Teacher Tuesday

I just have to say it again: I am so thankful Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp, got me going on Twitter — otherwise I would never have met so many wonderful, passionate and big-hearted teachers. Jillian Heise is a case in point. How likely is it that a gal from Washington state and a gal from Wisconsin might cross paths except in cyberspace? Mrs. Heise teaches at Indian Community School of Milwaukee in Franklin, Wisconsin, working with seventh and eighth grade Language Arts and Reading. She was eager to share her thoughts on choice reading but, before we get to that, you know the drill. First, a peek at Jillian’s past: 
At the Porter County Fair, age 4-1/2, with her brother
  • Favorite school lunch as a kidChicken Patties (and that continued into college – weren’t those always the most popular days in your cafeteria, too?)
  • Times you were the new kid in schoolFive (as much as it was difficult at the time, I still say it was one of the things that helped me develop character the most as a kid.)
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretchMrs. Posner in middle school. She was a special education teacher who allowed me to come into her room during my study hall and tutor students. She even let me use the overhead projector (which was very cool at the time). She helped me to see that I could teach others the things that I understood and helped give me a sense of pride in myself and built up my self-esteem.

Now let’s talk about connecting kids and books: Jillian, you mentioned that you’d like to talk about using choice reading. Why did you select that topic?

Choice reading is the thing I am most passionate about using and sharing in my teaching career. I have seen what a difference it can make for my students and how it changed my teaching. By letting students choose what they want to read, they are reading more. I am helping students come back to being readers. (Note: my emphasis. KL) 

I am making better connections with my students, and seeing an increase in their motivation to read and engagement in their books. It also allowed me to stop teaching the way I had disliked being taught. I read voraciously throughout middle and high school, but not the whole class novels I was assigned to read in school, and I was guilty of doing the same thing to my students. Allowing choice led to me coming into my own as a teacher and embrace what I am passionate and knowledgeable about and to share that with my students in a way that helps them achieve at a higher level.

Why do you think there is a decline in the motivation and engagement in reading in middle school?

I think kids start to get busier in their activities outside of school and start to have more access to technology and electronics at home. There are more distractions vying for their attention, and there is more social pressure as well. Unfortunately, reading isn’t always seen as the cool and popular thing to do, so with all of those forces at work, adolescents tend to lose interest. But I think a lot of it also has to do with the way teaching is done as well. In traditional middle school classrooms, when the subjects are separated, students aren’t exposed to teachers integrating reading into as many lessons as they were in grade school. They tend to not have teachers reading aloud to them as much. And reading becomes more about work instead of about enjoyment. The trick it to hook them onto the reading by choosing good books to motivate them and then sneak the “work” into it naturally and authentically to keep their engagement.

How do you promote/advocate for choice reading for your students?

I do all I can to model reading habits and show students how reading can impact their lives to promote choice. I am always talking about books and recommending them. I have my extensive classroom library for students to choose from. I do read alouds from picture books and novels. I book talk and have students do book talks. I give reading time in class to read every day. I share my reading life with my students through my Currently Reading sign outside my door and started my reading tally for the school year outside my room.

And this year I started to invite my students to participate in the 40 Book Challenge (from Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer) to help them set and reach a goal for reading more books than they ever thought they could before. And, what I think is most important, I talk to my students about abandoning or pausing books, and I encourage them to do so as well if a book isn’t working for them. When they’re given the freedom to not have to finish a book if it’s not for them, they’re more likely to work to find a book that does work for them.

In order to advocate for choice reading for my students, I have had to ensure that I am knowledgeable about the research background and professional books that advocate for choice reading so that I can share that with administration and colleagues so they understand why I need to base my reading instruction around all students reading their own chosen text. Professional books from Richard Allington (read an interview here), Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, Teri Lesesne, Penny Kittle, and Nancie Atwell among others have all helped me broaden my understanding and have support when needed.

What has changed in your classroom since you’ve begun empowering students to choose their own titles?

It has become a more welcoming place, a place where all can get comfortable, and a place where reading is accepted and expected. I have seen students become more excited about reading: talking about it (in and out of class), sharing titles, reading together, passing books to each other, coming in bursting to tell me about what they just read. It’s a culture of reading in my class. Also, the biggest physical change is the number of bookshelves in my room – my classroom library is now over 1,300 books! 

This year this culture of literacy has started brimming over the walls of my classroom into other rooms as well. I have fifth and sixth graders coming to ask me for title recommendations or to borrow books from my classroom. I’m known as the person to go to (whether for students, teachers, parents, or principal) if one is in need of a book recommendation.

Can you share some titles that your students have selected for themselves that surprised you

I can’t pinpoint titles that necessarily surprised me because I encourage so much of students finding what works for them, but I am sometimes surprised by what becomes most popular among my students. I can definitely share some of titles that have most often had to be replaced because they’ve been so loved they’ve fallen apart or get passed from student to student once they’re discovered each year:






Are there things the writers and publishers can do to support you in your efforts to offer students reading choices?

-Keep writing and publishing a wide variety of stories! You never know which story is going to be the one that hooks a student or becomes that gateway book.
-Be accessible! My students have access to share their thoughts with authors through twitter and they think that is one of the coolest things. If they ask me to tweet an author, and they get a response, it lights up their faces and I know they will be reading more by that author.
-Let teachers know what titles are coming (and give them access if possible)! I’ve been very lucky through blogging and attending professional conferences to be able to have early access to some books, and that makes a big difference in being able to offer more to my students. I spend so much of my own money on my classroom library every year, but being able to read an eARC of a book to determine if it will be a good fit for my students first, allows me to use my limited funds more wisely and strategically. It’s hard for me to justify spending money on a book if I can’t give it a longer life on my classroom shelves.

What advice might you give/do you give to the parents/guardians of your students regarding reading at home?

First I share with them the importance of reading at home every night. I talk to the students and to the parents about this. We talk about how to make it a habit by finding that time that best works for each child. I also emphasize to them that because I offer choice reading, it is important that they talk to their child about what choices are being made. I honor the family values and preferences, but it is up to parents to be aware of and talk with their child about the reading as well. I encourage them to read the books along with their child and have conversations. Lastly, I encourage them to model reading as well as a family. 

What do you wish you’d known when you started offering this opportunity to your students

I wish I had known that I would need to be reading much, much more than I would have thought. I can’t stress enough that being a reader myself is one of the key reasons why incorporating choice reading works in my classroom. My students need that model of a reader as well as the trust that I know good books and can recommend them.

What kinds of outside resources, if any, do you employ?

I Skype with authors to allow my students access to know what it is like to be a writer. I tweet my students’ thoughts to authors. I have started having student recommendations on my blog, and we use other book blogs as models for different ways to approach sharing our thoughts on a book. I also show book trailers to advertise books.

What do you wish I’d asked you that I neglected to ask?

I wish you’d asked howI go about recommending books to students. Here’s the answer: 

First: I read. A lot. A whole lot. And they’re all books that my students would read. (I’ve read over 100 novels this school year. This is the only way to know what books are out there to recommend. If you’re interested in starting in this direction, this is the first and most important thing you need to do for students to see you as an authority on books.) I also talk to other teachers and librarians about books often and keep up to date on blogs and twitter to stay on top of the new titles I may not have had time to get to myself, but that are recommended by those whose opinions I trust.
Second: I ask, “What are you in the mood for?”
Third: I ask, “What’s the last book you read that you really liked?”
Fourth: If necessary (aka: a child who is not my student that I would already know this about), I ask, “What do you like to do (outside of school)?”
Fifth: I walk the student to the shelf (so he or she knows how to find this book on his or her own in the future) and hand him or her a book. Or a “preview” stack of books to choose from that will fit into the parameters established by this exchange.

Wow! My head is spinning from all this great information. Once again, I wish I could redo junior high so that I could benefit from a reading teacher like you, Jillian! Thank you so much for this thought-provoking interview.

Readers who want to find out more about choice reading could visit Jillian’s blog or follow her on Twitter: @heisereads.

No Responses to “Teacher Tuesday”

  1. Barbara Watson

    I love your passion, Jillian, for your students. You remind me of a middle school version of Colby Sharp and Mr. Schu. 🙂 People who want to place the right book in the right hands. It’s so important. Thank you for all you do. And thank you, Kirby, for highlighting this side of Jillian.