Wild Readers in a College Children’s Literature Course: Part 1 #cyberPD

reading in the wild

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.





14 responses to “Wild Readers in a College Children’s Literature Course: Part 1 #cyberPD”

  1. I’ve been thinking about how to use Goodreads with my high schoolers. I like your idea of having them friend each other and share reviews, etc. I even thought of creating a group for each class….but then that limits who they share with. Maybe just one big group 🙂

    • I definitely haven’t been using Goodreads effectively, though I have been using it. Baby steps! I haven’t used the groups feature at all, so I’ve got a lot of exploring to do.

  2. Thanks for sharing your unique perspective. I really enjoyed thinking back to my own children’s literature undergrad class and more recent library grad school classes as I read your post. The first thing that stuck out to me was that you gave your students time to read in class. I think this is crucial and that by doing this they will see the value and importance of giving their own students the time to read. I don’t think I’ve ever been in an education or library class where I was given time to read. I would keep doing this, even if it feels like time lost! Second, I love that you are promoting the use of Overdrive to your students. I recently discovered it and can’t believe I haven’t been using it for years already. You might suggest audio books to them, as well, as a way to get in more reading time. I often listen to audiobooks in my car as a way to “read” more. I’ve been downloading them from Overdrive, too. Two other things that may help you are using a Google doc for your status of the class. It will hold students accountable for their reading, but may be more efficient if students quickly fill it out as class begins. Other students could be given access to see what everyone else is reading, as well. Finally, if you are near a public library, you may be able to have the librarian visit your class. Students could sign-up for cards on the spot and the librarian could teach them how to use Overdrive, so that they may have greater access to the books they need. Hopefully, I’ve offered something to help you. Again, thanks for the interesting post.

    • I’d never given my college students time in class to read before, Jamie, and I think that was a big mistake. An example of saying one thing and doing something else, because I certainly told them often enough that they had to give THEIR students time to read in class!! I agree about Overdrive–one of my students introduced that to me and I also can’t believe I haven’t been using it for years. Love your suggestion of audiobooks. They’re a huge part of my edge time reading and since my students can download them with Overdrive, I’ll definitely be suggesting that in the future. I love your idea of using a Google doc for the status of the class. I can display it on the whiteboard and students can use their devices to fill it out, then we can talk briefly about it. Love discovering a tech solution to a problem! We are a few blocks from the public library, and I thought about holding class there but never followed through. I like the idea of having a librarian come visit our class! Thank you so much for the suggestions!!

  3. Elisabeth,
    In college I had a writing class in which the professor used a writer’s workshop to instruct. We worked just like our students would work in our classrooms. It was one of my favorite classrooms as it was easy to apply this into my world after living in the workshop she had created. Thank you for sharing the way you applied the thinking into your course. You went through many of the challenges teachers struggle with in their workshop classrooms. Some of my friends in intermediate grades have students report in for status of the class using Google forms. They’ve created QR codes that send students directly to the form and statuses are recorded effortlessly with little time taken from class.


    • Cathy, if I taught the writing pedagogy class, that’s exactly what I would do. I think that Methods teachers need to do a much better job structuring classes so that students can experience the learning method, not just read and talk about it. Since none of my students has ever been in a workshop classroom before (seriously! How is that even possible?!), I’ve realized that I need to do more to structure my classes like that. Love the idea of using Google forms for status of the class–and QR codes, very clever. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I love hearing what you’re doing in your college “pre-service” classroom, Elisabeth. It sounds awesome. I was surprised that some students found the open reading homework a challenge. Interesting that they needed more structure. I’ve seen this comment before, students upset that they aren’t told “exactly” what to do. Makes me wonder how they’re going to do in their own classroom when resiliency is so important. Thanks for sharing ALL those details. I will take notes for sharing with those teachers I work with. They’ll like seeing your points piece by piece.

    • LOL to ALL those details, Linda. I’m nothing if not a wordy blogger! And I thought this was going to be a short post when I started writing it!! The students in my Adolescent Lit course get a similar invitation to open reading homework, and they LOVE it–but that is a 400-level course for English majors, so they are already wild readers and they are thrilled to be “required” to read what they want. It feels wonderfully freeing after the required reading of all their other English courses, and all of them read FAR beyond the course requirements. Most of them say their biggest problem is that they spend too much time on Adolescent Lit and ignore their other courses. I am not sure how I am going to work the open reading homework in Children’s Lit next semester so that students can be more successful. I may add more structure at the beginning of the semester and gradually give more freedom.

  5. Wow – a rich post full of thoughtful observations. I struggle with the status of the class, too – now I have students leave a post it on their desks before they leave for me to collect and enter later. It’s always a give and take and having to decide where to spend the time, because there never is enough of it, is there?!

    • Thinking about your comment, Tara, and realizing that the more I focus on my larger goals for my courses (develop readerly habits, literate lives), the more successful and effective I feel my use of time is. I feel like I have enough time for what I want to do if I focus on what’s important. It’s only when I allow other agendas into my classroom that I suddenly can’t do everything–or feel like I can’t do everything. I am lucky at the college level to have enormous freedom with what I do. Classroom teachers are stretched so thin. Still, it helps to focus on that vision and end goal. Think I’m going to try a Google Doc for status of the class–and maybe use it in ALL my classes this fall! My students pretty much all bring some kind of device to class, so I might as well use them for good!

  6. Elisabeth,

    Thank you for joining in the wild reading conversations! I love your perspective, especially when thinking about new teachers in the our profession. How I would have loved to be in your class! (Perhaps an online version is available?) 🙂

    I think you are absolutely accurate when saying that these young teachers have lost that wild reading passion, or never even had it by they time arrive to college. I remember those days … so much to read, but not my choice! And who has time to do choice reading in college? I know I lost those wild reading habits for a long time … after about 5 years of teaching I realized I needed to do more reading, especially children’s books.

    “Teachers have to make time for what we value.” And you have! Bravo for creating a reading community that reads, talks, shares and more! I agree that we can’t do it all in our classrooms, we need to make choices, and we need to research best practices. (I love that paragraph!) This is what all new teachers need to experience!!! What an impact your class would have on so many students.

    Now, being a wild reader yourself, you probably are on Twitter, maybe even Goodreads (OK, continued reading your post and noticed you did mention this…I’m responding and reading at the same time…), or even Pinterest. I think sharing these social media tools would connect your new teachers to a larger reading community. Sharing a few literacy leaders to follow (Donalyn Miller for one …) and even librarians, teachers, and authors. Introducing the #bookaday, #bookgap, or the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge would open so many more doors of opportunity for learning and reading! I’m even thinking you could create a Padlet each week for students to post a title, book cover, and even a little blurb about a book! (For example, I started this Padlet — http://padlet.com/mnero/Touchstone — for others to share their Touchstone authors. Use this resource if you’d like too!) Another form of conferencing?!? Or another form of the Status of the class. I know technology will never and should never take the place of real conversations, but it could be an additional piece. Maybe you want to rethink conferring during independent reading time … most people to adapt to the little background noise. Or perhaps you could meet just outside the classroom during that time. But you said it before, if you value it, you’ll find a way to do it.

    Whew … I loved your post and all that you have happening in your classes! I can’t wait to read it again and I’m an just so excited about all the possibilities and the wild readers you are creating, which will then create more wild readers!

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for joining in. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your writing as well. I’ll be sharing this post with a colleague of mine that started teaching literacy classes at a local university. I know she will enjoy your ideas as well! (And I’m sure similar things are happening in her classes …) Sorry for the lengthy response, and please take my little suggestions as they are … little suggestions. 🙂

    Keep up the wild reading and writing!

  7. Elisabeth,
    Reading your post brought back fond memories of my children’s literature course at NIU! It was by far my favorite out of all of the classes I had to take. We had to read a number of books as well, but I love how you’ve taken it a step further and are incorporating the workshop approach within your class. This will be a great model for your students, and it will be something they can carry over into their own classrooms someday! I love the suggestions of using Google forms to help maximize your time in class. It has worked well for my 4th graders, so I’m sure your college students would enjoy it, too. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts next week!

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