Thursday, May 2, 2013

An Interview with Donalyn Miller, Author of THE BOOK WHISPERER, Part II

"Reading is both a cognitive and emotional journey." Can you speak to this idea?

At one level, reading is a skill that can be taught and learned. How to locate information, analyze a plot, or decode vocabulary-these reading skills are necessary and can be learned. Everyone who is literate has these skills some to some degree. Beyond reading skills, we cannot overlook or discount reading's emotional, spiritual, and intellectual value-discovering things about ourselves and the world that we didn't know, learning from the accomplishments and failures of others, inspiring action, and expanding our knowledge. If children do not develop this aesthetic connection to reading, they won't see reading as anything but a skill. I believe that basic literacy is important, of course, but I think education should do more than teach workplace applicable skills. Education should teach students to question and provide them with the tools they need to find their own answers.

How might a teacher with a heavily scheduled day find time to add in independent reading?

I know that there is never enough time to teach what we are expected to teach under the time constraints given. I get it. If I cannot find evidence-based and research-proven reasons for using a particular activity or tool, I don't use it. I don't have time to waste on activities that don't benefit students' growth as readers, writers, and thinkers. I take the minimum number of grades my district requires. There is no busy work. We read. We write. We share and talk about reading and writing. That is it.

It is very liberating, actually. I suggest that all teachers critically evaluate every activity they are doing to determine whether or not it moves students toward independence or just more school. Independent reading has more influence on students' long term reading achievement than any other activity. Why would we put it last? 

I recommend that students read every day for a minimum of 15 minutes. Divide your class into thirds-1/3 for independent reading and conferences, 1/3 for mini-lesson and guided practice, and 1/3 for more reading and more writing.

Catching the reading bug: I loved hearing about all the ways your kids bring reading into their everyday lives. Tell us about your student who once read in the shower!

Ah, that was Molly. She was desperately trying to finish a book, but her mom kept calling down the hall for her to get in the shower. Realizing that she couldn't hold off her mom until she finished the book, Molly held the book out of the shower to keep it dry and kept reading it.

You have an extensive classroom library largely run by your students. I'm curious if you find certain titles "have legs" -- seem to wander away more so than others. In my room my Shel Silverstein and Sara Holbrook poems had to be replaced often. What about you?

When I taught middle school, the books that "walked" the most were: SMILE by Raina Telgemeier, the Skeleton Creek series, Bone graphic novels, CLIQUE by Lisi Harrison, HATCHET by Gary Paulsen, and innumerable copies of THE HUNGER GAMES and THE LIGHTNING THEIF. I imagine that many of these books are sitting on shelves in a former student's home. I hope they are. Every once in awhile, a younger sibling returns books that were discovered. I enjoy reading the apology notes attached. I think my books have more adventurous lives than I do.

When I taught I hosted an annual Book Auction. Kids would donate books they no longer wanted. I gave all my students five "dollars," whether they donated or not, and those who donated got an extra dollar for each title they brought in. At the end of the day, everyone went home with a pile of new-to-them books. 

What are some other creative ways a teacher might get books in kids' hands?

I love your book auction idea. We held school-wide book swaps at my previous school. Students and families donated books and received coupons for each title. During the swap, kids could take home a book for every coupon. We gave away extra coupons, so that every child had one. Extra books were donated to charity book drives.

As I read THE BOOK WHISPERER, I kept wondering if you'd read Daniel Pennac's THE RIGHTS OF THE READER. And you have! Which of these rights do you think are hardest for kids to embrace? For teachers?
For students, it's hard for them to see these rights as normal reading behaviors. They have been told by adults that skipping pages, abandoning books, rereading favorites, and not reading sometimes are negative behaviors. We spend a lot of time during the early weeks of school discussing these rights and sharing our experiences with them.

For teachers, I think that accepting times when students just don't feel like reading is normal. When a student actively avoids reading all of the time, this is cause for concern, but some days are OK. I notice that my students don't want to start another book right away when they have recently finished a great one. I encourage students to spend their reading time writing a recommendation or reflection about the book instead, or researching the author's other work. 

"Every lesson, conference, response, and assignment I taught must lead students away from me and toward their autonomy as literate people." Can you talk briefly about the ways you use reader's notebooks and one-on-one conferences in your room and how they build autonomy?

John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience." I think that notebooks and conferences provide a formal way for students to collect information about their reading and reflect on their experiences. In their notebooks, students record the books they read, notes from lessons and research, and their reading responses. When we confer, I usually begin the conversation with what the students are currently reading and move into looking through notebooks for trends in reading behavior, as well as strengths and goals. My students and I develop individual goals for their reading during these conferences.
Learn more about Donalyn and her book at  

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