Teacher Tuesday

I quiver with excitement when I say these two words: Donalyn Miller. The Beyonce of children’s literature,  Donalyn does not lip sync. She is one hundred percent real. She teaches fourth grade Language Arts and Texas History at O. A. Peterson Elementary in Forth Worth, Texas, and is also the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child

You can also find her thoughtful comments on her blog, and in no more than 140 characters, at @donalynbooks.
Let’s take a peek at Donalyn’s past: 
  •     Favorite school lunch as a kid: peanut butter (creamy preferred) and strawberry preserves on Wonder Bread
  • Best friend in grade school: Edward Glass ( he was also my next door neighbor)
  • Times you were the new kid in school:  7
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch: Miss Potter, our school librarian, who set these crazy reading challenges for me. I bothered her every day for a new book, so she introduced me to authors and series I might enjoy. I read every Judy Blume, Marguerite Henry, Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary book, the entire Young Americans Biographies series, and the Little House books because of her.
  •  The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved: I wish I could have won the spelling bee. I came in second. Twice!

Donalyn, you shared with me that your passions include providing students with choice in their reading and engaging kids with independent reading. Let’s dig deeper. Why is it important to provide students with choices in their reading? 

People without choices become disempowered and lose motivation. This is true in all areas, not just reading. Too often, reading belongs to teachers who decide what will be read and the conditions for reading it. When students are given choices, they take ownership of their reading and find their personal interests and motivations.

What are the roadblocks to this kind of effort, given the current educational climate geared toward standardized testing? 

Standardized testing is a problem because preparing for these tests crowds out a lot of authentic reading and writing. I don’t see tests as the only factor, though. Other factors include whole class novel units (where everyone reads the same book at the same time and completes the same rote activities), assigned book reports and projects, and students’ book choices that are limited to Lexile bands and reading lists. All of these prevent many children from falling in love with reading or finding any personal value in it.

What do you see happening when kids get to choose what they read? 

I find that my students read more widely and take greater risks when they can read whatever they want. I also see students find and finesse their preferences—many of them discover what they like to read for the first time because they can try anything.

What happens when kids are stymied in their own efforts to choose reading materials? 

I think that many children struggle to self-select books because they lack reading experience. They don’t know enough about books and authors and they haven’t experienced enough reading success. We talk about books and share recommendations on a daily basis. I share specific authors and books that I think students might enjoy. I encourage students to preview lots of books and take chances. If a book isn’t working, we discuss why and I encourage children to abandon books that aren’t working for them.  I select books for read alouds that lead students to more reading from the same author, series, format, or topic.

Do you think there is such a thing as a bad book? Why or why not?

A few books are poorly written, but I think most books have an audience somewhere. If I don’t like a book, I tell my students why and admit that it may not be the right book for me. I think the only bad book is a book that turns you away from reading.

What do you see as your role in guiding/facilitating students in choosing what they read?

I know a lot about books and can usually help students find something to read that they will enjoy. I think it is my responsibility to remain current on new books for children and continually explore resources and tools that help students read more and find books for themselves. Building my knowledge about books is a vital part of my professional development as a teacher. My students also know I am a reader and they trust my knowledge as a reader as much as a teacher.

Are you saying that there isn’t a core list of books everyone should read? 

How is that possible? What is the point of narrowing our reading lives to a prescribed list? I think developing a personal canon of books that resonate with you is more important than reading what someone else thinks you should read.

Tell me what you mean by independent reading.

True independent reading is free choice, voluntary, individual reading. Reading silently what someone assigns you to read is not independent reading. Reading and finishing a list of activities is not independent reading.

Why is it important? 

We know from research that the children who read the most have higher reading scores, better grades, and more motivation for reading than children who don’t read much. On a personal level, provides readers with an intellectual and emotional life that they control.

How can parents and other caring adult encourage independent reading?

The factors that contribute to more reading at school also contribute to more reading at home:
  • Set aside daily time for reading.
  • Provide a variety of engaging reading materials.
  • Value all reading and allow children to choose what they read.
  • Role model a reading lifestyle and discuss why you find reading personally meaningful.

What’s the worst thing an adult can do in trying to connect a particular child with a particular book?

When we require children to read a particular book, we send the message that we make their reading choices because they can’t. If you really want to share a specific book with a child, read it aloud with them and share the experience.

What’s the best thing an adult can do?

The best thing an adult can do to encourage a child to read a specific book is tell them, “I just read this book and I knew you were the next person that should read it. I look forward to talking with you about it” Hand them the book and walk away.

What else would you like to say on this topic?

Talking, thinking, writing, and studying independent reading is my life’s work. I can never exhaust t
he topic! I would like to say that adults who read do more to lead children to reading than anything else. Children see reading as part of a cultural value system when adults read.

Thank you, Donalyn. I am so grateful that you took time out of your schedule to share these gutsy insights. I want to say “amen” to your point that reading adults are key to reading kids. So all of you aunties and uncles, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, neighbors and other caring adults: here is one easy thing to do to better this world: Read. 

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