Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Book Whisperer- My Thoughts and Reflections

Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer has been on my nightstand unread and covered by my other reading selections since last summer. I purchased it after seeing multiple bloggers mention it but never had the burning desire to read it. I think there was a part of me that expected it to be another book advocating for a teaching method that I would try and then eventually abandon. I just couldn't find the motivation to start.

Now after being captivated with the book for two days, it has become the newest addition to my personal reading library- underlined, written-in, and coffee-stained. I know this will be a mentor text that I refer to often and Donalyn Miller has been added to my list of teacher-idols.

Miller offers common-sense and practical arguments for what students need more of in a reading classroom- reading!! She discusses how she creates an inspiring environment and culture of readers in her sixth-grade classroom and helps students genuinely fall in love with reading. She talks teacher-to-teacher, heart-to-heart, on what she has found that works. I was finally ready to listen.

Reading this book has come at a very significant time in my teaching career. I have been teaching reading to third graders for five years now and it seems that every year I struggle to balance what I think is best for my students with the expectations of others. I have tried a little bit of everything but found myself falling back on one constant every time- extended segments of self-selected independent reading time, no matter what reading level my students were on. Nothing else seemed to engage my students more, give me more insight into their reading habits and personalities, and allowed me to connect with my students reader-to-reader.

Despite knowing that this was what worked best with my students, I still forced them to engage in other activities because of the expectations others had for what should be going on in a reading classroom. When I think back now on how much time I stole away from my students, and from myself creating activities, it almost makes me physically ill. All of those other activities were supposed to lead students to the ultimate goal of successfully reading independently and here I was taking that time away from them!

As I was reading the book, I felt those twinges of guilt when Miller discussed common classroom practices like whole-class novel studies, book talks, reading logs, and popcorn reading. I did them all. These practices were not expected or endorsed by my colleagues, so why did I do these things when I knew in my heart that they weren't working?

The following quotes from the book spoke directly to me and prompted deep self-reflection:

"Are we teaching books or are we teaching readers?"

"Reading has become schoolwork, not an activity in which students willingly engage outside of school."

"The relationships I build with my students are predominantly those of one reader to another. I am so enthusiastic about reading, so joyful about books, so willing to share my opinions and my reading experiences that my students are swept up in my love of books and want to feel it for themselves."

"...the instructional edge goes to the teacher who sees reading as a gift, not a goal."

"Instead of falling into a book and traveling on a journey with the characters, readers float on the surface of the story and cherry-pick moments they predict they will be tested on later."

"The reality is that you cannot inspire others to do what you are not inspired to do yourself." 

 "I want my students to learn what life readers know, reading is its own reward."

"The only way you will know that your students read every day is to watch them read right in front of you."

The book made me step back and analyze my choices as a reading teacher much more closely. What practices was I using and why? Should I continue or discontinue them? What is the real instructional goal?

Yes, I have my class read the same book at the same time once in a while, but for valuable reasons (in my personal opinion). I love that when we read a book together it gives us a common language and literary experience that we can build on and connect to throughout the year. I never quiz my students on the book or expect them to write a report at the end. I can assess their comprehension, or lack thereof, based on their participation in our discussions and sometimes just the look on their face. I also have students read the same book to expose them to authors and genres they may not have chosen otherwise. I have many boys who discovered they love Judy Moody after we read one of the books together.

Now, popcorn reading? That's another story. Yes, I have used this method and yes, I knew deep in my heart that it was ineffective. Why did I do it? Why does any teacher use it? To ensure that every child is staying with the class and is paying attention, of course! Reflecting on when I have used this with my students, I realized that I mostly used this when reading expository text. Reflecting even deeper, I realized that it was because of my own insecurities and my fear that the students would walk away missing valuable information, or worse, misinterpreting information, that drove me to use this method. Even though the students were reading, I dominated the conversation probing and explaining to be sure everyone understood the information being presented. Did it accomplish my goal of keeping everyone on task? Nope. The same kids who always played with their tennis shoes still did, regardless of my efforts. Did the students truly comprehend the text we were reading? Some did, some didn't. Are there better ways to go about reading and assessing comprehension of expository text? Yes!

It's very easy for me to get caught up in trends. But at my core, I am a reader, I love reading, and I want to pass that passion on to my students. Any activity that I have my students engage in that does not directly align to that goal needs to be critically examined. I love that Miller so boldly explores popular methods and debunks them. But more importantly, she urges teachers to examine the reasoning behind their methods and to not be afraid to do what is best for students.

Whatever your level of familiarity with the book, I urge you to read it or reread it as soon as you can.

Thank you, Donalyn Miller, for fearlessly advocating for our students.

You can read more about Donalyn Miller on her website,

1 comment:

  1. I bought this book over Spring Break and can't wait to tackle it this summer. I love your take on it. Happy Summer!

    Teaching With Moxie


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