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Whisper and Shout

TL:DR –what I’m going to use from Miller’s The Book Whisperer.

Free choice. Free choice. Free choice.

I may need to take a little break from the Notice and Note Facebook group. Don’t misunderstand me–it’s a kind, forgiving, supportive, and collegial place. Teachers reaching out to one another for advice, sharing ideas and lessons; it’s wonderful and sweet.


…when they speak of Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer some teachers still speak the words “accountable” and “tracking.” I wonder if they read the same book I did. Many of Miller’s ideas I’ve done on my own, and it was validating to know much of her growth and process has mirrored my own. However, I am nowhere near getting students to read 40 books in a school year, but I’ll be darned if I’m not going to try.

But a few things seemed to be misconstrued by Miller, too: namely, novel units/studies and workshops.

With a workshop structure in place, my students were more engaged in reading and writing and more enthusiastic. Instead of teaching books, I taught comprehension strategies and literary elements that students could apply to a wide range of texts. I implemented the reader’s notebook, taken straight from Fountas and Pinnell’s model, in order to manage my students’ independent reading; set up reading requirements for my students based on genre as a path to choice; and assigned book talks to replace the dreaded book report. I photocopied mountains of reading strategy worksheets, lists of reading response prompts, and workshop management forms. I bought every picture book that my workshop mentors recommended.

Miller, Donalyn (2010-01-12). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Kindle Locations 374-378). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Novel units were my bread and butter; now I’m going to take myself to task. Perhaps those novel units I crafted so beautifully, with artisan mastery, were for my own occupational therapy. We teachers do that sometimes, you know– give ourselves a goal in order to gain new understanding. To my credit and my mentor’s guidance. novel units were not based on single-title studies, but multiple books at various reading levels, interests, etc., based on enduring understandings and essential questions.

And as I read this passage about ‘mountains of reading response prompts,’ on Notice and Note someone shared a .pdf of this exact thing.

Where is the disconnect?

How do we go through teaching texts and determine what will be valuable in our practice, and what to disregard?

One thing I plan on doing is changing the entry task:

Take a look at a common classroom warm-up lesson: students are asked to look for grammatical and punctuation errors in a scripted sentence. Correcting the sentence may take five minutes. Discussing their corrections with students and providing feedback might take another ten minutes. Considering how little of this direct grammar instruction actually transfers to students’ writing (Alsup & Bush, 2003; Thomas & Tchudi, 1999; and Weaver, 1996), these fifteen minutes would be better spent reading, an activity that has been shown to improve students’ writing and grammar (Elley, 1991, cited in Krashen, 2004). With instructional time at a premium in every classroom, we cannot afford to waste any of it. Research has confirmed that independent reading is the better use of our time. Students in my class enter my classroom each day, get out their books, and start reading. Not only are students quiet and working (the implicit goal of all warm-up activities), but they are engaged in a productive endeavor that improves their reading performance. The amount of time I save by not having to plan and grade ineffective warm-up drills is icing on the cake. My intention is not to disparage the activities that you may use as class openers; some of them may have instructional value, but I challenge you to find anything that has more impact on reading achievement than independent reading. We teachers have more than enough anecdotal evidence that the students who read the most are the best spellers, writers, and thinkers. No exercise gives more instructional bang for the buck than reading. The added bonus for us teachers? I have found that independent reading is also among the easiest instructional practices to plan, model, and implement.

Miller, Donalyn (2010-01-12). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Kindle Locations 816-829). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

The other thing is share reader’s notebook. I buy each of them a composition notebook, and will continue to model its use:

• Create your own reader’s notebook: At the start of each year, when my students are trimming and gluing their own reader’s notebooks, I make a new one for myself. I record all of the books I have read or abandoned for an entire year in one notebook, just like I ask my students to do. Each notebook serves as a record of what I have read over the years, and I use my reading lists to order books for the class library or make recommendations to my students and friends. Reflect on what you are reading: I am not suggesting that you write summaries of every book you read or your personal responses to them, but you can, if you would like to. Think about what you are reading, and observe what you like about the book or what you don’t like about it. What makes it challenging or fun to read? What sticks with you about the book when you are done?

Miller, Donalyn (2010-01-12). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Kindle Locations 1716-1722). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Rethinking the whole-class novel. I am making no apologies for trying to jigsaw The Hobbit. But we currently have many single-title books, and now I have to consider how to use the titles in a meanginful way, or if at all.

• Laboring over a novel reduces comprehension. Breaking books into chapter-sized bites makes it harder for students to fall into a story. Few readers outside of school engage in such a piecemeal manner of reading. • Not enough time is spent reading. Many novel units are stuffed with what Lucy Calkins calls “literature-based arts and crafts,” extensions and fun activities that are meant to engage students but suck up time in which students could be reading or writing. • Whole-class novels ignore students’ interest in what they like to read. Reading becomes an exercise in what the teacher expects you to get out of the book they chose for you, a surefire way to kill internal motivation to read. • Whole-class novels devalue prior reading experience. What about the students who have already read the book? Admittedly, this may be a small number of readers, but I have sixth graders who have already read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Outsiders— two books that I know are taught in upper grades. Are they going to be expected to read them again? Advanced readers deserve the opportunity to continue their growth as readers, too. Yes, students benefit from the deep analysis of literature that a thorough look at one book provides, but there needs to be a balance between picking a book apart to examine its insides and experiencing the totality of what a book offers. There are other paths to teaching critical analysis and reading skills than belaboring one book for weeks. Let’s not lose sight of our greater goal: inspiring students to read over the long haul. Alternative: Rethinking the Whole-Class Novel My first suggestion on the topic of whole-class novels would be to evaluate whether you are truly required to read certain texts with your students or whether this is just a tradition. When your department has invested budget money and time in a closetful of whole-class novel sets, it is hard to break away from the entrenched attitude that reading the same book across the grade level is the best instruction for students.

Miller, Donalyn (2010-01-12). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Kindle Locations 1804-1822). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Speaking to that, I’ll continue my use of short stories, etc. to teach.

Use short stories, excerpts, or poems to teach literary elements or reading skills, and ask students to apply their understanding to their independent books. Using an instructional sequence of modeling, shared practice, and independent practice, what I model and practice with students always ends with application of a skill or evaluation of a concept, using their self-selected books.

Miller, Donalyn (2010-01-12). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Kindle Locations 1876-1879). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Now — if you still need a way to have students show and share their books, Miller offers plenty of alternatives to book reports or talks. I’ve done these myself, and heartened by her claims will refine my Reading Road Trip student blog for next year. The students are still too interested in “how many points is this worth?” That’s a conversation for another time.

One last thing: I am in a grown-up book club. No one read my book recommendation, So You’ve Been Publically Shamed by Jon Ronson. One woman did end up reading my other recommendation, The Psychopath Test, but this crowd is just not into the same things I am. It’s getting kind of rough. They love romances and sagas, like The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. I jokingly said our book club could be renamed to the Not Read Book Club. They tend to like bestsellers, self-helpy kind of books. But I do like the company, and we always have good talks. Finding out why people don’t read a book is sometimes more revealing than why they do.

P.S. If you’re looking for thematic books for units of study, resources abound. For example, if you want students to read about Scientists’ Struggles, click here for titles.

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