The Book Whisperer

I come from a family of readers; a mom who taught me that books are as valuable as money, and a dad who would be content to never turn on the TV (except for UK basketball games – go Cats!) because he’s engrossed in his book. As a student affairs professional, I regularly referenced and recommended books that I hoped would speak to my students the way they did to me. When I entered my third-grade classroom, I was excited to continue that tradition.

Quickly, I realized that not all students feel like I do about books. I choose one and immediately feel committed to finish it; they give a book three or four pages (a chapter if they’re feeling generous) to decide its worth. I will read nearly anything; they have stronger preferences for genre and style. I care for books meticulously; they casually toss them, shove them, and accidentally tear pages. I am a reader; they are still deciding whether they will be.

And I had a startling realization that I knew few books that were appropriate for my third graders. Despite seeing hosts of books in the library that I have fond memories of, I quickly discovered them to be beyond most of their reading levels and maturity. Most of my favorite stories are written for middle schoolers, with themes over the heads of even my best readers. I simply lack the knowledge to provide valuable recommendations to my third graders, especially because their interests in books (and in general) are still developing.

I recently finished The Book Whisperer after a reader of this blog suggested it as an alternative to the Accelerated Reader approach to teaching reading. Donalyn Miller, a sixth-grade English teacher, argues that we approach reading all wrong. She advocates that allowing students to read books they enjoy is far more desirable than having them trudge through classics or works that are more meaningful than pleasurable. She creates this environment by expecting her students to read forty books per year and gives them time to read in class every day. The students choose their forty books from a simple list of genre requirements. Instead of focusing on the same book as a class, they regularly read different books and collaborate on projects using common themes or literary elements.

Miller, an extraordinary bibliophile, believes that molding students into readers is the most worthy of goals, and that through extensive reading they will gain the experience and knowledge needed to succeed in writing, English class, and standardized tests. She has some advantages in making the approach work: first and foremost, a supportive principal. She also teaches a combined English and Social Studies block (a great example of uncovering The Lost Subject!), giving her significantly more time with her students each day and the flexibility to interweave content from both subject areas seamlessly. Finally, she has a vast library of personal books that she’s familiar with to share with her students.

I greatly enjoyed The Book Whisperer and longed to be in such a classroom — as either a teacher or a student. I agree with Miller that giving students more time and freedom with reading exhibits the value of the skill and encourages them to take interest in books that they otherwise would not. Her alternative assessments — focusing on understanding and application of literary themes — strike me as superior to the class-wide novel study buttressed by page upon page of comprehension questions and a cumulative test weeks later. She even manages to incorporate common reading experiences through short stories and student-to-student recommendations. She laments how few books students have read before they arrive in her classroom, and her kids return to her year after year to bemoan how little reading time they receive in later grades.

I see challenges with implementing Miller’s approach, but mostly because the established system is so well-rooted. It’s difficult to imagine my students engaging with books in the manner Miller describes, but I suppose most of her students felt the same way on their first day in class. After experiencing a third-grade class this year, and the daily struggle to engage students in reading, it seems to me that Miller’s approach could successfully turn the focus back to inspiring students to become lifelong readers.

Real Learning

We entered Science class and took our seats. The children squirmed expectantly. A PowerPoint presentation fired up in the background. The teacher began.

“We’re going to do some real learning today, not an interactive activity, because sometimes we have to actually learn some things in Science.”

I tried to keep my jaw from dropping at these words, and settled in for some slides about types of clouds, with one eye on my students. After their initial disappointment, they handled the presentation well — most of them were engaged, even offering examples of the types of clouds they had seen that week. I have no problem with the presentation; it was short, sweet, and prepared the kids to make their own clouds in class next week. But the preface continues to rankle me days later.

It is my steadfast belief that learning should be engaging and fun almost all the time. Interactive activities are one of the best ways to achieve this goal. I honestly believe that the Science teacher knows this, as at least 90% of her classes are chock-full of activities and experiments. But she, like many teachers, has been socialized to think learning isn’t fun: learning is accepting information. Paulo Freire, the inspiration for my love of education, explains this model:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. (Chapter 2, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Freire argues that not only is this education model ineffective, but that it hinders development and makes us less human by stifling our creativity and critical thinking. Instead, he proposes that we eliminate the false dichotomy of student/teacher and empower each other to think critically, recognizing that only through communication can human life hold meaning.

By telling our students, whether through our words or actions, that real learning only happens when they receive information from an instructor, we limit their potential and further the “school sucks” narrative. Worse, we insinuate that learning itself is boring and painful, paralyzing many children before they really even have a chance to engage in the learning process.