A book hasn’t whipped me into a fervor of action like Book Whisperer in quite some time. But I’m glad it did. And the thing is, it’s not like the author, Donalyn Miller, has presented me with some unknown truth. Instead, she’s asked some tough questions and challenged me to get down to the heart of the matter. To teach reading, students have to read. Truth bomb.
Of course by now you’re thinking, Chancellor, that shouldn’t be a surprise. You’re an English teacher after all. And you’re right. I should’ve known this. But I’m going to let you in on an industry secret (we sometimes overcomplicate things because then we can prove to ourselves that we’ve “taught” something). But the honest truth is that reading can’t be taught through worksheets and other “activities” that we’ve constructed to convince ourselves that this is what “teaching” reading is all about.
Miller is a very approachable voice in this book because she started out like a lot of us. We are passionate to instill a love reading with our students. We want them to feel the thrill of the plot, to miss the characters like good friends, and to hunger after the next book in a series. But the problem is, we forget that reading isn’t something that is taught. She noticed, like I have, that what I’m “teaching” isn’t inspiring the students to read. Instead, I’ve noticed that students come expect worksheets and packets and projects and they do the work because they want to make me happy. But I’m a reader. And successful at it if I may say so, but they aren’t. So pleasing me isn’t going to make them better readers. Miller argues that if we give responsibility to the students to find out how important reading is, they will demonstrate to us how they are reading.
Fundamentally, it’s like this. In gym class, the teacher asks you to do twenty push ups in a certain about of time. If you can’t do the twenty push ups, the teacher doesn’t give you worksheets to fill out. She probably tells you that you need to practice. And the more you do push ups, the better you’ll become. It might take you all year, but by the end of the class, if you keep at it, you’ll be doing twenty more push ups than you could at the beginning.
I understand this isn’t a perfect metaphor, but at the same time I think that we’ve complicated reading for a lot of students. Miller challenges how we teach reading by asking us in primary, secondary, and in college, how much reading in school did we actually do? The sad truth is that I probably did more reading in college than in did in primary and secondary, and I probably did the least amount of reading in high school. The irony should be hitting you right about now. If we are “teaching” reading in primary and secondary, why are students doing so little of it? And how can we fix it.
Miller offers an example of her own classroom and how she’s structured it. I’ve taken to heart her philosophy, but I’m struggling to understand how I can make it work in my high school class. I don’t have the time she does to let the students read. And when you have a class called “American Literature” for juniors, you can’t just let students read just anything. However, after reading the Book Whisperer on the heels of The Reading Zone, I think the best compromise I can make is to allow time in class to read the assigned novels, have one day dedicated to the students reading their own choice of novels, and have some writing workshops sprinkled in between. Ultimately, I want my students to start learning the habits and traits of authentic readers. When they are in their professions, they are going to have to be literate. Some of them may have professional readings they have to complete. And, while I’m not a betting man, I doubt any boss is going to have them fill out worksheets and complete diorama of what they’ve just read. So here’s to a new school year with more reading and more authentic assignments!