didn’t talk much about the books we were reading independently
  • I was usually the only person who book talked or recommended books
  • I didn’t conference with students consistently

I worked individually with readers, and the success of reading workshop in my classroom largely depended on the force of my personality and will. Because there was no community and students were so dependent upon me and access to my classroom library for their reading lives, there was no transfer. The students who were not readers before they came into my class did become readers–but only for the span of a school year. Once I was not acting as their personal book matchmaker, they stopped reading. Books had not become part of the fabric of their lives.

This bothered me greatly. I didn’t want students to read only in my classroom or only for the year I was their teacher. I wanted lifelong converts. And I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, why I wasn’t achieving that goal.

I could have diagnosed one of the problems in my classroom easily enough had I thought to look to my own reading life to see what was missing for my students. Conversation. Connection. Community.

Or I could have reread my James Britton, who wrote the most elegant metaphor for this in 1970: “reading and writing float on a sea of talk.”


That’s what a reading community is: a sea of talk about our literate lives.

It’s clear that Mr. Sharp creates a rich and meaningful community within his classroom. Books are part of the life and fabric of all aspects of their learning, thinking, and communicating. But the reading community Mr. Sharp creates for himself and his students is so much bigger than just their classroom. Mr. Schu and Mr. Jonker are part of that community, as are the many other teachers and librarians in Mr. Sharp’s own reading community, who share and talk books on Twitter, on their blogs, and when they see each other at conferences. As are the many authors who visit Mr. Sharp’s classroom for Skype visits or who respond to his students’ comments about their books or who simply loom large in the imaginations of his book-loving students. I could imagine other participants in this reading community too–the parents of Mr. Sharp’s students, other members of the school community, former students.

The classroom is only a small part of my own reading community, which extends around the world, thanks to blogs and Twitter. My community feeds my reading life in so many different ways.

I work with pre-service teachers, and my goals are to help them, first, develop an engaged, meaningful, even passionate literate life for themselves and, second, to use their literate lives as the foundation for their work in the classroom with their own students.

It’s easy to figure out how to do some of this. Finding books you love, creating classroom libraries, finding time for yourself and your students to read, managing and organizing workshop, using your observations about your own literate life to develop curriculum. These are things I can teach, almost step by step.

But teaching someone how to create a reading community for themselves and then for their students is harder. There is an art to creating community, a feeling out and muddling through process that’s not always easy to articulate. What works for one group of people may not be as effective next time with another group. A community is something alive. You don’t create it once and then you’re done. It’s something you work at in your life and in your classroom every day.

I’m exploring different ways early in the semester to create community in my literature classes:

  • Shared reading experiences
  • Lots of conversation in class
  • Extending conversations to Twitter and blogging
  • Responding to each other’s tweets
  • Commenting on each other’s blogs

The ultimate goal is to create a reading community that isn’t solely dependent on me, where students have a community with each other that can continue once the semester is over and where people who aren’t in our classrooms can also be part of the community.

8 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Reading Community #sol14

  1. Getting a master’s in English (one class at a time) was kind of a four-year book club for me. I’m back in school now to re-tool for a new career field, but i also like being in a space where ideas are discussed.

    I like this post and I like the idea of community for readers. My experience and reality, though, is different. With the exception of school, reading and writing (for me) are solitary activities. There are times I wish I could talk about something in depth, but usually I pick up another article, another book.

    • Great point, Tim. This is something I meant to include but decided the post was long and inconclusive enough as it was! But I think when I started teaching high school, I thought of reading & writing as solitary acts for myself. In retrospect, I think that’s a partial truth. But my reading & writing lives are securely in place–I can go through long phases of having no community to sustain me, and I will still read & write and lead a rich literate life. I don’t think that dormant or emerging readers can build and sustain literate lives without becoming part of a community that values and encourages those activities. Anyway, this is my new theory and I’m trying to figure out how best to explore it in my classes this semester. In Adolescent Lit this semester, for the first time ever, I have one student who doesn’t consider herself to be a reader. And I’m absolutely fascinated by the experimental possibilities she presents! In Children’s Lit, the majority of students don’t read regularly for pleasure outside of class.

  2. I think you’ve also been right in saying that each group is different, and one just must feel the way that it’s going to go, and support that, empowering everyone to be the builder! Nice to hear all that you are doing to help these coming teachers. They should be thrilled with your class!

    • It’s much more challenging and difficult to build community than I thought! I’d really like to build a community that can last when students are no longer in my class, but I really don’t know how possible that is.

  3. Pingback: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? 2/3/14 #imwayr | the dirigible plum

  4. Pingback: Community and reading and writing and teaching | A Semester Tour of Adolescent Lit.

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