Sustaining Engagement: One School’s Attempt to Develop Lifelong Readers

We last checked in with Matt Renwick, an elementary school principal in Wisconsin, just as school was wrapping up in June. Now that school is about to start again, Matt talks about how his school sustains the reading program he and his staff launched in an effort to create lifelong readers.

As I was getting myself a cup of coffee in the staff lounge this spring, I noticed these posted on the wall:

notes

 

Staff members had taken their favorite recommendations from a book-a-day calendar and taped them to the wall. Inscribed on many of the sheets were short comments about the title, which briefly explained why they liked it and why you should read it.

While I waited for the Keurig machine to finish brewing, several questions popped in my head. Who started this? Why is it sustaining itself? Where will this lead? These inquiries led to more questions about how it relates to our school in general. How do we get all of our K-5 students to this place, where they see responding to reading as something enjoyable? Is this an idea our learners would naturally come up with as a way to connect with others? In other words, how do we transition our students from formalized literacy instruction to lifelong reading?

This year, we attempted to answer these questions with the advent of an after school book club. We hired two advisers to facilitate an intervention that would no longer be referred to as an intervention. Although our lowest readers received special invitations, we encouraged all of our intermediate students to join us in developing this new community of readers.

Before we got the club started, the advisers and I sat down and went over some ground rules:

  • No quizzes
  • No reading requirements or logs
  • Let them read just about anything they want
  • Let them talk to each other about reading
  • Give them opportunities to share their reading lives
  • Provide just enough structure for these activities to be successful

These ideas, deriving from literacy experts such as Gay Ivey, Peter Johnston, and Donalyn Miller, seemed counter to everything we thought we knew about school. But for at least a few of our students, more of the same would not have served them well. If any one of us were asked to extend our own school day, how would we like to spend it?

The advisers, both avid readers themselves but not classroom teachers, could hardly contain their excitement. After some heavy recruiting, they got almost 20 students to initially enroll in the club. One of their first activities was for each student to bring in a favorite title, throw it in the middle of the table, pick a new one, and try to guess who originally submitted it.

This was actually a pre-assessment. Not of their reading levels, but of the level of enjoyment they experience as readers. Questions that were answered for the advisors included: Who knows who as a reader? Which genres, authors, and titles are the kids into right now? How comfortable was each student in being seen as a reader? This activity led to many more activities, such as hosting personal interviews with each other, facilitating book talks, reading aloud, and lots of independent reading.

Due to budget constraints, the book club could only meet two nights a week after school. This meant that they had to extend the day in ways that were meaningful for the students. One tool they used was Kidblog. Each student was given access to a blog in order to reflect on their reading as well as comment on others’ thinking. In addition, students were given access to eReaders that contained many titles of their choosing, all within one device. Through these activities that helped them connect with others, students could see that reading did not have to be sequestered to the literacy block.

We did not expect our students to make substantial gains from two and a half hours of extra reading practice. Our goal was to develop lifelong readers. With anything, people will engage in something over and over if they find joy, success, and recognition for their work. That is why the advisers and students culminated their time together with a readers theater performance. The play itself came from our school’s anthology series. This was okay, because the kids selected it.

After many re-readings and rehearsals, they were read to present in front of the entire school.

Someone could say that the activities these students engaged in – peer discussions, blogging, readers theater – are not interventions that have evidence for improving reading in students. But I think these people are looking at reading only through the lens of the act itself. We can quickly forget that reading is just as much an emotional endeavor as it is a cognitive one.

My own reading life didn’t begin until 3rd grade. That was the year my teacher read aloud Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. The rest, as they say, is history. It is not to suggest that I received poor instruction in my K-2 years. I just hadn’t developed an affinity for reading yet. I had the skills, but lacked the engagement.

Gay Ivey noted at the 2014 Wisconsin State Reading Association convention that readers don’t read to accumulate a required number of minutes or to fill out a reading log. They read because they love reading. The minutes and logs that we demand are a result of this engagement. In an educational world that highly values the scientific side of literacy, we need to continuously cultivate a community of connected readers and engage them in a lifelong and joyful journey of learning.

digitalstudentportfoliosMatt Renwick is a 15-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary school leader in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book Digital Student Porfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Improvement will be published by Powerful Learning Press in July.

 

 

 

 

2 comments August 11th, 2014


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