Welcome to a new series on my blog! If you did not know, I am a middle school English teacher. Of course, my job influences some of my reading, whether it is something I’m reading for professional development or a text I’m using in my classroom. My Teacher Thoughts might not appeal to the audience of my regular book reviews, and that’s okay! But I thought it was important to make a space for the teacher side of me on my book blog.
Title: The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child
Author: Donalyn Miller
Genre: Nonfiction – Education
Length: 227 pages
Release Date: March 16, 2009
Source: School District
Recommended for: Reading/English teachers, education professionals
Known for her popular blog, “The Book Whisperer,” Donalyn Miller is a dedicated teacher who says she has yet to meet a child she couldn’t turn into a reader. Her approach, however, is not conventional. Miller dispenses with the more traditional reading instruction of book reports and comprehension worksheets in favor of embracing students’ choices in books and independent reading. Her zeal for reading is infections and inspiring –and the results are remarkable. No matter how far behind Miller’s students may be when they enter her 6th grade classroom, her students read an average of 40 books a year, achieve high scores on standardized tests, and internalize a love for books and reading that lasts long after they’ve left her class. Travel alongside the author as she leads her students to discover the ample rewards of reading and literature.
Her secrets include:
Affirming the reader in every student
Supporting students’ reading choices
Carving out extra reading time
Modeling authentic reading behaviors
Discarding time-worn reading assignments
Developing a classroom library with high-interest books
Rich with classroom examples and practical advice and stitched together with the thread of Miller’s passionate voice, this book will help teachers support students of all levels on their path to reading success and points a way out of the nation’s literacy crisis. The book also includes an invaluable list of books that students most enjoy reading.
I read this in December for a book study at my school district where I co-led the discussion group for The Book Whisperer. Not only did I read the book for my own professional development, I created a list of discussion questions for each chapter (shared below). My discussion group was small but diverse: it included a few ELAR teachers, elementary and alternative school administrators, a reading specialist, a life skills teacher, and even a coach who wanted to encourage his players to read.
Donalyn Miller promotes a reading classroom with choice, independent reading at its core rather than as an add-on. Several obstacles prevent teachers from implementing an independent reading program that meets the needs of all readers: time, testing, money, and teacher turnover, to name a few. Even though choice IR has been shown to have the greatest impact on reading ability and attitudes toward reading, teachers and districts are reluctant to shift the instructional focus from generating high test scores to creating empowered readers. However, if students are reading a lot of what they want on an appropriate level for them, they will become better readers, and the test scores will follow.
Donalyn Miller is an avid reader herself, and she clearly understands who her students are as readers. She works hard to match each student with the right reading material, and she never gives up even on her most reluctant reader. The core of her IR program is a 40 Book Challenge, and while not every students meets the goal to read 40 books in the school year, most do, and every student reads more in her class than they did in previous years.
Reading about how readers develop in her classroom is truly inspiring. She shares several activities she does in her classroom to promote reading, and even outlines several alternatives to traditional reading assignments. I do wish we got a better sense of what a typical day in her classroom looks like. I would have loved to see a lesson plan that shows how she teaches reading skills and what her daily instruction looks like, not just a description of what independent reading time looks like.
I really liked the Self-Reflection Activity included on pg. 111 (linked below). To be an effective mentor of students’ reading, you must understand who you are as a reader and be willing to model best reading practices, and those questions help make sense of that. Teachers make lots of excuses for why they don’t have time to read, but reading teachers have to be readers themselves. Practice what you preach!
Most of the educators in my discussion found some ideas to immediately implement in their classrooms, but there was still pushback against adopting her entire philosophy and devoting so much instructional time to just reading, which can be difficult to monitor. We had some great conversations, but I don’t think one 2-hour meeting with 12 people is enough to transform the reading culture in our district without any kind of follow-up. I myself am a writing teacher, so I am not able to implement her strategies in my classroom like I want to.
I do recommend this book to reading and English teachers, and I would recommend reading this as a department so can get on the same page with your colleagues. Ultimately you can only control what goes on in your classroom, but I think you need to get more teachers on board if you truly want to have a lasting impact on student reading.
Ch 1: There and Back Again
How did you approach teaching reading/English as a first-year teacher? How has your approach changed since? Reflect on your successes or failures.
Ch 2: Everybody Is a Reader
What are you currently doing to meet the needs of your developing readers? Your dormant readers? Your underground readers?
What obstacles prevent you from implementing a reading program that engages and meets the needs of all readers?
Ch 3: There’s a Time and a Place
How do you set high expectations for students? How do you model positive reading for students? Do you make time for reading in your own life? How do you create an environment that promotes reading? How can we make library time more purposeful? What are some struggles with library time? What are some possible solutions?
Ch 4: Reading Freedom
How do you facilitate honest discussions about reading? How do you help students find the right book? Challenging books? Harness peer pressure to reading? How do you teach genre?
Ch 5: Walking the Walk
What does reading mean to you? How many books did you read this year? How do your attitudes toward reading influence your teaching? What is your reading improvement plan?
Ch 6: Cutting the Teacher Strings
Where do you stand on the whole class novel debate?
How do you assess reading? Is it the best method for students?
What activities from the chapter would you like to implement in your classroom? Make a plan.
Ch 7: Letting Go
What are your primary goals for teaching reading? Why is it important to instill a lifelong reading habit?
Appendix A: The Care and Feeding of a Classroom Library
How do you stock/organize/manage it? When do students have time to explore it? Is it necessary?