Yesterday, I shared the favorite reads in a Children’s Literature course I teach for preservice elementary teachers. Today, I’m focusing on their key learnings from the course. For the second part of their final exam, I ask them to present the 5 big ideas they learned about reading this semester. I think it feels like a low-stakes, low-pressure assessment, but it provides a snapshot of how successful I’ve been at helping them meet the course learning outcomes and internalize what it means to read and to teach reading. Here’s what they shared:
“Everyone is a reader, they just need the right book.” Many students enter the course believing that our attitudes about reading are fixed: some people like to read, some people don’t, and there isn’t much we can do about that as teachers. One of the big ideas we explore each semester is that everyone is a reader. There is no such thing as a child who doesn’t love story. When a child hates to read, there is always something else going on. Maybe they just haven’t found the right book yet. Or maybe they’ve experienced teaching practices that destroy a love of reading. Or maybe they struggle to read and need extra supports and assistance. But everyone is a reader. Related learnings: “We all have the potential to be readers” and “There is a book for everyone.”
“As a teacher, you make the difference in whether a student hates or loves reading.” It’s no wonder that so many teachers cling to a belief that “you can’t reach all of them.” (I heard this a lot in my first year of teaching.) It lets us off the hook when it comes to continuing to work with our most resistant students and find new ways of inviting them into the joys of a reading life. But it’s just not true. We spent a lot of time in this Children’s Literature course examining the alignment between what motivates us as readers and what school typically requires or demands, and in so many cases, there is no alignment. In fact, many traditional teaching practices actively de-motivate us as readers. Our own reading practices and preferences shouldn’t be the endpoint of our curriculum, but they are a very good place to start and also a good way to test whether a practice is a help or a hindrance.
“To teach students to be readers, you have to model being a reader.” We need to be models so that our students can see what active, engaged, passionate, voracious readers look like. We need to make sure our students see us engaged not just in reading books but in all of the activities and practices of a readerly life.
“It is okay to abandon a book if you don’t like it or it’s not working for you.” One student who read hundreds of books she absolutely loved this semester also admitted, “I abandoned so many books this semester!” Having permission, even encouragement, to abandon books that they didn’t like was a new experience for most of my students. But this is an essential reader’s right! I give books a chance, but I am not going to waste my precious reading time reading books that I don’t like. I make sure that I model abandoning books for my students–and often when I book talk a book I’ve abandoned, someone else wants to borrow it and try it anyway because they know their interests as a reader are different than mine. Related learnings: “You are allowed to not like a book” and “Quitting is not a bad habit.”
“Sometimes the right book will surprise you.” I cannot count the number of times students said “I thought I hated graphic novels, but when I tried them, I discovered I loved them!” Also said about verse novels, informational books, books of poetry, middle-grade novels, picture books, AND sports books! Reading outside your comfort zone is another big idea of this course. As teachers, we need to read outside our comfort zone so that we are familiar with more books and more types of books if we truly want to be able to meet the needs of our very diverse students. But as readers, we may also discover new favorite authors, formats, and genres when we read outside our comfort zone. Related learning: “Interest is everything—but you need to try something to see if you are interested or not” and “It is ok to like different types of books.”
“Reading time in class is the most effective way for students to become proficient readers.” It’s simple: the students who read the most are the best readers. Many different research studies confirm that the most important factor in reading proficiency is the amount of time we spend with our eyes on text that we can read comfortably. We have to make time for our students to read books that they choose every single day. We never need to feel bad as teachers when we use class time to read together.
“Reading is social.” My students discovered that talking about books is an essential part of the readerly life for most readers and that making reading social can be an effective way to encourage all students to read and to build community. We spent time every class period talking about what we were reading with other readers. Related learning: “I now know the importance of sharing books and talking about them with people.”
“Reading should be judgment free.” My students shared so many “shoulds” they’ve heard about reading. You shouldn’t read picture books; you’re too old. You shouldn’t read graphic novels; they’re not real books. You shouldn’t read that book; it’s too easy for you. You shouldn’t read that book; it’s too hard for you. In this class, they learned that when we want to encourage readers, “judgment free” is the only “should” we need. Related learning: “All books count” and “Picture books are not only for children.”
“Students will read–if we give them choice.” There are no assigned texts in this Children’s Literature course. Students are expected to read for four hours per week and they need to read a variety of formats and genres, but what they read is up to them. I used to balance choice with assigned texts, but I realized several years ago that assigned reading does not reflect my values and beliefs or my own preferences. So the very last holdout of required reading (The One and Only Ivan, in case you’re interested) was removed a couple of semesters ago, and now the course is 100% student choice reading. (We still have many shared reading experiences with picture book read-alouds.) I find that my preservice teachers have plenty of experience with assigned reading and none at all with getting to choose their books: they don’t really need one more experience of reading an assigned text together. It’s a powerful experience to see firsthand just how much they themselves read when the teacher gets out of the way.
“Make the joy of children a priority of teaching.” The longer I teach, the more I want to talk about joy. Reading and writing should be joyful. Learning should be joyful. All of our students deserve classrooms that are full of play and pleasure and wonder. A joyful classroom is a classroom full of engaged and passionate learners. I was not expecting to see joy show up on my students’ lists of big ideas about children’s literature, but I was so happy when it did. Related learning: “We have to bring the joy back.”
Photo Note: I was very surprised to Google “children’s literature class” in search of an image for this post and find a picture of MYSELF as the very second image that showed up! Here I am, reading a Ballet Cat book to my students–and what could possibly bring more joy than Ballet Cat??