Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild is the title selected for this summer’s #cyberPD event. Reflect & Refine is coordinating this week’s discussion. This is one of my favorite books about teaching reading, and I’m excited to join the conversation this month. I’ve already written about the first two chapters of the book here and here, so I decided to focus my post this week on the ways that I applied Miller’s ideas in these two chapters to a college-level Children’s Literature course I teach to pre-service elementary teachers.
In Reflections on Teaching Children’s Literature, I wrote about the course design as I inherited it and how I planned to revise it to meet what I believe is the most important learning goal for my students. Of course there are many things I want them to learn about children’s literature. But primarily I want them to develop meaningful literate lives, to become, in Miller’s words, wild readers.
“Wild Readers Dedicate Time to Read”
Time was probably the biggest challenge in the course redesign, both in terms of what we spent class time doing and what I asked students to do for homework. The class meets for 2.5 hours a week over 16 weeks. That gives me just 40 hours of face time with students–and that’s if there are no weather cancellations.
In class, I devoted 15 minutes per class session to silent independent reading and 15 minutes for reading aloud. This left just 45 minutes per class for book talks, mini-lessons, discussion, and collaborative projects. This never felt like enough time. We’d just get engaged in a really good discussion when it was time for class to end. Week after week.
But it was a worthwhile trade-off, because the time spent reading together gave students “practice living like readers.” When students started a great book in class, they felt more motivated to read outside of class because they wanted to find out what was going to happen next in their book. We all discovered new books we wanted to read by looking at the stacks each of us brought to read during silent reading time. Reading together led naturally to conversation and book talking, to sharing books, even to reading aloud together in small groups when there was just one copy of a coveted new title (anything Mo Willems!).
But the most important thing I achieved by giving students time to read in class was showing them that teachers have to make time for what we value. We show students what is important not by what we say but by what we do. If we say reading is important but never make time to actually read, we only show students that we don’t really mean what we say. We simply cannot do everything we want to do in our classrooms. We have to make choices. And we should make those choices based on what research tells us actually works to create the kinds of learning environments we envision.
The main homework I assigned students was to read kids’ books for 4-5 hours outside of class. This averages out to about 45 minutes a day of reading, which I don’t think is too much to ask in a college course. (My institution’s board policy requires 135 hours of learning activities per three-credit course. Subtracting contact time in the classroom, students should have 6 hours of homework a week.)
Some students loved this invitation: read whatever you want for four hours a week, as long as it’s children’s literature. Others found it incredibly frustrating not to be told exactly what to do and when. Because there was nothing tangible due each week, some students found it challenging to understand the value of the work we were doing. Some students also claimed they couldn’t find four hours a week to read. That was troubling to me, because I know that if I had assigned papers or projects that required four hours a week to complete, they would have done that work with no issues and probably no complaints.
Several weeks into the semester, I discovered that many students weren’t reading consistently. I was frustrated, and they were frustrated too. Four of Miller’s ideas in this chapter helped us through this rough patch:
Edge time. I put together a quick mini-lesson on edge time and challenged students to find smaller chunks of time in their day when they could read for a few minutes. Students reported that they began reading in the fifteen minutes between classes; while working out; for a few minutes before bed; and while waiting to meet with a professor after class.
Gentle conversation. It was so much more effective for me to have gentle conversation with students about why they weren’t reading than to lecture, nag, fuss, or guilt-trip. I asked students, “What can I do to help you read more?” and they had specific ideas. More time to read in class, more preview stacks, more recommendations, more book talks, more frequent check-ins.
Book emergencies. I challenged students to have a book on their persons at all times. One student demonstrated how she downloaded Overdrive onto her phone and checked out ebooks to read. Many students began using their phones to check out library books and read after that.
Community. The more students shared their reading lives with each other, the more reading they did. They were open to taking advice from each other and reading books recommended by classmates, and they enjoyed solving each other’s problems and encouraging each other to read more.
What I still need to improve:
Conferencing. I’ve never been effective at using class time for conferencing, and this class was no different. In my writing courses, I schedule conferences outside of class, but that doesn’t seem like a good use of time for this course. If students are going to come all the way across campus to my office to meet with me, I feel like I should sit down with them for 10-15 minutes, but I don’t really need 15 minute blocks to talk with students about their reading lives. I need 1-2 minutes to check in more frequently, see what’s going on, ask questions, offer guidance. I don’t want to interrupt students’ independent reading time to conference with them, and I personally find it distracting when other people are talking–even quietly–while I’m trying to read. So I don’t want to use silent reading time for conferencing in class. I do ask students to turn and talk with partners about their reading for a few minutes during class, and this might provide a good time for me to circulate and conference with a couple of students at a time.
Status of the class. I didn’t want to take the time to do this, but Donalyn Miller has convinced me that there are simply too many benefits, especially at the beginning of the semester before student book talks begin:
Students practice discussing books in concise, low-risk ways. I reinforce the message that everyone should be reading and every reader has something to share. Students hear about lots of books they might potentially read. And students who may be slow to get started realize quickly that they must share their reading progress, or lack thereof, every day in class or get on board.
Keeping track. This semester, I had students keep track of their reading in Good Reads. I never incorporated Good Reads into the class as more than an individual tool for record-keeping. Next semester, I’d like to make sure students friend each other on Good Reads and share books and reviews with each other. I’d also like to have students write check-in letters to me more frequently. I don’t want to drown in reading response letters, but reading and responding to their letters was my primary way to develop mini-lessons and curriculum and mentor them in their reading lives.
“Wild Readers Self-Select Reading Material”
Most of my students do not self-identify at the beginning of the semester as readers, and even the ones who do read don’t typically read children’s literature. Therefore, most of my work in this version of Children’s Literature focuses on promoting books and introducing my students to books they’re going to love and want to share with their own students. There were a few mini-lessons about book selection including how I find books; genres of children’s literature; how to find books in the library; how to make reading plans and keep a TBR list; major children’s literature awards. I book talked 5-10 books per class and used the whiteboard ledge and windowsill to display 2-3 dozen different books per class session that students might want to check out or read during silent reading time. I showed book trailers and brief interviews with authors and illustrators. I created lists of touchstone authors for each grade level and encouraged students to read all of the books I listed for the grade they hope to teach. My goal was to read two picture books and one excerpt from a chapter book or middle-grade aloud each class, though I didn’t always manage more than one picture book because we ran out of time.
I spent a very long time crafting just the right list of required reading only to decide at the last minute not to require any reading. We used that list to select one book to read and discuss as a whole class (The One and Only Ivan, which most students listed as their favorite read of the semester), and then I asked students to select additional books from the list to read and discuss in small groups, with a partner, and individually. There were four required books in total that had to be completed by a certain due date, but students did self-select all four and choose our due dates. That worked pretty well, so I will keep some version of that for next semester.
Probably the most effective thing I did to promote reading was to create preview stacks for my students as well as personalized lists of reading recommendations. Book matchmaking is one of my favorite parts of my job.
What I still need to improve:
Access to books. Not sure what else I can do here, but I know my students don’t have adequate access to books they want to read. The campus library isn’t large enough, diverse enough, or new enough to meet our needs. I have also been working with a librarian to develop the juvenile collection, and there have been many good changes. I spent a lot of my own money buying books to share. It’s so hard for me to say no when someone requests a book!
Post a list of books I read aloud. I forgot to keep records of the books I shared this semester. SIGH. I should have created a Good Reads shelf just for our read-alouds.
Find a way to read aloud larger picture books. Mostly I read aloud smaller picture books, because the large ones don’t fit on the doc cam, and I can’t figure out a way to read a picture book aloud to 30 people so they can actually see the pages. When I wanted to share larger picture books, we just passed them around, but again, it’s not that efficient to have 30 people trying to read one book during a single class session.
Next week, I’ll reflect on Chapters 3 and 4 of Reading in the Wild.