It is a poor heart that never rejoices. – Charles Dickens
After thirteen years as a special education inclusion teacher, I have changed positions at my school and am now a general education/Pre-AP 8th grade English Language Arts teacher. This is a move I’ve been contemplating for several years, and this year the opportunity happily presented itself. As an advocate for free choice reading, my collection of middle-grade and YA books quickly found a home on my classroom library shelves. Last spring, I attended Penny Kittle’s professional development workshop, Book Love; I’ve been implementing the strategies and techniques I learned from the training, as well as from reading her book, into my classroom. I had lots of expectations about how this year would go – I was nervous to be starting this new adventure in my own classroom, but also confident in my abilities to spread book love to my students and help them build their own reading lives. I could not wait to get started!
But. This is the time of year when negativity abounds among teachers and students – summer was forever ago, and the holiday breaks just can’t get here fast enough. Teachers are talking, a lot, about all the things that are wrong with “kids these days.” It gets hard to listen to. While I do raise my voice against decisions adults make that are not in the best interest of kids, there are many things I can’t change – I can’t change that a child has a past filled with poverty, abuse, or neglect. I can’t take away learning disabilities, neurological disorders, or mental health issues. I can’t change what happened in all the other classrooms my kids sat in before they came to me. And yet, our students are not static characters in a novel, incapable of change. They are kids; they are not yet who they are going to be. I may not have control over many things that directly affect my students, but what I do have control over is my own attitude and what happens in my own classroom. Recently, Donalyn Miller wrote a post for the Nerdy Book Club blog where she stated, “What we do is who we are.” Positive rituals benefit students, and a routine we have at my school is something called “good things” – students share with the class something they are looking forward to, something fun they did, or other good news (a component of Capturing Kids’ Hearts). So, with Donalyn’s words gently nudging my actions as a teacher (I keep a sticky note with those words on the wall next to my desk), I’m going to share the good things that have happened in my classroom so far this year.
- On the first day of school, as I explained the process for checking books out of my classroom library, one of my Pre-AP students, a black girl, saw The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas on my shelf. She was excited to see that title, and asked for more books about black characters. I showed her some similar books on my shelves, and handed them to her one by one. Her arms full, she said, “I can’t believe you have all these books about black people! I can really check them out? Like, for real?” I responded that yes, she really can check them out, and she said, “Man, this is the best class ever!”
- After posting the story above on my Instagram account (and sharing it in a previous blog post), a friend from junior high/high school whom I have not seen in more than twenty years, but keep in contact with through social media, messaged me to ask if she could donate books to my classroom library. I gladly provided her with a couple of titles, and she told me that I would soon receive a package in the mail. Expecting two or three books (and feeling quite happy about that), I was completely overwhelmed with emotion when, instead, I received ten brand new books, plus a $100 Amazon gift card, in the mail from my old friend. I was so touched by her generosity that I cried (and freaked out my ten-year-old)! I quickly ordered books for my classroom and shared the story with my students, along with a slew of new books.
- The librarians and teachers that are in my book club not only offer stellar advice and innovative instructional ideas to me without hesitation, they also all donated several current YA titles they personally owned to my classroom library – my friends are amazing! And they read great books!
- Another student, a boy in one of my regular ELA classes, spent the first several weeks reading the same book – a fictional story about a Texas football player. He didn’t seem that into it, and his apathy toward reading was apparent. My students read in class for ten minutes or so every single day. During reading time, he sighed, fell asleep, slumped in his chair, tried to lie on the floor, and generally did everything he could to get out of reading. He did finally finish that book, reading only one book in the first nine week grading period. I expect students to have a book to read every day in class, so he grudgingly checked out another book, Gym Candy by Carl Deuker. Every day for the last couple of weeks, when the ten minutes are up and I tell the class to find a stopping place in their reading, he groans loudly and says, “Noooo! Not yet!” Now, during independent reading time, he sits up in his chair and hunches over his book, gobbling up the words on the page while using his bookmark as a line guide. I often whisper, “Okay. Two more minutes,” to him as I take attendance. I mean, how could I not?
- One of my girl athletes, a Pre-AP student who struggles with attention and academic confidence issues, and who had never read an entire novel cover to cover, discovered The Hate U Give after I book-talked it to my classes. She was leery of the size of the book, but with encouragement and the relevant subject matter, she remained riveted for several weeks. She reads slowly and it took a lot of concentration and dedication for her to stick with it, but she finished and was full of emotion for the characters. She is now anxiously awaiting the movie adaptation, and hoping the actors portray the characters just like she pictured them in her head. She is so proud of herself, and her confidence is soaring. She kept asking for “more books like this” after reading THUG, so I gave her a copy of Monster by Walter Dean Myers. She’s already halfway through. Next in her TBR are All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, and Dear Martin by Nic Stone. A reader is born!
- My principal has been very vocal about his endorsement of free choice independent reading in our classrooms. I appreciate this so much because I know that not all teachers are lucky enough to have the support of their administrators when it comes to students’ independent reading. My principal’s dedication to reading comes from his own experience – as a late reader himself, and then a reluctant one all through school – he had a high school English teacher who believed in and encouraged him, which helped shape him into the reading advocate he is today. Because of the support he received from one teacher, more than 900 students are reaping the benefits of free choice reading in the classroom!
- One of my girls, who receives special education services for a learning disability, was quitting a lot of books at the beginning of the year. I was worried she would become a serial quitter, when she finally found a book she loved. Jason Reynolds’ book in verse, Long Way Down, hooked her from the first lines. She blew through it, then read Hidden by Helen Frost. She’s finished several novels-in-verse and has moved on to her first full-length novel, None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio. She told me she’s read more books in the first eleven weeks of school than in her whole life.
- At first, my book-talks were how my students knew about the great books in my classroom library. Now that they have read several of them, the books are flying off my shelves and I have kids coming to class saying that another student told them about this book, or that book, and can they check it out? So-and-so said it was really good, Ms.! I just smile, take the requested book off the shelf, hand it to them and think, They’re talking about books. OUTSIDE OF CLASS!
- Our school participates in No Place For Hate, an initiative that helps educators promote anti-bias and diversity education in schools. This year, I’m volunteering with our 8th grade counselor as the teacher sponsor for our NPFH student coalition. As one of our activities, the student coalition members came up with the idea to promote diverse literature to the students on our campus, and we’ve worked with our librarian to pull diverse books and display them in the library. To advertise this movement, our coalition members participated in a photo shoot, which featured them reading diverse books, and it will air on our Student News very soon. I’m amazed at the ideas these kids have to promote inclusivity and diversity on our campus!
- At the end of the first grading period, I asked my students to self-reflect in writing on their independent reading progress so far. While I was pretty happy with the results of my classroom reading culture, I was admittedly a little disappointed that some kids only read one book in nine or ten weeks. When I read their written reflections, I found them to be refreshingly candid, honest, and forthcoming. The students who knew they could have been doing more admitted it and committed to pushing themselves. The students who only read one book, and about whom I was feeling discouraged, wrote about their pride in finishing a book already this year, because last year, they didn’t read even one book all year. Their obvious satisfaction and joy in this accomplishment jumped off the pages of their Reader-Writer Notebooks and into my heart, totally reframing my disappointment into beaming pride for these kids.
We choose who we are going to be by what we do, both inside our classrooms and out. Good Things. They’re happening all around us. Our students just need us to notice, to celebrate, and to cheer them on. They’ll do the rest.