A student enters my classroom and turns almost a complete 365 degrees before saying anything. I watch him. He is intrigued, but intimidated.
“Can I help you find a book?” I ask.
“I don’t have one yet, so yeah,” he responds. “I don’t know where to start though.”
“Well, what are some of your favorite books from middle school?”
“I loved The Outsiders and Unbroken, but I don’t remember much else.” He looks down at his feet.
“Those are two very different books. Were they assigned or did you choose to read them?”
“They were assigned in English class.”
“Have you ever enjoyed a book you chose yourself?” I asked.
“I think so. I don’t remember which ones though.”
“Well, let me show you what I do when I need a new book.” I went to a shelf with at least 4-5 titles that I read, and then began sharing how I determined if they would work for me or not. I described the plot and characters of one title I loved, and then explained how I knew the book next it was not for me.
This was the first conversation I had with one particular student last year during the second week of school. I had many other similar conversations with other students. Too often, my students enter 9th grade struggling to find a book on their own that they might enjoy. They don’t trust their own abilities. These students read independently before my class though. In middle school they were given choice and time to read, but they were also required to take Accelerated Reader tests every two weeks. This limited their time to finish a book, so they rarely chose a long one. Instead, they chose “short .5 books” (according to many of them), and they rarely chose a title based on interest. Instead, they selected books based on the amount of pages. I don’t use Accelerated Reader for this very reason. Instead, I challenge students to meet weekly page goals, and if it takes them six weeks to finish a 320-page book, so be it. Once students figure out they don’t have to finish a book by a certain due date–they don’t always believe me the first time I tell them this–they are more willing to dig through the books in my classroom library.
My classroom library has over 2,500 titles, but I know about, or have read, a large majority of them. I love to read, as anyone who knows me will tell you, but I also consider my own reading vital to my students’ success. I cannot just encourage students to read without modeling for them what a great reader looks like. I must model every step of the process. I think out loud to show students how I search for a new book. I preview books in front of them, search Goodreads in front of them, and book talk favorite titles. I share new books I read, and keep an ever-growing display of all the titles I have finished since the first day of school. I confer with students to give them strategies they may need to become a more consistent reader. I know a lot of these strategies would not be as authentic if I didn’t read a lot myself.
When teachers love to read, they are always searching for the next new title to add to their libraries. I am no exception. I have trusted friends and educators who recommend titles, and I follow other teachers, literacy specialists, and librarians on social media who read as much, or more than I do. Yes, it takes time to build a classroom library my students will love. Yes, it takes time to read independently myself. It’s all worth it though, for I see the countless success stories each year in my classroom.
The same student that spoke with me above was a different reader by the end of the school year. He finished seven books, and understood the importance of reading in his life (see some of his end-of-the-year survey responses below). I don’t think this would have been possible if I didn’t share the strategies I use as a reader. Giving students choice and time to read is important, but that is not all that students need. We must also show them what great readers look like day in and day out.