Paying It Forward: Reading Engagement by John Scovill

I am in a new role this year. I am not in a classroom with a room full of children, but in a school full of teachers and students. My role this year is a staff developer. A lot goes into this job. It’s not just mentoring new teachers and helping veteran teachers reflect on their practice to become better. I have the role of helping with discipline, ensuring PLCs are effective, referring children to special education, data coach, testing scheduler, and if I am lucky, getting into classrooms.

My goal this year is to help teachers find ways to make reading more engaging. One way that I accomplish searching and finding engaging practices is through my PLN. My goal in this post is not only how I am accomplishing this, but hopefully broaden my toolbox of engaging strategies and activities from you!

Last year, I found Twitter and The Nerdy Book Club. These two broadened my reach in finding new ways to engage my students in reading. I felt as though I was committing what Kelly Gallagher calls Readicide by having students read unengaging short stories and answering a few questions after…or doing what Sir Ken Robinson says, low grade clerical work or worksheets. The things I did not only reaped amazing results on year-end tests, but helped students find joy in reading.

I connected with authors through Twitter and found that many will Skype for free and discuss reading, writing, and their books with their students. I also introduced my students to books that I probably never would have found if it weren’t for Twitter and The Nerdy Book Club. I hooked my students on these books by using book trailers. Furthermore, my students were able to write and connect with authors on a more personal level. My hope this year is to replicate these things in other teacher’s classrooms.

Three amazing things happened last year with my students and reading. One is Skyping with authors. I taught in a non-Title 1 school. We don’t have funds to bring authors into the school. But through this technology, my students got to interact with three authors in a four-month time span. It was amazing. We were able to learn from Lindsey Leavitt, R.J. Palacio, and Laurel Snyder. Not only did students learn from these authors in taking their writing to a new level, these authors backed me up as a teacher. I would always ask them to reiterate how many drafts it takes to write a finished publishable book. They would never say, “my first draft is the best draft I ever write” (which is what I would hear from my students). But, they would say that the finished book student’s read is probably the tenth revision of the first draft.  During a local conference held, I was able to present on how to use Skype in classrooms. I got great feedback. I was able to bring in Laurel Snyder and Gae Polisner. Both were awesome in describing the pros and cons of using this technology. Through these experiences, Gae, Laurel, and Lindsey have become friends and cheerleaders in my writing life always up to offering me advice.

The second thing is the introduction to book trailers. I am a horrible sales person. If I were a car salesman, I wouldn’t sell a single car! So, instead of myself getting up in front of the kids and trying my hardest to sell a book (because this is what booktalking is), I would type in the title of the book with the words book trailer after in YouTube and allow the trailer to do the selling for me. Last year, I had heard of the book Wonder from my Twitter friends. I read the book when it came out and was super excited to share it with my students. My class viewed the book trailer and after I could sense their excitement. I told the class that after lunch recess, they would be able to sign up to read the book. When the bell rang, a parent came to my room. I walked over to the door, opened it, and a stampede of kids ran up to the board and began to sign up. Shocked, the parent asked me what they were doing. With a smile on my face, I told her that they were signing up to read a book! After they all had a chance to sign up, there were 17 kids wanting to read Wonder! I had to go out and buy three more copies because when we as teachers raise the excitement for a book we HAVE to make sure there is access to the book. I have gone into classrooms this year showing book trailers. As I walk into the classrooms, I have the book in my hand. When I booktalked The Unwanteds, I had a few students raise their hands wanting to read the book. After the students viewed the book trailer, the whole class wanted to read the book! Now that’s engagement in reading.

The third thing I did was to connect with authors. Many teachers ask me, “how did you get these authors to Skype and write to your students?” I tell them that I connect with them through Twitter. I tweeted Laurel Snyder that two of my students had bought her book, Bigger Than a Breadbox. It’s a huge investment for a fifth grader to buy a hardcover book. Laurel said in a tweet that she wanted to write a note to these students. After a few weeks, two notes came in the mail. The two girls were elated to see the notes on their desks when they came in that morning. After they read the book, they asked me if they could write to Laurel. I said yes! After they wrote the letters, they handed them to me. I asked if I could read them and they agreed. One student told Laurel that she made connections to the book because her parents were just going through a divorce. I was heartbroken. I am grateful to authors out there that write books that students can relate to and connect with and able to write to them to tell them what the book meant to them. This year, a teacher asked me to connect with Katherine Applegate to see if it would be okay for her class to write her. She tweeted back yes. The class wrote individual letters on how they enjoyed the book The One and Only Ivan. After a few weeks, a package came in the mail. Inside was a signed book as well as a letter addressed to each student (Katherine wrote each student’s names in the greeting). The class was super excited and so was the teacher.

These are some ways (not all) that I engaged my class in reading. I created a classroom community of readers last year. Because I don’t have a classroom, I am paying it forward to other teachers to see if the spark of “book love” will come into their classrooms! I hope that you, the reader, will give me some more ideas on how you engage readers in your classrooms.


John is an original nerdy who is thankful he found his “tribe”. He is currently a staff developer at an elementary school in southern Utah. He loves to read, spending time with his family, and connecting with teachers, authors, and other nerdy book clubbers! He is also currently writing. Follow him on Twitter @johnlit360 and check out his blog at where he promises to write on it more often!