Igniting the Fire by Michelle Copland

As a teacher of young children, I make it my life’s work to induct members into the Nerdy Book Club.  I have a fabulous classroom library stocked with all the most popular titles as well as timeless favorites.  I give book talks, show book trailers, and create eye-catching displays.  I give my students ample time to cozy up and dig deep into self-selected texts. Reader’s Workshop is the highlight of the school day for the majority of my students – a two-thirds majority to be exact.


So what about the other third?


Eight of my students have been diagnosed with a learning disability which impacts their ability to read.  Their education plans call for explicit instruction in phonics and countless fluency drills.  Frankly speaking, these students have come to consider reading an arduous and joyless task. Of course remediation amounts to very little if students aren’t consistently applying reading skills in meaningful ways.   In other words, these students need to read.  And they need to read a lot, every single day.  In order to build the fluency and stamina needed to become successful readers, they need to read volumes. But here’s the problem: These readers have learned to avoid reading whenever possible, and who can blame them.  Reading is not fun for them. Finding high interest, readable books for 4th graders who are reading well below grade level is not easy.  I scour bookshelves and booklists.  I create a “buzz” in the classroom so that even my high flyers clamor for these titles. Still I watch my developing readers slip books back onto shelves unread.  I lay awake nights wondering how I can help each of these students buy into “The Club” when there’s no obvious and immediate payoff, when Harry Potter and Percy Jackson seem a lifetime away.


But sometimes it takes something other than a book itself to ignite the fire.


Sam's BookcaseFor my son Sam it was his love of collecting. Sam was diagnosed with a learning disability at the end of first grade.  He entered third grade reading nearly two years below grade level.   Then something truly amazing happened, Sam discovered the Magic Tree House books.  Sam read every one – all 48 of them. (My eternal gratitude to Mary Pope Osbourne for writing prolifically!)  Sure, Sam grew to love Jack and Annie and their adventures through space and time, but what hooked him in the first place was his love for (or obsession with) collecting.  Of course as parents we jumped on this bandwagon.  The deal was every time he finished a book, we took him to the bookstore to buy him the next one.  Sam devoured these books.  Over time his fluency and stamina increased.  We were visiting the bookstore three to four times per week (and spending a small fortune, but it was so very worth it).  After completing the Magic Tree House series, Sam went on to read many other series as well.  By the end of the school year, he had read well over 100 books and had managed to catch up with his grade level peers.  But more importantly, Sam had discovered the joy of reading.  Now in fourth grade, Sam always has a book in hand and several more on deck.  A trip to the bookstore is his favorite outing.  Sam had become a full-fledged, card-carrying member of The Club, the fire has been ignited.


I have my work cut out for me this year. I have to find the special “fuel” that will ignite that fire for each of my struggling readers.  I know it’s possible – my son Sam taught me that.


For some, the social aspect of our reading community is their ticket in.  These students are willing to do the hard work in order to “talk the talk”, to make book recommendations and be active contributors during book discussions.  This is Ben, who loves a good conversation. I marvel at his ability to dig deep in his discussions about Geronimo Stilton and his complicated relationship with cheese.  For Catelyn, having a one-on-one book club with an adult is the key (Yes, I am reading Jade the Disco Fairy – my husband says there is nothing I won’t do).  The passion for helping others is what drives Rianna, who practices reading texts with “Pizazz” in order to create audio recordings for English language learners. For those who love a challenge, completing a personal book goal is the motivator.  Once lacking the stamina to follow through with any one book, Emily is reading several books per week now working toward her 35 book goal.


Slowly, one by one, these students are finding their way into the club.



Who cares how they get there, as long as they get there.



Michelle Copland is a fourth grade teacher who can be found on Twitter as @mdcopland.