My Adventures in Book Whispering

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When I first started teaching Language Arts I planned my units the way I saw other teachers do. I used the whole class novel sets, I planned my own assignments and activities around the novel we would read, and I set up all the criterion-referenced assessment and rubrics in advance so the students would know how they would be graded. Yet, as I taught these units, something usually didn’t feel quite right. I could never get the entire class to engage and participate in the novel. I never liked the fact that my two, sometimes three, middle school classes had to share a 30 novel set, meaning that the books had to be signed out by request if the students wanted to read at home. I struggled with not allowing the students to read ahead, because although I was told it would help to teach prediction strategies, I was never comfortable with asking the students to do something that annoyed me as a student.

Over the years, I kept trying to think of new ways, sometimes small ways, of getting the students to enjoy reading. I found that literature circles were better than whole class novels, but only if I provided a lot of background knowledge before we began, and even then I would have students who did not enjoy any of the novels that were available for me to use. With the help of some great teaching partners, we tried gender based novel studies, which were fun but also left me with students who did not like the books the teachers had chosen. I noticed that I would get some of the reading passion I wanted if I talked to students about the books they had chosen to read recently. I remember the first time I told a student that I had read a book that she had recommended. I had meant it as just a casual conversation, but the look in her eyes as her teacher told her she had listened to her recommendation told me that this is something I should do more often. I wanted to change something in how I structured reading time in the classroom, but I was not entirely sure where to start.

But then, over my Maternity Leave, I was able to read The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller. For me, this was the plan that I needed. Miller outlines how to reorganize your teaching and your classroom to meet the needs of readers. Her advice ranges from simple ways of encouraging independent reading in the classroom to a plan for a year-long reading workshop. She gave me concrete strategies that I could use to give my students reading choice while still adhering to the learning outcomes that have to be part of my Language Arts curriculum. It was one of those teaching resource books that had me continually thinking, “Yes, this is what my classroom needs to be like”.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t set everything up for September, so I’m not sure I can give Miller’s comprehensive reading workshop justice. Therefore, my New Year’s resolution is to test out many of her strategies in the classroom and make them happen. My classroom library is all pulled out and completely organized by genre. The reading notebooks are created and ready to be handed out. The students will be getting more independent reading time in the classroom, more conferences with me about the books they are reading, and more time in the library. They will be given reading goals, with our two classes having the goal of reading 200 books in January. I had already planned to teach a new literature genre each month, so students will be given more choice within that genre when it comes time to choose their reading. The staff will be warned that students will be encouraged to ask them about their favourite books, and I will encourage staff to stop by the class and talk about their reading. I am sure there will be “developing readers”, “dormant readers”, and struggles matching books to student interests. However, if I can be inspired by a book, perhaps I can help my students to uncover their own inspiration by finding a book that speaks to them.

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