I have enough nonfiction to fill those half-empty shelves; they're just always checked out this year.
By Donna Davidson, Northwest Director for NDCTE Connected Newsletter, Jan. 2020
Last summer at the NDCTE conference, Kelly Gallagher spoke to a room full of English teachers, telling us all about the power of giving students time to read in class. Ten minutes a day was all that he asked, and though that time seems short, it adds up to roughly one class period per week. Even though I’ve seen the research, read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and invested in hundreds of books for my classroom library just like all of you, there was still a little ghost in my head saying, Can you really afford to give up all that time? Of course reading is important, but how will you get through everything by the end of the year? Those are fair questions, and I don’t think I was wrong to ask them, but I decided to take the plunge anyway and, for the first time in my teaching career, set aside ten minutes a day for reading at the beginning of the class period—the beginning, not the end, so that I couldn’t just not quite get around to it. I had to take the leap of faith and believe that reading books could teach the children as well I can. I committed to doing it for at least the whole first quarter, which stretched into the whole first semester, and now as the third quarter rolls on, I’m a believer.
My observations: 1) Reading conferences are awesome. Through one-on-one conversations about books, I’ve learned a lot about my students’ tastes, strengths, and weaknesses. I’ve been able to recommend books successfully to reluctant readers and have discovered some reading problems that I hadn’t realized students were having. Plus, getting to talk personally and individually to students and really focus on just them is a lot of fun and has become one of the most enjoyable parts of my day.
2) Students who had not read a full book in ages have actually read whole books this year, cover to cover, and discovered that they didn’t hate it. In their conversations with me at reading conferences, I’ve been able to help them reconsider how they think about or talk about themselves as readers.
3) My classroom library has never been busier. After all those years of collecting books, this year, the books are finally getting read. My students seem to have decided to become history scholars. The 7th grade is devouring the Hazardous Tales series of graphic novels about events in American History. The 8th grade devours any book I can find about WWII. (Since I’m also their social studies teacher, you can imagine how this warms my heart.) And ever since I got home from the ALAN conference at NCTE in November, they’ve had a growing interest in the heaps of great young adult literature I got there, which is exposing them to a world of ideas and experiences far beyond the limited experience of our small town.
4) Class reading assignments are actually getting done. The rule of reading time is that you read. What you read is your choice. Sometimes students use the time to finish off the assignment from a novel or story we’re reading in class, which means when instruction time does start, we have way more productive discussions because everyone—or at least nearly everyone—actually did the reading.
5) Classroom management is easier. On those days when either you or a student, or maybe both of you, are in a bit of a temper at the start of class, reading time provides a moment to decompress. No one has to talk to each other, and ten minutes of quiet is usually enough for us to get back into a more productive headspace.
6) Taking time for reading did not slow down our progress. By Christmas, I had taught basically the same material as usual and was ready to start the second semester with the units I had laid out back in August. Ten minutes of reading is not a magic bullet. It did not solve all my problems, and it does not teach all my content for me. However, I am seeing real benefits for my students by carving out a space for them to take a break from all the other things pulling at their attention and putting a book in their hands.
Students get invitations at the beginning of reading time if it's their conferences day.