I am a novice middle school English teacher, finding her way in the city. Instilling a passion for storytelling is one of my favorite things about my job. My philosophy, before even beginning my career, was that reading and writing can build community and allow all students access to the curriculum. And how right I was. My school, a small charter school, implemented a summer reading program. Students were provided a list of 10 books, and were asked to read only one. Many of my students did even less, “reading” a book that they had read in elementary school and passing it off as their summer accomplishment. Little did the students know, the school had also poured thousands of dollars this summer to stock the classrooms full of books for the eager-minded to peruse, check out, take home, and pour over.
While many of you may have the luxury of a school library, our school has not had that; my students have been lucky to have a shelf or two of books to pick through. But this year when the students arrived, each room was filled with titles that any middle schooler would be anxious to read. My students began flying through them. My kiddos who reluctantly “read” their summer reading book have now read well over 10 to 15 books each, and I cannot get them to put them down. Our discussions now begin with “What are Rick Riordan and J.K. Rowling up to these days?” [Yes, my students follow authors.] And if I’m stuck on a lesson plan, I know that I can always fall back on the books. These kids always have their books, and they use them to discuss climax, resolution, metaphor, character development, comedy, tragedy, even grammar. The most beautiful thing that I have witnessed is the care with which my students recommend books to each other, picking a book that they know will help their friends and describing the aspects of the story that spoke to them. The excitement in their voices is testament to the connection they have made with the stories and the eagerness they have to share their experiences.
I have witnessed the power that stories can have over reaching middle schoolers. Adolescents crave a story that is relatable, about someone his or her own age, or about something they may have gone through themselves. The most common request I get from a student is for a “book about life in middle school.” These kids want to hear about others like them. Many of my students have lived hard lives, and those that haven’t lived truly “hard” lives, may have difficult circumstances. Books and stories help them to realize that they aren’t alone.
Psychologist Albert Bandura explains that we develop through a combination of behaviors, environmental factors, and cognitive factors. His research shows that we learn behaviors from what is modeled for us, cognitively choosing what to emulate, but only aware of what behaviors are presented (Santrock, 2014, p.25). Within my own experiences, I believe that this idea of modeling, specifically within books and stories, helps to achieve many different goals. As I previously stated, books and stories help students to situate themselves within a larger community when they may otherwise feel alone. If the student is going through a particularly difficult time (move, failure, bullying, even death), books and stories can provide students with alternate behaviors to successfully – and sometimes unsuccessfully – overcome these obstacles. The multitude of models presented within the literary canon allows students a better chance to develop their decisions than had these same students been left only to the models presented within their environment.
When I was told that my school would be using the book Book Love by Penny Kittle as a basis for our literacy instruction, I was over the moon. I had previously read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller and had fallen in love with her philosophy. Penny Kittle’s ideas were very similar, but more targeted to secondary classrooms. I knew that when I had my own classroom, I wanted it to look like theirs. I wanted the bookshelves packed with 2000 books. I wanted the student led book talks. I wanted the reflective reading journals. When I began reflecting myself, I realized, what was most important was the experience for the students. What made Miller’s and Kittle’s approach so amazing was that it didn’t ultimately matter if her students read 5 or 50 books. What mattered was that the classroom environment fostered collegial conversation about books. Many of their students, just like mine, grew within the year they taught them. The growth looks different for each student, but the end goal is growth. Growth cannot happen if conversations cannot happen – conversations about genre, about characters, about what makes a book good, interesting, even horrible – and that is what makes this process fun and exciting.
Adolescents, in my opinion and experience, learn best if they can experience their learning hands on. As I have mentioned, I focus my efforts in my classroom on providing students with ample opportunities to read and analyze stories that students have found, read, and are interested in. According to developmentalist Lev Vygotsky, children learn best from each other and from more knowledgeable peers (Santrock, 2014, p.187-188). The reading and writing model that I have worked to cultivate in my classroom allows for students to take charge of their own learning and teach each other using materials at their individual level. Another benefit of the independent reading model is that students read what they are interested in. Sometimes this results in students reading below their level, but more often than not, they are challenging themselves because the story is so engaging. Vygotsky’s idea of scaffolding encourages a levelized approach where children receive additional support to ensure that all students are able to grasp the concepts.
I believe that allowing students the liberty to choose their own materials and providing them with additional supports along the way encourages the development of lifelong readers and learners. My goal as an educator is to facilitate the learning process both within my classroom and beyond. By facilitating discussions about books and stories, and using my students’ interests, I am not only able to achieve this goal, but allow my students to develop to their full potential as a learner.
Kittle, P. (2013). Book love: developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: awakening the inner reader in every child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Santrock, J. W. (2014). Child development (14th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.