Thursday, January 3, 2013

What counts as reading?

Over break I have spent a lot of time on Twitter – actually, who am I kidding, I always spend a lot of time on Twitter. On several different days I have been part of a Tweet thread on what “counts” for books in our classrooms.

Many teachers ask students to read a certain amount of books a year. In The Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller shared that she challenges her students to read 40 books each year. They kept track in their notebooks. Here’s how I have always interpreted Donalyn’s book challenge for her students – as a goal. I’ve seen the photos of her students at the end of the year holding up numbers of how many books they’ve read. Some were over 100, some well below 40. She said that doesn’t mean they cannot get an “A” – one set of boys with lower numbers had doubled or tripled what they read the previous year, how is that not success?

So do I have my students make a goal of how many books they will read? Absolutely. I tell them the goal has to be above 40. Mainly I picked 40 because I know it will shock them. I know they think they can’t do it. They can. Do I keep track of how many books they’ve read on a regular basis? Nope. They do, but I don’t even look at it. I glance at their notebook in reading conferences, ask if it is up to date, but I don’t keep track. Honestly, that’s for a few reasons. One, it would be one more thing on my plate and that plate is pretty full as it is. Two, I want them to own this, not me. So when several kids mentioned before break that they needed to adjust their original number, they were already almost at it, the class decided to do just that. I was fine either way – I reached my Goodreads goal for reading in August – I think. I didn’t readjust, just figured I’d see how far I could surpass it. That being said, I like letting them make the decisions here.

As for what counts, which we’ve been having a lot of conversation about, I think I might be in the minority when I say I count anything. So yes, graphic novels, picture books, rereads, audiobooks, another book in a series (Seriously, a friend’s daughter goes to a school where books in a series don’t count. WHAT?), I count them all. I’m sure I have some of you questioning that – picture books count? I could read 40 in a day. Yep, so can I. I think the reason I count anything is because I’m sending a message here – reading counts. Heck, I’d count a magazine if they wanted to read that. My student Matt has read 140+ graphic novels this year. Last year he says he was not a reader. Should I tell him that we need to count each graphic novel as a ¼ of a book? Or only ones with X amount of pages will count? What message would that send to him? If you ask Matt if he is a reader now, his answer would be a yes. He actually ran into a bus one days (it was parked) when he was leaving school because he was reading as he walked.

What I have found is that the more they read – of any format – the more they want to read. Do some get stuck in ruts that they only want to read graphic novels, they only want to read fantasy? Yes. Are they sometimes reading below their reading level? Yes. I’ll tell you a secret here, though. I read 508 books last year. Easily 450 were below my reading level, maybe more. I’m still a pretty good reader. My entire goal for the year is to help them fall in love with reading. They need to find their niches – what do they love? Counting what they read shows that I value their choices. The higher the volume, the more exposure they are getting to stories, characters, plots. I value rereading because I do it. Books I love, characters I love, I like to visit again and again.

Even saying all of this, I do try and help them get out of a rut. For example, with Matt after about 80 graphic novels we talked about goals in one of our conferences. I asked if he thought he should try and branch out. He agreed but I could tell he was nervous. He wondered if he was only a reader with graphic novels. I book talked many books for him, all ones I was sure he would find success with. He ended up choosing The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. I think he felt that the sparseness of the text on the page was non-threatening. He devoured it and went on to read several other books in verse. Then he went back to graphic novels. All I ask of him, of all my readers, is that they try something else now and then. I tell them, how will you know if you like it if you don’t try? Same thing I tell my sons about vegetables, come to think of it.

So as I go back to school on Monday I will tell my students of my own #bookgapchallenge. What genres do I avoid reading? For me I tend to shy away from the classics. As a result, my first book purchase of this year was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m going to tell them why I am challenging myself to read these books. Then we are going to look at the goals they made for the second half of the school year. We will discuss how they will accomplish those goals. But that does not mean I will stop counting graphic novels, or that I will discourage them from reading them. Who knows, maybe they will one day write some of those comics that I can place in my library. Or maybe those will be the gateway books into a life of reading for them. That is absolutely something I want to encourage.