Thursday, May 2, 2013

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

Click through to read parts one and two.

What is a typical day in your classroom like?

Loud! I joke that it sounds like beehive. We talk constantly about books and writing. My students spend the first 30 minutes reading while I confer with individual students about their reading and help students preview and select books. After reading time, we talk with partners about our reading experiences that day and I present a few book commercials about new additions to the class library or books I think students will enjoy based on what they are reading now, or books I think will stretch them. 

After reading time, I teach a lesson and students practice the skill or strategy I have taught using a common text like an article, poem, or short story for the first few encounters with this topic. As often as possible, I ask students to apply what they have learned to their independent reading, writing, or inquiry when they have mastered the skill or strategy after whole group instruction.

We write every day. Sometimes, we write about reading and sometimes we develop essays or reports. We are currently engaged in an author study about Seymour Simon. Students are reading several of his books, exploring his website, and creating reports of information based on one research topic. I am teaching lessons on sentence fluency, taking notes, combing information from several sources, and organizing information logically.

I try to integrate reading and writing as much as possible, so some students could be reading or writing during our daily work periods depending on their individual progress and needs that day. I circulate and confer with children during these work periods.

After a work period, students share bits of their writing and solicit feedback from their peers. I facilitate these discussions.

During the last ten minutes of class, we gather for a read aloud. Right now, we are reading WONDER by R.J. Palacio. We are keeping a running list of Mr. Browne's precepts on the board and discussing the book and its messages each day.

You don't use the terms struggling or reluctant readers but instead identify readers as developing, dormant, and underground. Could you define for us what these readers are like and what they most need?

Developing readers lack reading confidence, experience, or ability, but are somewhere on the path toward developing reading self-efficacy. I prefer this term to struggling readers becausedevelopment implies progress and effort instead of failure.

Dormant readers possess the grade and age levels abilities expected from them at school, but don't find reading personally meaningful beyond school expectations. I find that most of my students are dormant readers. They haven't experienced enough pleasure or engagement with reading.

Underground readers are avid readers who live two reading lives--one at school and one outside of school. These children are often avid readers who may underperform on school reading assignments because they don't find them meaningful. They may not fill out reading logs, participate in whole class discussions, or complete reports, then excel on reading tests.

I think there are other types of readers who don't express these marked habits and abilities, but I chose to write about these types because these the students that benefit most from free choice voluntary reading and more classroom choice.

"Students need to receive encouragement for the skills and knowledge they do have and be allowed to make mistakes as they work toward mastery." What are some "mistakes" you've seen kids afraid to make? How have you helped liberate them from this fear?

Reading is hard because so much of it involves subjective interpretation. Kids who want to get it right struggle when I push them to determine their own meaning for a text. They want me to tell them what it means. They want explicit answers to every question. When we read shared texts, we look at the basic plot events or main ideas first, then delve into the deeper meanings or implications of a text. This assures everyone understands the universal meaning or key points before exploring personal connections and meanings. I think this values all of the learners in my class.

I also share my mistakes and misconceptions with students. They don't realize that even the most experienced readers and writers need to reread, revise, and mull over ideas. 

Your principal sounds like a phenomenal person -- giving you the room to teach reading this way, encouraging fellow teachers to examine "classroom practices and institutional policies that are so entrenched in school cultures" as to be ineffective, the afterward he wrote for your book. How does someone who doesn't have the support you do go about making effective changes in their classroom community?

It is hard to teach in a culture that doesn't get what you are doing. I keep Stephen Krashen's and Nancie Atwell's books on my shelf. I want colleagues, parents, and administrators to know that I have a research basis for what I am doing. If anyone questions me about my methods, I refer to the research. You can disagree with me all you want, I am just one person, but how can you discount decades of research on our field? I cannot think of any administrator who would tell a teacher to disregard research.

It helps to make a list of your core beliefs about teaching and learning and look at it often. What do you believe is right for children? What do you believe is important for them to learn? How is your daily instruction leading students to a better life beyond school? It is easy to get bogged down in the daily grind of school, and it helps to remember these long term goals.

I was not treated well by many of my colleagues when I first changed my practices. It was hard. I sought out the teachers in my building who were most progressive and open-minded (and our librarian), and I developed collaborative relationships with them. I spent a lot of time with my students, which helped me focus on them. My students' test scores were good and I walked into school happy every day. My students and their parents were happy, too. Eventually, people were curious. I suggest that teachers implement as much as they can, document the results and share it with administrators and colleagues. Talk about what you are doing in your classroom and the positive results. Better to talk about what you are doing and not what you wish you could.

Learn more about Donalyn and her book at 

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