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Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

As we celebrate Banned Books Week in the library this week, the seventh grade students and I have had some great discussions about reading and the ultimate decision makers about materials purchased and held in a library.  Just who can decide what we read, and should they have that power?  Amidst these enlightened discussions regarding freedom of speech, I read an article regarding the banning of The Catcher in the Rye in a Florida School (“Martin County Mom Trying to Get Catcher in the Rye Banned from Classes“).  What I found interesting was not the fact that a mother objected to her child reading a book with profanity.  Frankly, that happens all the time, and as a librarian I have no issue with it.  Parents, after all, are the primary educators of their children.  But why do parents think they have the right to challenge what is being read by other students, or worse deny them the right to read those books?  The books that are challenged and ultimately banned contain ideas that can inspire reflection and conversation from both a negative and positive standpoint.  They can inspire exploration of ideas and moral stances.  Without the exploration of this literature, personal philosophies may go unexamined.

Freedom of speech grants the freedom to explore many different ideas, even those that may be unpopular or unfamiliar.   It is truly frightening to think individuals believe that they have the right to censor those ideas that they find offensive, to the detriment of the entire community.  It is hard to believe that these actions continue in 2010.

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Over the years, I’ve found there are some simple steps you can take to encourage students to read more.  This isn’t based on an academic study or survey of thousands.  It’s mostly common sense tips that I’ve found that work.  So here goes —

  1. Know your students.  What do they like/not like?  What are they talking about in class (not necessarily tied to classwork).  What bores them? What do they find funny?  All these things indicate what they might be interested in reading in print.
  2. Know your collection.  What do you currently have that’s popular, and how can you expand those holdings to appeal to the students?  Do you need more copies of the same title, or just more books written by the same author?  Is your collection lacking in certain topic areas, or on certain reading levels? 
  3. Read everything you can.  This doesn’t just apply to the books, but to the publishing companies releases about the books, publications’ reviews of new titles, and other librarians’ and teachers’ thoughts on blogs or through Twitter. I find School Library Journal and my PLN on Twitter to be the most valuable resources.  The more you know about what quality materials are available, the better your purchasing decisions will be. 
  4. Read everything you can Part 2.  Read as many of the new titles as you can.  The more knowledgeable you are about the materials, the more you’ll be able to talk to the students about them.  And knowing their scope will allow you to associate similar materials for referrals.
  5. Be enthusiastic!  Excitement is contagious.  The more enthusiasm you show when talking about books with students, the more excited they’ll be about reading them.  I call it “The Oprah Effect.”  Whenever I talk about a new title in the library and how great it is, I always have a long line waiting to check it out.  Granted, my power doesn’t have the scope of Oprah, but it sometimes feels as if it does.
  6. Give them freedom.  Let students read what they want and when they want (within reason).  Don’t be rigid about titles and genres.  That’s not to say they shouldn’t be exposed to all different kinds of literature, but let them enjoy their favorite kinds without restriction.  Reading needs to be a pleasurable experience for children to choose it over the myriad of options available to them in their free time. 
  7. Be willing to listen and discuss.  Students often return after reading to a book wanting to talk about it.  Give them the time and attention.  Engage in a discussion.  Offer new reading suggestions.  You’ll develop a trusting relationship that will continue to grow.
  8. Model reading.  This may not seem obvious, but letting students see you read, and letting them know that reading is important to you can have more power than you think.  Find the time, even if it’s just a couple of minutes a day.

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Engaging Discussion

Sometimes the simplest point elicits such a overwhelming response that the discussion is forced to turn in a completely new direction.  This could be a bad thing, but today it was just the opposite.  It presented such a teachable moment that I threw out my plans and let the students take the lead.  My focus was actually on the career of Roald Dahl, and his books for children.  At one point I mentioned critics’ opinions that his books are too violent and therefore inappropriate for children (Alan Review).  To that, my fourth grade students disagreed vehemently.  They talked about cartoon violence and fairy tales, and how they are exposed to them all the time.  They brought up the difference between real life and a story, and how they can distinguish the difference, and are able to put things in perspective.  They talked about how humor can temper the unexpected and violent.  They even broached the idea of personal choice, and the fact that many different kinds of reading materials should be available, and each person should have the right to choose what they read.  As one student put it “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it; you can pick something else.”  But more than that, these students asserted their maturity and ability to intelligently approach what they read, and to put the written word in context.  It was a very good day.

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A New Approach to Reading

Every year, a saddening trend comes to my attention as I analyze the yearly circulation statistics of our school library.  Reading decreases as children get older.  In our library, the number of books checked-out (which is the closest correlation to books read) peaks in fifth grade, and drops significantly by eight grade.  I’ve tried everything I can think of to increase older students’ interest in reading: purchasing the newest books, reading and speaking about new arrivals with enthusiasm, creating interesting displays, planning special reading programs, etc. , but nothing has changed.  This summer, my principal suggested we read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and coincidentally a member of my PLN posted a link to an interview with the author.  Her theory is simple: let students read what they want to read.  The New York Times featured an article on a similar theme, “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.” 

This reading workshop idea is catching on across the country and in my own school.  Several of our classroom teachers have overhauled their reading programs along these lines.  Giving students choice doesn’t seem like such a novel idea, but apparently it is.  Today alone, more books were checked out by middle school students than usually go out in a month.  Students were not dissuaded from choosing something short or less than serious.  The only requirement was that they read.  Maybe the solution has been this simple all along.

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