Monday, December 7, 2015

The Power of Reading What You Want!

I encounter a lot of hilarious, incredible, ridiculous situations and interactions as a middle school librarian, but sometimes there's a really poignant one mixed in that stops you in your tracks and begs to be shared (or at least remembered). Today I'm going to share a story about an 8th grade boy named Chris*.

Chris is a jock, popular, and a pretty smooth talker. He's likable, polite and respectful, but not super academically inclined. He's frequently frustrated by school—his reading level is a whole handful of grade levels below where it should be.

All of our 7th and 8th graders were assigned an independent novel study each quarter this semester. They were to choose their own book, appealing to their own interests, that was to be approved by the teacher (basically, not way below their reading level; and no Diary of a Wimpy Kid). Teachers brought their classes to the library so we could work one-on-one to help kids find something they liked. They then had a list of projects to complete (of which they could choose) within a 4-6 week time period.

Chris has told his English teacher he's "not a reader." This quarter, he went with a sports book by Mike Lupica and has been working on it diligently, way before this mad rush to finish as the deadline approaches. He came in the library this morning to check out another book and grabbed another sports title by Tim Green. He told me the cover looked like it’d be good. I asked how his project was going, and he said he’s almost done, and that he “really liked the book—it was really good!” I went back later and checked his records; he didn’t check out a single item all of last year. Or his 6th grade year. Here’s a kid who’s “not a reader” and probably doesn’t read very well anyway, but he WILLINGLY CAME TO GET ANOTHER BOOK and was EXCITED about it.

If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.

I can't say enough good things about this assignment and how it has positively affected our students' reading habits. Most simply, it has drastically increased checkouts! We're two weeks away from the end of the first semester and nearly have as many checkouts already as we did for the entirety of last year. Students are coming in to check out other titles in the series they picked up or other similar stories. More impressively, they're learning how to specify what they like and want to read. Instead of saying they want something "interesting"—which is the generic answer of all middle schoolers when you ask what they want to read—they're learning to describe what genres they like, what kind of story or character appeals to them.

I'm not saying it's as easy as just assigning this project and watching it inspire reluctant readers. It requires specialized attention on each student to find a good fit—and a certain amount of trial and error with finding that right book. It requires project options students will find relevant and demands accountability for completion (sometimes utterly impossible). And cooperation with the library and librarian strengthens the connection to reading beyond a classroom assignment and reinforces the importance of finding the right book for the right reader.

I try and make sure my students know that every book is not for every reader; there are a lot of boring books out there, but if you find one that appeals to your own unique tastes, reading becomes less of a chore and more of a way to explore your interests and expand your curiosity.

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