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.

The Cooptation of Imagination

Walking out of a movie theater after viewing a movie based on a book, I’m among the first to share my love of the original. Rarely do I find the movie better than the book it’s based on. I know many feel this way, but I’ve narrowed my reasons down and decided it’s because I lack visual acuity. When I read, I create the world I’m reading about in my head, complete with voices, colors, etc. It’s relatively subconscious and I couldn’t describe it or recreate it with my own artistic skills, but it exists. When a movie depicts that world, it takes over my own mental images. Someone else’s creation and interpretation of the story eliminates my own — to the point that if I read the same story again, my vision has changed.

I don’t like having my imagination hacked, but I still have trouble avoiding it. There is no story this is more true for than Harry Potter.

I was the first in my small elementary school to read and enjoy the first Harry Potter book. It spread quickly after that, and I attended more than one Harry Potter themed birthday party. I grew up with the books, finishing the newest the day it came out and waiting impatiently for the next to be released. I loved them so much that I got excited and reread the whole series before each movie premiere. I can’t imagine a better way to ensure I would be disappointed with each film, but I persisted. Though at the time my disappointment stemmed from congruency errors, as I reflect back on the experience, much more of it could have come from the loss of my personal wizarding world.

The books taught me about good and evil and how to care for people who are different from yourself. The brilliant story takes place in a world that parallels our Muggle reality closer than we might think. I truly believe that this series laid a foundation for my social justice education and empowers young people across the globe. I own the complete set in two languages and regularly consider how I will introduce them to my future family.

But each movie robbed a little bit of my experience. From obliterating my original pronunciation of Hermione, to ascribing solid images to almost every moment of the book, every detail the producers included pushed one that I created from my mind. I’m currently re-reading the series aloud with my partner (who had seen the movies, but never read past book three, gasp!) and though I’m still uncovering new details, the picture in my brain is one created by Warner Brothers.

When J.K. Rowling released Pottermore, I was sorted into Hufflepuff, which took me longer than expected to embrace. Again, external forces were hacking my world. Though my love for the books runs deep, and I always felt my heart warming at Facebook posts from friends “waiting for their letters”, I remained grounded in the Muggle world, focused more on the allegory than the reality of being a wizard. Within a month of moving to Florida, I visited Universal’s Wizarding World for the first time, with the friend who best understands my love of Harry Potter. By this time I recognized that seeing the park would forever change the books. Despite my hesitance, finding myself in that world was magical in and of itself.

It became a love-hate relationship, but I found myself in this park over and over again in the last year. The two Harry Potter areas are easily Universal’s busiest and I was saddened that this might be the closest that many people come to the books. In many ways, we’ve made Harry Potter a consumable that requires no understanding of the actual story. Despite this, each time we visit, we spend more time in the Potter areas than anywhere else in the park. I resisted buying a wand or wizards robes, especially once they became so popular; I always felt odd buying a character’s wand and the sheer number of Gryffindor robes running around took away the authenticity for me. But the parks are beautiful and truly magical in their ability to transport you to another place, even when surrounded by thousands of Muggles.

Before our most recent visit we knew our annual Universal passes would expire and that we probably wouldn’t return to the parks soon. I spent some time in Ollivander’s and stumbled upon wands that had no characters associated with them. Instead they are based on the Celtic tree calendar and each wood is associated with different characteristics. I found the one I most identified with, hemmed and hawed, and then left to visit Florean Fortescue’s. For the rest of the afternoon, I couldn’t get the wand out of my head. I did some more research and learned that they were loosely based on birth month, and that J.K. Rowling happened upon this long after she gave Harry his wand. His holly wand just happened to fit his birthday.

When we left Diagon Alley that afternoon I became overwhelmed by the idea that I might never be in the Wizarding World again. Tears sprang to my eyes; as much as I am saddened by the cooptation of my imagination by the gigantic enterprise, my Harry Potter experience is now completely entwined with Warner Brothers and Universal Studios. Walking away was as bad as having my (non-existent) wand snapped in half.

My wonderful partner, catching on to my distress, encouraged me to embrace my inner wizard. With an hour left before closing, we rushed back to Ollivander’s and asked which wand matched my August birthday. The helpful staff member said hazel, and I was sold. We checked out, bought a butterbeer, and began studying the map of all the places we could use the wand to cast magic spells. We raced around Diagon Alley, making water shoot from fountains, lights illuminate the night, eyeballs stare you down, and feathers fly, and I have never felt so magical. It helped that the wand worked better for me than it did my partner, solidifying that the wand did indeed choose me.

I can’t change the impact that the commercialization of Harry Potter had on me and my inner vision. But that hazel wand has brought me joyfully back to the days when my own imagination led the way through the series, so I suppose I’ve come full circle.

For now, wand in one hand, book in the other, I say, “Always.”

Books, Books, Books

In third grade, when you are not following rules, learning multiplication, or navigating social situations, your primary responsibility is to read. At our school, as at many around the country, we use the Accelerated Reader (AR) program to encourage kids to read and read for comprehension. Many a night, our students’ homework consists solely of reading for AR points.

ReadingWhile I see the benefits of encouraging kids to read (and rewarding them for doing so), I have always had some qualms with AR. It’s onerous and turns a leisure activity into graded assignment (in kid speak, code for “not fun”). Our class has a few students who approach AR the way I did, as a byproduct of the reading they would be doing anyway; each of them far surpassed this quarter’s quota of 12 points for weeks ago. The other students use that bar more as a ceiling than a floor, and that is where I see the most flaws. Some of our kids reconsider picking up a new book after getting their 12 points, acknowledging that they should save those points for the next quarter so they aren’t “wasted”. But the worst (for me) are those who find the AR requirement so daunting that they struggle to pick up a book at all. Some of them have realized that they struggle with comprehension on the test at the end, so they won’t choose anything worth more than half a point (think Berenstain Bear books).

The point struggle has also trained them to be incredibly wary of new books. I am an avid reader and have a hard time putting a book down once I’ve picked it up, regardless of whether I actually like it. I found the first 100 pages of The Casual Vacancy relatively painful and kept setting it down for months at a time. Nevertheless, I finished it eventually even if it took me 18 months. My students, likely realizing that their test scores are lower on books they didn’t absolutely love, won’t pick up anything they aren’t sure they will like. During library class, I fantasize about having the time to systematically read every book on the shelves so that I could have a good recommendation for every student who jolts me out of my daydream, asking for a book that is “funny, action-packed, short, on my AR level, and worth a bunch of points.”

Though I find their unwillingness to try new books fills me with despair, I revel in the changes tBookshat I see in a student who finds a book they enjoy. I managed to find a skateboarding adventure book (sadly the only one of its kind) for one of my most particular boys. For weeks, he avoided reading at all, preferring to draw silly faces or search for Waldo. Recognizing the need to complete his AR points, he bemoaned to me that the library had nooooo good books. Naturally, I countered his assertion and promised him we would look for something together. Since checking out this book, I find him regularly reading during free time in class. At the library yesterday he found a new book and excitedly came to tell me about his discovery. Today, he spent a full five minutes of his free time telling me about the story. While I have no delusions that I have shifted his true love from football and lacrosse, it fills me with great joy to know that I played some small role in helping him enjoy a book.