Archives For Independent Student Reads

September 8th is International Literacy Day, a date supported by the United Nations Educational, Societal, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with a global aim “to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities, and societies.”

Their efforts at UNESCO are paying off. Worldwide, steady progress has been made in literacy with the increase in the adult literacy rate (15+ years) from 81% in 2000 to 86% in 2016.

Locally, here in West Haven, Connecticut, a small city along the coast of Connecticut, we are engaging in our own efforts to improving literacy. Here, we are fortunate to have Read to Grow, an organization that has donated over 1.7 million books to families, child-care providers, teachers, doctors, health-care groups, library programs.

Our school system has directly benefitted from the generosity of Read to Grow whose mission statement is

Every family — regardless of income and primary language — will understand the critical importance of early childhood literacy and will take an active role in their child’s reading development. All children in Connecticut will have books of their own.

This past June, Read to Grow was an essential collaborator to our summer reading program organized at one Title 1 school, Forest Elementary School by the school’s reading consultant, Heather Mazzone. We have sought to prevent a loss of reading skills during the summer months, a loss commonly known as the “summer slide.” We had discussed different ways to engage students during the summer. We found our inspiration in a study completed by faculty members Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Their research led them to conclude that academic loss can be made worse because of a lack of reading materials at home; no books in a home meant lost opportunities to read.

According to Allington:

“What we know is that children who do not read in the summer lose two to three months of reading development while kids who do read tend to gain a month of reading proficiency. This creates a three to four month gap every year. Every two or three years the kids who don’t read in the summer fall a year behind the kids who do.”

In designing their three-year study, Allington and McGill-Franzen gave students books for the summer. In one test group, they allowed students to choose their books, explaining that “research has demonstrated that choice makes a very important contribution to achievement.” For this test group, the study found that summer reading is just as effective, if not more so, as summer school.

We were convinced.

We wanted to try….but, we needed books.

That’s where Connecticut’s Read to Grow stepped in to help. With our collaboration with Read to Grow through the Books for Kids Co-Coordinator, Linda Sylvester, we were able to obtain over 4,300 books for students in Pre-K through fourth grade. There were boxes and boxes of new and gently used books, collected through donations and book drives.

Forest School literacy aides then organized the sets of books into different grade levels. In late June, just before the start of summer vacation, each Forest student had the opportunity to select two books from a wide assortment of texts.  In addition to these two books, each student also received a “Mystery Bag” that contained eight (8) additional books. That meant each student left school with 10 books to keep and read over the summer!

In addition, inside each mystery bag was a notebook, a “Forest School Summer Writing Journal 2018,” for students to jot down any thoughts they wanted to share, questions that they had while reading, or any connections they wanted to make. Students were told that those who turned in their the “Forest School Summer Writing Journal 2018” at the beginning of the new school year would receive another free book.

Finally, parents received a note in the bag explaining how reading can stop the academic summer slide and how to encourage their child to practice reading.

Forest Elementary is not the only West Haven School to benefit from Read to Grow. This organization has helped the all of the schools in the West Haven Public School system, K-12. For example, this past week, I was able to select 309 books to add to the independent reading book closet at the high school for students to choose and take home to read.

According to its website, the Books for Kids program distributes over 145,000 books annually. Since it began, Books for Kids has delivered more than 1.2 million new and gently used books.

Like the international efforts of UNESCO to improve literacy, Read to Grow works locally to improve literacy. Both organizations recognize the importance of starting literacy at an early age to create life-long readers. Both organizations also recognize the importance of literacy to local and national economies.  Multiple studies have already shown a correlation between more education and higher earnings, and between higher educational scores and higher earnings. Literacy has a pay off…literally!

Now that we are back to school, we look forward to reading what students thought about the 10 books they read.

We are hopeful that the 10 books they read over the summer have helped to improve literacy.

And, we are fortunate that we have a partnership with Read to Grow and their Books for Kids program that helps us to slow the summer slide…10 books at a time. Continue Reading…

The Unit 1 pre-assessment question from Teachers College Reading units of Study Grade 4 asks:

How did the [character] change from the beginning to the end of the story and why?                                                                      (Unit 1 -“Papa’s Parrot” by Cynthia Rylant.)

In previous posts, I questioned this kind of assessment that asks about character change in a story.

I have argued in these posts that in texts for the 3rd grade -and even in more sophisticated texts up through Grade 12- there may not be a character change.

In this assessment, the character in Rylant’s story does not change. His character is the same, but once he learns about the parrot, he experiences a change in his feelings towards his father…and the parrot.

The character change question above may have been generated by a misread of the ELA Common Core State Standards. The Reading Literature Standard 6.4 (grade 6) states that students in grade 6 should be able to:

Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.

It should be noted that the question asked above is not even part of a Grade 4 standard, nor does the question ask how a character responds.

The question also does not directly ask if the opinions or viewpoint of the character have evolved during the story. Readers may see such changes in the character’s sentiment or fortune or direction or purpose. Even in the most predictable book series for grade 4 readers, there could also be a change of mind, or stripes, or tune, or ways.

But a change in character?

Students in 4th grade will have several years to go before they meet the kinds of characters (usually British) who are radically altered by circumstance in the plot. They will have years before they meet Golding’s Jack (Lord of the Flies), Huxley’s John (Brave New World), and Milton’s Lucifer (Paradise Lost). They have more to read before they encounter the long list of Shakespeare’s radical transformations in the characters of Juliet, Macbeth, Richard III, Henry IV, etc.

And even with evidence of change on these heavy hitters, there are literary scholars who could still argue that the character is not so much changed but that character is revealed over the length of the text.

Perhaps the reason for any confusion on the subject of character change in stories comes the lack of understanding of what changes can happen in the character of real human counterparts. There have been numerous studies that try to answer the question, “Do people change?”

A report from Eileen K. Graham, et al. in 2017 (A Coordinated Analysis of Big-Five Trait Change Across 16 Longitudinal Samples) reviewed data on almost 50,000 people in the hopes of answering that question on changes in human personality. This meta-analysis looked for the common ground, between the belief in the 1970s that “personality is unstable for nearly everyone” (Mischel,1969, 1977) and the belief in the 1980-90’s that “personality is stable for nearly everyone”(Costa &McCrae, 1986; Costa & McCrae, 1980).

While sudden dramatic changes in personality are rare, Graham et al. found in the analysis that studies did reveal a change in certain aspects of human personality. These changes in people took time, over a course pf years or decades, not days or weeks.

“We conclude from our study that neuroticism, extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness go down over time, while agreeableness remains relatively stable.”

In other words, the study noted that agreeableness (or a lack of) in humans remains a constant personality trait. In humans, the other changes in personality traits-moodiness, sociability, carefulness, and tolerance- are measured as a loss.

This finding is contrary to what happens to characters in literature. In literature, characters experience some kind of gain, good or bad. Characters make a discovery, an anagnorisis, literally the Greek word for discovery. Anagnorisis is the transition in which a character may gain wisdom, knowledge, or maybe enlightenment.  Even when the cost of experience results in punishment or in tragedy,  the character gains a new understanding.

The character learns something.

So, back to the 4th grade to the question of about character change which has caused so much concern.

Texts that students can (or choose) to read independently at that grade level do not contain any character change. They can point to the popular Dork Diaries, Origami Yoda, Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid as examples.

While there is no change in character in any of these series, (the characters remain immature, sometimes shallow) these characters do learn important life lessons. These life lessons are intentionally directed at students who are themselves are learning as they move from innocence or ignorance to experience and knowledge.

The more sophisticated stories taught at the fourth-grade level, such as Tuck Everlasting or Hatchet, echo similar messages. In these novels, “You are good as you are” seems counter to the idea of character change, especially when coupled with a cautionary “learn from others” or “learn from your mistakes.”

The difference between “character change” and “what a character learns” can be a direct route to helping a student determine the book’s theme. The story’s theme is always tied to a character’s discovery (the anagnorisis), for example:

  • Frindle (Andrew Clements) that language is flexible.
  • Matilda (Roald Dahl) that adults don’t know everything.
  • Esperanza Rising (Pam Munoz Ryan) that families who stick together can survive.

In each of these stories, it is not the character that changes, but the character’s thinking or feeling. Since the question of character change itself needs to change, the revised question for grade four students is:

“What does the character learn from the beginning to the end of the story, and why is this significant?”

Rephrasing the question to what the character learned can help students discover the message of a story, connecting how an author creates a character’s change of heart or a change of sides to the theme or message of the story.

Change may be good, but not in character questions.

Binge-watching became possible in 2013 when Netflix and other television streaming services began to release all episodes of a show simultaneously.

Binge reading, however, has been around for over 100 years. Kids have been hooked on the episodes in series books since the late 19th century with the release of the Bobbsey Twins (1904).

Binge watching a television series means sitting through five episodes or more within seven days of starting the series. In binge-watching, viewers grow increasingly familiar with the characters. They claim to enjoy the slow character development, noting the changes that mark a character’s complexity, that builds with each plot twist.

Binge reading a book series may take longer. For example, the first set of Nancy Drew books (56 total) were released between 1930 and 1979.  Binge reading the original Goosebumps series (1992 to 1997) would mean reading 62 books.

Binge reading from series to series can take a student from their first days of primary grade favorites Frog and Toad to The Clique in high school.

As students learn to binge read in the early grades, they can benefit from meeting characters that are static and predictable.

  • Pinkalicious will always want the color pink;
  • Peter Hatcher will always be frustrated by the antics of his younger brother Fudge;
  • Harold, the dog, will remain convinced that the bunny rabbit (Bunnicula) is actually a vampire.
  • Pippi Longstocking will always be adventurous, unpredictable, and able to lift her horse one-handed.

Being familiar with a character also allows younger students the opportunity to make predictions. They can anticipate how the character they have come to know will interact with plot and setting. This reading practice can improve their overall accuracy and fluency.

As they get older, students can binge on other book series that deal with mature subject matter in the themes of isolation, prejudice, love, or death. They may prefer characters who are tested in perilous situations such as Katniss (The Hunger Games Trilogy); Bella (Twilight Trilogy); or Thomas (The Maze Runner).

Students may even choose to binge read a series that (literally) follows a character as he or she grows up. The best example of a series with such character development and plot twists is J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series. Readers who are initially attracted to the fantasy of a parallel wizard world can develop a relationship with Harry, reading about the successively dark problems he faces in the hope that good will triumph over evil.

There are series books for every age group, and there is evidence that students should be encouraged to binge read a series for fun if they choose.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compared the reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) using survey information that students volunteered about their reading habits.

The 2015 survey included the following questions about the frequency of reading for fun:

  • About how many books are there in your home?
  • How often do you talk with your friends or family about something you have read?
  • Reading is one of my favorite activities (with response options: this is not like me, this is a little like me, and this is a lot like me)

This data shows that the more frequently that students read, the higher their NAEP scores were. This data confirmed there is a link between vocabulary and reading achievement in all age groups, where the students with the highest average vocabulary scores were also in the top 75th percentile of reading comprehension. By contrast, students with the lowest vocabulary scores were those at or below the 25th percentile in reading comprehension.

These recent findings by NAEP also confirmed earlier research in vocabulary acquisition, that determined students who read widely learned more words and word meanings. (Armbruster, Lehr & Osborn, 2001; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Reutzel et al., 2012).

One undisputed seminal study (Anderson & Nagy, 1992) estimated that children learn an average of 4,000 to 12,000 new words per year as a result of book reading, Encouraging encouraging students to read independently, to read for fun, promotes vocabulary growth without direct instruction.

There are critics who fear that series books are not enough to improve reading. They have expressed reservations that the series books lack depth or the literary qualities that are found in other hallowed texts from the canon.

But reading for fun does not need to be literary. An objective measure based on vocabulary and sentence complexity, the Lexile measure, does show some surprising differences and similarities that can be made when comparing “classic” literary works and book series:

  • SERIES: LEGO Ninjago Chapter Book Series 550L-710 Lexile
  • CANON: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men 660Lexile
  • SERIES: Veronica Roth’s  Divergent700Lexile
  • SERIES: Suzanne Powers’ The Hunger Games 810Lexile
  • SERIES: The Magic Tree House Fact Finder 880Lexile
  • CANON: Tim O’ Brien’s The Things They Carried 880Lexile
  • CANON: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 890Lexile 
  • SERIES: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket1000 – 1370Lexile
  • CANON: F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby 1010Lexile
  • SERIES: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet 1020Lexile

To be clear, the series books listed above are not equal in literary quality to the literature they are compared to from the canon. But, the practice students can have with series books that are objectively similar in vocabulary and sentence complexity can help them to get enough reading practice to drive substantial growth. Series books are what prepare students for the canon.

So go ahead and encourage students who choose to binge read a series.

It’s good for reading practice…and like the streaming services…it’s commercial free!

This summer, I am shopping the CT summer library book sales with a specific genre and grade level in mind: historical fiction in grade 4.

If you are not already familiar with reading curriculum that incorporates the Reading Workshop model called Units of Study, then let me explain that the plan is to have our grade 4 students read historical fiction in book clubs this coming spring. That means all the classroom libraries in six elementary schools will need an increase in texts to allow students to choose books to read with each other.

Fortunately, the Cyrenius H. Booth Library book sale in Newtown, CT, with one of the most active library associations (read about the library’s history here)  had plenty to offer.

 

As this will be our first year implementing the Reading Units of Study in grade 4, I was not sure which historical fiction titles would be the most popular for student choice. Instead, I let my selections be guided by Connecticut’s Social Studies Framework which states as one of its 6 principles:

Social studies education has direct and explicit connections to the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts and literacy in history/social studies

The 4th grade social studies curriculum is dedicated to the study of the United States, the geography, history, and culture of our nation.

As I quickly eyed the piles of books, neatly lined, spines up, anything from the “Dear America” series seemed to fit that criteria. I located a number of titles of this series available, and I scooped up an entire box that included multiple copies (3-5 each) of:

Hope students will enjoy this historical fiction selection as much as I did!

I also secured a number of copies of the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic  Little House on the Prairie, a personal favorite of mine. There were copies of  Farmer Boy and Little House in the Big Wood for any student want to read more about the Westward Expansion. In addition, there were Michael Dorris titles that feature Native Americans: Sees Behind Trees and Morning Girl.  On top of my almost full cart, I added a layer of American Girl books: Meet Kaya! Meet Josephina! Meet Felicity! I did leave some of the American Girls for others to meet.

Noticing the heavy dose of serious historical events, I did add several individual copies of Jon Scieszka’s Time Warp Trio books….comedic time travel in history is still historical, as in See You Later, Gladiator!... right?

Once again, I must take time to compliment the volunteers who had the children’s book section alphabetized by author AND organized by series. This made my shopping a breeze…and I was at $99 (for 153 books) in a little less than an hour.

I asked Denise, the wonderful woman who tallied my purchases, if she was noticing a down turn in the number of books donated for sale this year. She indicated that the paperback trade books did seem to be less plentiful, but that “children’s books are still coming…” thank goodness!

What is remarkable is the amount of historical fiction there was for sale, an indication that this genre is popular for young readers in Newtown. Just living in this old New England town, settled in 1705 with Colonial homes lining many of the streets, makes them already familiar with American history!

I had four large bags full of young adult fiction, and I stood waiting for the volunteers to tally the total.

“$60.00,” one told me.

I looked at the pile. I paused, “OK, Wait here….I’ll get more!”

rooster-booksUsually I attend the Newtown CT Book Sale on one of the opening days when the books are full price. I have waited in the early morning hours on a long line for first crack at the trade paperbacks. But, this was 1/2 price Monday, and I was getting TWICE the amount of books for classroom libraries. To be honest, I had never shopped on the 1/2 price day, assuming that there would not be any books left.

I was wrong.

After the weekend crowds had had there full, there were still hundreds of young adult (YA), “tween,” and upper elementary chapter books laid out on the tables. I could keep shopping!

I had also assumed that any remaining books would piled chaotically from the book shoppers over the weekend.

I was very wrong.

Once again, the volunteers for the Cyrus H. Booth Library in Newtown, Connecticut, had kept up with the steady stream of shoppers. They had alphabetized the books by author. They had kept the genres separated on tables for easy navigation. They kept signs visible: “Chick Lit” or “Classic Fiction.”

But I was right about the amount of help I would get from volunteers. One of the volunteers noticed the titles I had selected, and the logos on the bags I filled: Scholastic, Penguin Young Readers, Lakeshore Learning, Heinemann.  I was returning home from the International Literacy Association Conference (#ILA2016) in Boston, MA, and I was already using the “swag” that had been handed out by the different education book publishers in the conference exhibition hall. I was, quite literally filling these literacy tote bags with literacy books.

“You must be a teacher,” she noted, “I used to be a teacher.” So was her fellow volunteer.

Of course, it is not surprising that several of the library book sale volunteers were former educators; they know the power of getting books-these piles of gently used books-into the hands of young readers.

They tallied my piles, and we chatted about what students read, what book covers attract readers (dark and spooky, we agreed). Then, they loaded my purchases on a cart, and one former teacher helped load my car with the four bags plus two additional boxes of books.

In total, I spent $103 dollars. Shopping on 1/2 price day yielded 184 book titles, some of which included student favorite titles by Sarah Dessen, Rick Riordan, Sarah Weeks, Gary Paulsen, and Andrew Clement. These books will be going into classrooms, grades 5-9, for independent reading.

The School Library Journal published (2000) study Independent Reading and School Achievement by Bernice E. Cullinan, New York University. The study explained that “Independent reading is the kind students choose to do on their own; it is not assigned or assessed, but it has a positive effect on learning and school achievement.”

Thank you, again, CH Booth Library volunteers. Your book sale will help to have a positive effect on student learning and school achievement!

The advertisement for the 55th Annual Mark Twain Library Labor Day Weekend Book Fair read,

“A large collection of Art books, Environment & Nature, Baseball books, many handsome sets and thousands of CHILDREN’s books..”

I want to make a correction to this advertisement.
There are 300 less children’s books at this book sale because there are 300 books in my car.
By next week those 300 books will be distributed into classroom libraries in grade 4-10 for independent reading.

The Mark Twain Library Book Sale in Redding, Connecticut, claims to be “the oldest – and one of the largest – in New England:”

The history of the sale begins with its namesake, Mark Twain in 1908. When Twain (Samuel Clemens) moved to Redding in 1907, he had more books than would fit in his new home so he donated over a thousand to start the Library. When Twain passed away in 1910, his daughter Clara donated more books for sale, and 107 years later, the Book Fair is still one of the library’s principal fundraisers.

This oldest book sale is also one of the best run in the state.

The sale is held in easily accessible Redding Heritage Community Center. As one entered, volunteers provided maps that detail the book table layout, from mystery selections to travel guides to a table marked ephemera.

The fiction tables in the adult section were organized by author (which made fast finding for copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Of course, having the hardcovers and trade paperbacks grouped together could be part of a sociological study in recent popular reading trends as evidenced by multiple copies of the The Stieg Larsson Trilogy/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (the fascination apparently over). There were wide aisles to accommodate the “book sale bump”- a result of patrons trying to read titles while carrying overloaded bags or boxes.

The volunteer help was outstanding; students (middle-high school aged) manned tables to tally books or straighten shelves. Rather than shy away, they approached shoppers with retail-like patter, “Would you like a box to place your holdings?” They checked book prices book-by-book and reloaded bags once they finished counting. Their adult supervisors handled several cashier’s tables. Outside, there were boy scouts who sold baked goods and (predictably) asked if patrons needed help carrying books to cars.

This book sale was one smooth operation.

My finds?

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

One large box filled with a variety (40+) of Star Wars related books. I am anticipating renewed interest with the December (18th, 2015) release of The Force Awakens.
10 neatly stacked copies of Jeanette Walls’s powerful memoir of her homeless parents in The Glass Castle for a Grade 12 English course.
5 copies of Under the Same Sky ( 2005) by Cynthia DeFelice which deals with migrant Mexican workers on an upstate New York farm; ideal for a small book group or lit circle. (Good story; horrible book cover).
Multiple copies of books from R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series and from Rick Rioden’s Percy Jackson series.

IMG_0697

Selection of high interest titles

Final price for 300 good quality, high interest books for independent reading libraries in grades 4 through 10?

$313.00.

Thank you, Mark Twain Library Book Sale Library volunteers. As your founder stated, “We believe that out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.” (see post)

I know that greatness of a nation starts and continues with the practice of reading.
Your efforts will be felt in many public school classrooms in Connecticut not so far away.

 

The Southport Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, hosts a summer book sale every July under large tents that cover most of the lawn and in the library’s auditorium. Browsing for books under this acreage, one can only imagine “Where did all these books come from?”

The most logical conclusion I can come to is that Southport residents must do nothing all day but read.

They must read a book a day…maybe more.

I tried as hard as I could to lessen the load of titles on the young adult tables, but the six boxes (approximately 250 books) I hauled out from the sale barely made a dent. These books will go into classroom libraries for independent reading (silent sustained reading -SSR), literature circles, book clubs, etc. The premise of bringing these books to the classroom is to make sure that students at all grade levels have access to books at any given moment during the school day.

In under two hours, I filled six boxes with plenty of favorites (grades 5-10) from authors Gary Paulson, Meg Cabot, Ann Brashares, Jerry Spinelli, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Rick Riordan. I also grabbed selections of book series that fall into the “popular culture categories” such Goosebumps (RL Stine) , Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey), Ranger’s Apprentice (John Flanagan), and Alex Rider (Alex Horowitz).

These are not the books that teachers will “teach” but they are the books students will read; the difference is described in an earlier post.

There was a box of a dozen copies of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. I picked up 10 clean copies of this best seller as a reading choice for students groups who prefer non-fiction. This is the story of a young boy in Malawi (Africa) who developed a contraption that would provide his village with electricity and running water:

With a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks; some scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves; and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to forget an unlikely contraption and small miracle that would change the lives around him. (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind)

There is increased attention to incorporate informational texts such as this book because of the design of the  Common Core State Standards in Literacy which suggest that by 12th grade, 70% of a reader’s diet should be non-fiction. The copies I have are enough for a small group(s) to read in literature circles or book clubs.

I also collected copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for the American Literature classes (grade 10). This apocalyptic novel is worth including in a curriculum because of McCarthy’s style and message. In an earlier post I describe how The Road was the first book I collected for use in the classroom; its integration into curriculum was very successful. Copies of the book with its distinctive black cover and bold lettering were easily found among the 10 or 12 tables of donated fiction….as if there had been a massive book club after-party.

Screenshot 2015-07-26 14.16.55There were large crowds attending the Southport Pequot Library’s annual sale on Saturday, and the long lines of patrons waiting patiently to check out at the volunteer cashier tables might cause one to wonder if the sale has become a victim of its own success?

On the other hand, as they slowly snaked past the tables of nature books and cookbooks, patrons continued to browse and added even more purchases to the piles in their arms or bags. No one complained as there was always something to read.

Overflow of books or marketing geniuses??…those long lines on a Saturday afternoon could just be another successful marketing technique by the Friends of the Pequot Library.

While they are not wrapped in shiny paper with frills and bows, the piles of donated used books on the tables of the local area library book sales this summer are presents.

It does not matter that these presents are “re-purposed” or “re-gifted”…these books will be presents to students to encourage reading. It’s Christmas in July for filling the classroom libraries!

red boxFor this special kind of “Christmas shopping”, I have been to three Connecticut library books sales: the New Milford Public Library, the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown, and the Westport Public Library. These large book sales have the titles that students want to read, because the books have been donated by students who have already read them. These gently used donated books have already been field-tested.

Choosing books that student want to read is different than selecting books that students should read. Educators believe that students should read selections from the literary canon, for example, those written by Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and the Brontë sisters. Students should read titles such as The Crucible, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Odyssey. These selections from the literary canon are often assigned in middle or high school classes.

But many students do not want to read these pieces of classic literature for pleasure. They want to read a title from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or The Hunger Games series. The key difference between reading for pleasure and assigned reading is recognizing that students have similar guilty pleasures as adults in reading popular culture,

Students want to read titles such as the Dork Diaries;  Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging; I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You; Hatchet; or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These are the titles they look for in their independent reading choices. So, I looked for these titles at the three book sales, and I found copies of all of them.

The titles students want to read can build vocabulary and fluency for the classic literature they are assigned in school. Reading books by John Green (Looking for Alaska, The Fault in our Stars), Anthony Horowitz (Point Blank, Scorpio) or Sarah Dessen (Dreamland, This Lullaby, The Truth About Forever) gives students the chance to practice reading for pleasure. I looked for these titles, and I found copies of all of them as well.

Reading for pleasure for today’s teen reader means wandering in some very dark worlds as students are particularly drawn bleak futures as depicted in the Divergent series (dystopian world) or Delirium series (dystopian world) or the Chaos Walking series (finding yourself in a dystopian world).  Again, I found copies of all of these titles.

Student readers of fantasy, a genre sadly overlooked in most school offerings, cannot get enough of Rick Riordan’s retelling of Greek Mythology (The Lightning Thief, The Last Olympian) or his newer Egyptian series (The Red Pyramid). I found multiple copies from both series.

When students are offered the titles they want to read, they can practice reading the way marathoners train for races or musicians rehearse for performances. Practicing reading in school with Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) or for homework improves their reading pace, their reading accuracy, and helps students develop a reading routine.

It does not matter if reading practice for pleasure includes some titles from the often maligned series from Captain Underpants (intermediate grades) or Twilight (high school grade). The elements of story (protagonist, antagonist, conflict, rising action, and resolution) are in each. Not to mention Stephanie Meyer’s borrowing passages from Wuthering Heights to accessorize her vampire-filled trilogy.

There is good reading practice in the R.L. Stine collections from Goosebumps to Fear Street, and there is good reading practice in Fruit Baskets (Manga) or Calvin and Hobbs comic books or in the  Darwin Awards series. And, yes, I purchased many copies of each.

Titles with movie tie-in such as the Star Wars series, World War Z, or the original Jurassic Park are always popular, and students check to see how accurately the film matches the text. YA Chick lit from Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) orAnn Brashares (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) appeal to a particular female demographic while novels written by Nicholas Evans and Jodi Picoult can take that same group well into adulthood. I found copies of all of these.

What I did not find were those popular Minecraft books, but those will come in book sales next summer as more and more students engage in the game platform. Note: In 2016 expect a Minecraft wave near you!

All together, shopping at the three book sales yielded book as “presents” that will be spread out over 50 classroom libraries. These popular books will encourage students to practice reading in and out of school  to build up their reading stamina, for school and for life.

The Friends of the Library website lists all the book sales in Connecticut, and there are plenty of opportunities year-round to increase libraries that are geared for reading pleasure. Our students will be life-long readers if they develop the solid reading habits.green box

So far, this has been A Very Merry Book Sale season! Happy Holidays!

Forgive the boasting, but the survey results for our a silent sustained reading program for 7th and 8th grade students in our school district are in..,and the teachers are feeling very proud.

573 students answered a 12 question survey about their experience this year for SSR, but let’s start with the most important response:

71.4% responded that SSR “made me a better reader this year.”Screenshot 2015-06-18 21.32.12

A better reader! That admission from students ages 11-14 is an achievement that can leave the faculty smiling proudly over the summer. And speaking about summer, the same students answered positively that they believe that they would read over the summer: 69% responded that they plan to read  (28% definitely; 41% sometimes).

Our SSR program was embraced by several teachers and up and running well by November. The classroom libraries were stocked with a combination of traditional and high interest materials. That meant 20 minutes a day of the block schedule (92 minutes) was dedicated to reading independently. By January even more classrooms were on board, and by April, all classrooms were practicing reading for pleasure, teachers included.

Those teachers who hesitated at first were slowly converted, and more than one commented, “I think I am a better reader as well!”

These same 573 students took many standardized tests this year generating scores that determine each student’s reading ability against a standard. But those test scores do not measure a student’s self-assessment of their reading.

Our June 2015 survey does.

Our June survey asked 12 questions about reading, and every response showed growth in attitudes that we recorded from our September 2014  survey. That beginning of the year survey was used as a benchmark to measure student attitudes towards reading.

Compare the responses from September to June when asked student if they thought reading was “fun”:

7th & 8th grade students Usually Sometimes Rarely
September  22% 48% 25%
June 32% 54% 14%

In one school year, 10% of the student population changed their attitudes towards reading…all in a positive direction.

The survey also recorded what students look for in selecting their own reading materials:

length of the book 26.9%
cover of the book 46.2%
the book is part of a series I like 61.8%
a friend recommended the book 48.2%
a teacher recommended the book 31.1%
a parent or another adult recommended the book 22.2%
a movie is connected to this book 24.4%

The survey also asked how many books students were reading a month:

at least 1 32.1%
1-2 books 14.8%
3-4 books 17.1%
4 or more books 12%

Do the math. 184 students (32%) read at least one book a month. That means students who read one book a month for eight months (8) of the school year collectively read 1472 books…and that just the total of books read by 1/3 of the class.

Combine our findings with those of the Scholastic Publishing company in their survey 2014  “Kids and Family Reading Report”

Scholastic is one of the publishers that has a presence in schools through book fair sales, and they released three key findings about reading in school:

#1: One third of children ages 6–17 (33%) say their class has a designated time during the school day to read a book of choice independently, but only 17% do this every or almost every school day.

#2: Half of children ages 6–17 who read independently as a class or school (52%) say it’s one of their favorite parts of the day or wish it would happen more often.

#3: Sixty-one percent of children ages 6–17 who live in the lowest-income households say they read books for fun mostly in school, or the same amount in school and at home, while only 32% of children ages 6–17 who live the highest-income homes say the same.

The most interesting statistics for our teachers  in our survey was that students believe their parents are connected to their independent reading. Along with the information that 22% of students look for suggestions from parents in selecting reading materials, they also indicated how critical the role of parents and family is (over 50%) when they share what they read by checking all that applied:

I share what I read with:

Friends 56.9%
Family (parents, relatives) 53.1%
Teacher 33%
Other 13.4%
 Next year’s plan? Focus on this parent connection, flood the classrooms with more books, and read, read, read.
Beyond the survey, there is one more piece of evidence. These final images display the lists of the favorite books the students read this year from Mr. Robert’s class. He was one of the early embracers of SSR, and his results speak for themselves:

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“What’s the last ‘best’ book you read on your own?” I would ask students when I taught middle and high school.

When I asked them this question, the boys almost always answered “Hatchet“.

“That’s the last book I read, too,” many would admit.

The number of Hatchet fans was 100% among the vocational agriculture students I taught for seven years in a rural school in Northwest Connecticut. Their love of this novel resonated with their desire for independence, adventure, and the outdoors.

The author Gary Paulsen shares many of these interests according to his biography:

Running away from home at the age of 14 and traveling with a carnival, Paulsen acquired a taste for adventure. A youthful summer of rigorous chores on a farm; jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver, and sailor; and two rounds of the 1,180-mile Alaskan dog sled race, the Iditarod; have provided ample material from which he creates his powerful stories.

In Hatchet, Paulsen’s protagonist, Brian Robeson, is a thirteen-year-old boy from New York City. From the onset, Brian is ill-prepared to meet the hardships of the wilderness when the single engine plane he is riding in from New York to Canada crashes because the pilot had a heart attack. Thus begins a compelling survival story, and my students loved survival stories; many of them were experienced hunters or fishermen.

The opening chapters of Hatchet also cover Brian’s personal background, his knowledge of his mother’s affair and his parent’s subsequent divorce, and the events leading up to the plane crash. Since the pilot had offered Brian a few minutes of flight lessons, he is able to control the descent of the plane until it crashes into a lake. He swims to safety with his only asset, a small hatchet he has taken from the crash.

Brian’s wilderness education alternates between emotions of loneliness and his physical needs. He learns to respect the natural world through a series of unexpected encounters with a bear, a porcupine, and a wolf. A turtle’s eggs give him a food source until he learns how to fish.  He learns how to build a fire and how to store food properly after a serious spraying by a skunk. Initially devastated about his inability to signal a passing plane for help, Brian works to improve his skills by constructing a studier lean-to.  These incidents mark a change in the “new” Brian, one who is far more self-reliant than the “city boy” who left on the plane to Canada. My students enjoyed the notion that “city boy” values must change to include skills they valued as well.

In recounting Brian’s emotional turmoil caused by his parent’s recent divorce, Paulsen uses simple and effective word choice and syntax; Brian is monosyllabic with memories, “The words. Always the words. Divorce. The Secret. Fights. Split. The big split.” Many of my male students spoke monosyllabically as well. These simple statements capture Brian’s stream of consciousness effectively without sentimentality.

There is just the right amount of the “yuck” factor in the novel to satisfy a young male reader. When the plane resurfaces, Brian decides to retrieve the plane’s flight location transmitter. While diving in the plane, he comes upon the decomposing body of the pilot:

“The fish. He’d never really thought of it, but the fish—the fish he had been eating all this time had to eat, too. They had been at the pilot all this time, almost two months, nibbling and chewing and all that remained was the not quite cleaned skull and when he looked up it wobbled loosely.”

Paulsen illustrates Brian’s growth as he learns how to adapt to increasingly dangerous situations; he survives a tornado and a terrifying moose attack. The reader is increasing aware of the self-confidence that Brian develops towards the end of the novel:

“Come on, he thought, baring his teeth in the darkness—come on. Is that the best you can do—is that all you can hit me with—a moose and a tornado? Well, he thought, holding his ribs and smiling, then spitting mosquitoes out of his mouth. Well, that won’t get the job done. That was the difference now. He had changed, and he was tough. I’m tough where it counts—tough in the head.”

54 days after the plane accident, Brian is rescued. Like all characters in a coming-of-age novel, he is not the same; he is more introspective and thoughtful. Paulsen’s narrative convinces students that Brian’s transformation is real, and that maybe such transformations are possible for themselves.

The novel’s grade level equivalent is 6.3; the Lexile® measure is 1020, but labeling the interest level as grades 6-8 is a mistake. My students’ interest in Hatchet was the standard for all other reading choices as in, “This book is not like Hatchet” (*sigh*) or “This book is almost as good as Hatchet.”

Hatchet was the 1988 Newbery Honor book and, fortunately for teachers wishing to offer books like Hatchet, it is the first in a trilogy + one. After Hatchet came The River,(1991); Brian’s Winter, (1996); and then Brian’s Return, (1999).

Paulsen also has two non-fiction offerings: the book Guts, a set of true short stories of survival, and Winterdance, a story of running the Iditarod. Both titles were also popular with my students.

Paulsen’s wilderness experiences set a high standard for adventure stories for my students, and the experience of reading this book was often so powerful that I had to (figuratively) drag them “out of the woods” in the book to notice other compelling stories on our classroom’s bookshelves.

Hatchet was my “go to” for the reluctant reader, and I always had several copies on hand to lend out. There were copies for the first time reader and for the re-reader, but I did have to draw the line on occasion. While Hatchet can still be the best book some of my students have ever read, it cannot be their last.