Wild Readers in a College Children’s Literature Course: Part 3 #cyberPD

reading in the wild

Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild, one of my favorite books about teaching, is the title chosen for this year’s #cyberPD event. This week, Literacy Learning Zone hosts a discussion of Chapter 5. I radically revised the Children’s Literature course I teach to elementary education majors last semester with one goal in mind: the care and feeding of wild readers. Most of my students in this course do not self-identify as readers; in fact, they are much more likely to tell me at the beginning of the semester that they hate to read. So we have our work cut out for us in sixteen weeks.

Wild Readers Show Preferences

This was perhaps the area of most success for my students. At the beginning of the semester, most students had no idea what kind of books they liked. My college students were much like Donalyn’s student, Hunter, who “expresses his reading preferences in vague generalizations like ‘scary books’ or ‘funny books’” (167-8). By the end of the semester, all of them knew what kind of books they prefer. They could name their favorites genres, their favorite books within their favorite genres, and their favorite authors.

I always set genre requirements for this course to encourage students to broaden their reading horizons and discover new preferences. After all, as Donalyn points out, our reading preferences “[grow] from thousands of reading experiences” (164), from “wide reading and lots of positive encounters with books” (167). For my students to develop true preferences, they need to have more reading experiences.

But this semester, due to an oversight as I was revising the syllabus, I didn’t set genre requirements. By the time I discovered that this important part of the independent reading assignment had accidentally been left off of the syllabus, I thought it was too late to fix the problem. All I could do at that point was model my own wide reading, book-talk books in different genres during every class session, and share many nonfiction read-alouds. It turns out, that was enough. I was very interested to see that students generally read as widely in different genres as they do with the genre requirements, and they read much more deeply in new genres they discovered in the class (especially graphic novels and nonfiction) when they weren’t trying to schedule their reading lives to jump through hoops I’d set for them.

Perhaps it also helped that we talked a lot about how our students’ preferences might be very different from our own reading preferences. If we’re going to be able to recommend books for each of our students, we need to read outside our own comfort zones so that we have broad book knowledge to draw upon.

Graphic novels were, by far, the biggest hit in my class. I ended up spending a small fortune adding to my collection so that I could loan books, because the graphic novels collection at the two libraries we have access to (campus and public) is quite limited. Only a couple of students had ever read a graphic novel before, but over half the class listed graphic novels as their favorite genre (it’s really a format, but again, sixteen weeks, only so much I can teach) on their final learning reflections.

There were two students who did not read widely in different genres, and I was very interested in their progress in the course. I initially wanted to challenge them to vary their preferences, so I recommended books in different genres that I thought they would enjoy. They did not enjoy the books I recommended, and they stalled as readers. Both of them, when asked what I could do to help them start reading again, said “Find me another book like One for the Murphys.” As long as I kept them supplied with a steady diet of realistic contemporary fiction featuring kids overcoming some kind of problem, they read voraciously. They weren’t interested in any other kinds of books or stories. (They were, however, willing to try some different formats–verse novels and graphic novels–that still featured that type of plot and character.)

These two students pushed me to reconsider my belief that wild readers need to read widely. On the one hand, many students in this course only discovered themselves as wild readers when they were encouraged to read more widely in formats (picture books, graphic novels) they hadn’t read before or in genres (nonfiction, poetry) they hadn’t read before. On the other hand, when students haven’t been reading at all for years, when they have no idea who they are as readers, and they discover one very strong preference, they may need more time to spend reading that one type of book before they are ready to be nudged along the reading ladder. I was disappointed because these two students seemed “stuck,” but they seemed to have a very different view of what was going on: they were enormously proud of themselves for discovering a reading preference, committing to reading, and developing a self-identity as readers. They were enjoying reading for the first time in their lives. What challenges and pushes most of my students may not be what challenges and pushes all students. I do want my students’ reading preferences to be based on “informed opinions” (167), but I think I need to be more open to supporting the paths my students need to be on rather than trying to ensure that everyone is on the path I think is best.

What I’m struck by at the end of these three weeks of #cyberPD is just how recursive all of these wild reading behaviors are–and consequently, how recursive our teaching needs to be. I started introducing my students to many of the ideas in Reading in the Wild early in the semester. With some of the ideas, I thought I would teach one mini-lesson and then we’d somehow be done: we would learn it and move on. Edge time, for instance. How many times do you really need to talk about that? But it turns out that many of my students had one way of thinking about and using edge time at the beginning of the semester and a different way of thinking about it at the end.

I believe that the thinking, insights, habits, routines, and lessons of Reading in the Wild need to be ones that we weave throughout our reading workshops, that we return to and explore in more depth and detail as our students develop their reading identities and begin to know themselves as readers. After all, lifelong readers don’t just learn how to be readers and then always know and do the same things. I’ve always been a wild reader, but who I am as a reader today is very different from who I was ten years ago, last year, last month. As it should be. If nothing else, I’ve read more, and books change us. Wild readers are constantly negotiating and enacting their reading lives, and our classrooms need to be spaces where we acknowledge and celebrate that.

12 responses to “Wild Readers in a College Children’s Literature Course: Part 3 #cyberPD”

  1. Your college kids are not much different than many of my high school kids. Some of them really get stuck in one genre and don’t want to try anything new. I find that if I let them read what they want, they eventually come to me and say, “OK. I need something different.” And then it’s my chance to jump in. Until then, I just have to be happy they are reading!

    • I always feel like I’m not doing my job somehow if my students aren’t moving ever upwards and onwards on the text complexity reading ladder, but of course wild readers don’t read that way. I like Penny Kittle’s roller coaster metaphor for our reading lives. I think that’s more accurate. I had some success asking students to challenge themselves a couple of times during the semester. Several students decided to read something way outside their comfort zone as their challenge, so I think I will try that again next semester.

  2. I have a friend who reads just like your students who say “Find me a book like One for the Murphys” – in fact she read this title in one teary sitting. She absolutely knows what she likes and there is no moving her from it. However, she reads often and happily reads any title in this genre. When she asks me for suggestions, I have given up suggesting anything out of her comfort zone. I am thinking that it will be a student raving about a title that will flip her into some other genres, but until then, she is certainly an avid reader. And what could be better? I certainly have preferences too but am more willing to stretch a little and have discovered that I like certain books much more than I might have in the past. But you are right, different ages, different stages.

    • I am thinking about the avid readers I know outside of the classroom and most seem very much like your friend, Carrie–knowing exactly what they like and wanting to read only that. Certainly there’s a chance that they might discover an affinity for a different kind of reading if they read outside their comfort zone, but I wonder just how necessary it is to push our students to explore different genres and read for different purposes in their personal reading lives. Of course there is great value to reading widely: when I think about my own reading life, I know that it wouldn’t be as rich if I hadn’t been willing to explore different genres and formats. I am an obsessive graphic novel reader now, and I also love sports books–two types of reading that for years I had a strong prejudice against. I see much more openness to experiment and try new kinds of books with students in my Adolescent Lit class–nearly all very wild readers at the start–than in my Children’s Lit class. I need to think more about what it means to stretch ourselves as readers and when that’s most valuable for a reader.

  3. Elisabeth,
    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection. It was great to see another teacher educator applying these ideas to the college classroom. When I taught a children’s literature course, I too forced students to read through various genres by giving them a choice of three titles in each genre. In addition, I had found that most of my students hadn’t experienced peer-led literature discussions or reader response journals. I wonder now, if I had given more freedom in what they read and when if I would have helped them develop more wild reading habits, rather than dutiful fulfillment of requirements. I also wonder about helping students develop wild reading habits in classes other than the children’s literature course. Wouldn’t it be great if all education courses (even non-literacy) had a reading component that helped students experience other genres so they could recommend to their own students? To infuse reading in everyday activities and thinking? Hmmm….
    Much appreciated,

    • I have radically changed how I teach these lit courses for education majors over the years, Suz. At first, I had a whole list of required reading where I chose all the books. Then I did something very similar to what you describe– limited choice within boundaries that I set. This semester, students had almost complete freedom to read what they wanted to read. I did ask them to select a book from a list that we would all read and discuss as a class (they chose The One and Only Ivan, which most students listed as their favorite book at the end of the semester), and then to select books for small group and pairs discussions. Otherwise, they had to read for 4 hours each week, but they could read appropriate for K-8 readers. I am finding that my students read so much more if I remove all restrictions and requirements. It’s scary to do that because now I’m not in control of their experience of children’s literature. But it’s so much more powerful, and it’s so much closer to what I hope my students will go on to do in their own classrooms. I so agree with you about the need for courses other than the children’s lit course to focus on developing literate lives. My class shouldn’t be the first one where students are asked to discuss their identities as readers, writers, and learners!

  4. So many ideas in your post resonated with me, especially your concluding line:”Wild readers are constantly negotiating and enacting their reading lives, and our classrooms need to be spaces where we acknowledge and celebrate that.” I know that with my sixth graders I have a year to build reading habits and a stance towards a reading life – they take off in many trajectories, and some read a lot but not widely. At the end of the day, they have had exposure to many types of genres and know that they can/should try many types of books, many types of genres.

    • “A stance towards a reading life”–I really like how you put that. I struggle to figure out how to assess what I’m doing in my classroom right now. How do I know if I’ve achieved my goal, if my students have built a reading habit and can articulate “a stance towards a reading life”? Even if they do all the right things during the class and say all the right things at the end of the semester, I am not sure I can count it as a success if they don’t continue reading. But of course we have no control over that. Your thinking here is really helpful to me–to consider the exposure they’ve had throughout the course to those behaviors, habits, stances, to different types of books that maybe they haven’t read themselves yet but now at least they know about them. That is also very valuable.

  5. Really interesting to see how the same ideas and processes apply for college readers as for younger ones. I also really like your comparison between your interpretation of your “stuck” readers and their own thoughts about their reading and progress. I think it is an important lesson to keep in mind – we don’t want to discourage a student who may simply be making progress in a different way than we intended but who nonetheless is growing and learning to see him/herself as a wild reader.

    • I spent much of the semester alternately blaming myself and blaming these two students for what I perceived as their “failure” to learn and do what I thought they should be learning and doing. It was certainly instructive and eye-opening to discover their pride in their work!

  6. Elisabeth,
    Wow! Loved loved loved this post. It is interesting to read about your experiences with college students and how similar it is to my experiences with young primary readers. Readers are readers. Readers are all in a variety of places in their journeys, and there are times when we travel familiar roads and work our way through familiar obstacles.

    When I think about our classrooms and the pressure to push students forward as readers, I struggle. In our state, third graders who do not pass state tests are likely to be retained. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on teachers to push students through reading. I appreciated your reminder, “they read much more deeply in new genres they discovered in the class (especially graphic novels and nonfiction) when they weren’t trying to schedule their reading lives to jump through hoops I’d set for them.” I think we have to remember this when pushing students through numbers of books or text levels or genre requirements.

    I also appreciated the way your found the differences in your students and were comfortable letting them grow in their own next steps. It was interesting that it seemed students who weren’t as wide of readers needed to find their place, and those wild readers needed to be stretched.

    You’ve given me much to think about. Your students are lucky to have you.

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