Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Book Whisperer: a Review

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
We have just returned from our annual vacation to the Midwest and after a day or two catching up on laundry and restocking the pantry, I'm beginning to get back into my routine.

We had a wonderful time: Iowa is a beautiful place everyone is so friendly.  We caught two baseball games (one in Frisco, TX and one in Des Moines), we visited the Iowa state capital (it is magnificent), we traveled Route 66 from Oklahoma City to Joplin, Missouri (I love it), we toured Fort Smith, Arkansas, and we spent a lot of time with family.

It was a good trip and now that I'm home I realize that I report back to school in about three weeks.

Where has my summer gone?!

I've spent the entire summer working to get books for my new classroom library, for one thing.  People have been so generous in sending and donating books.  Donations have contributed nearly 100 books for my classroom from my Amazon Wish List.  I have purchased probably two dozen from my own list, and I've rounded up several large stacks from thrift stores.  My library now has about 140 books, which is far short of my 500 books by August 6 goal, but certainly large enough to get us started.

I have just finished reading Donalyn Miller's highly recommended The Book Whisperer (2009); Miller is an advocate of free reading.  In her sixth grade classroom she has a library of 2,000 books (her room must be bigger than mine!), and from Day 1 she has her students reading from the library.  Their requirement is forty books in the school year and she establishes a certain number of books from all genres.  Miller says that all of her lessons come back to what her students are reading and notes that her test scores at the end of the year are on par or above everyone else's; the added bonus for her is that she knows her students will be lifelong readers.

I'm not going to be able to follow Miller's prescription for reading success exactly because we are on a canned, scripted curriculum.  I have to read from annotated teacher notes and slides made by someone else.  But I can adapt her practices into my classroom and given the stifling, mind-numbing curriculum, I think that free-reading will be welcome.

In other words, there is no better time for me to begin this project.

Miller writes: "The institutional focus on testing and the canned programs drains every ounce of joy from reading that students have or will have in the future.  We have turned reading into a list of 'have to's,' losing sight of the reality that students and adults are more motivated by 'want to's.'"

That is so true.  Every lesson, every task, is geared to the test.  There is absolutely zero reading for the pure pleasure of it.  Zero.  In fact, what my students are required to read is dry enough to turn them off of reading forever.

As I've stated before, morally, that's just wrong to me as a teacher.  I can't spend the entirety of my career putting nothing but dry, "informational texts" in front of my students and directing them to highlight them in various colors.

I'll cover what I'm required to cover but my students are also going to read for fun.

The research that supports independent reading is massive.  MASSIVE.  How can we ignore this?  But that's exactly what these scripted curriculum programs do.  Miller points out that readers are better at writing, have "richer vocabularies, and increased background knowledge in social studies and science."

Miller is not a fan of the whole class novel, and I can see the merit in this.  After teaching certain novels whole class, it is true that your readers are going to read through the novel, finish it and be bored long before the struggling readers do.  This results in wasted time for those faster readers; even worse: they are rewarded by being assigned extra busy work just because they finished quickly.   The goal of the whole class novel becomes just to finish it and complete the worksheets and projects that go with it.

Yes, there are things everyone should read: I fully believe that every student should read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I no longer believe it must be done whole class or on the same schedule.  We don't read that way in the real world, so why should we do it that way in school?

Miller's book was an eye-opening read; much of what she wrote I already knew but had not articulated in my mind.  She has used free reading in her class for years and her program works for her.  My plan is to make it work for me and for my students.

I am anxious to get back into my classroom and get this library set up!

Next on my summer reading list is Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  Since I only have three weeks I better get after it!

If you'd like to send a book for our classroom library, here is the Wish List link!

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