Books Are a Precious Gift by Maddie Witter

This past year we started a school in the juvenile detention centers in Melbourne, Australia for all incarcerated youth in the state of Victoria.  During their first day of school, most young people share that they haven’t ever finished a book. Kate DiCamillo once described books as a precious gift.  I couldn’t agree more.  But for many of the incarcerated students, books represented exclusion. Matt Hyde, Campus Coordinator of the school reflects, “Our students were geniuses at getting kicked out of school.”   Sadly, it’s not a surprise to find that many incarcerated kids haven’t been in school for a long while.  How could we help students gain attachment to books after years of separation?

Jess, a first year teacher at our school, started class by asking her kids if they thought she could bench press 200 pounds.

“No way!” they yelled back.

“Have you seen these guns?” she responded flexing her biceps. The kids laughed as she asked her next question.

“Do you think I could lift five pounds?”

“Of course.”

“If I could only lift five pounds, how could I get to ten? Fifteen?”  The boys brainstormed.  Since many were lifters themselves, they talked about strategies that weight lifters use to get stronger: interval training, practice, and increasing weight slowly.

Then Jess held up a 300-page book, one that on sight alone was very intimidating to her students.

“Do you think you could finish this book?” The kids shook their heads, calling out no.

“But what if it were only five pages long?”  Nodding, the boys agreed they could handle that.

“Today, we will read for five minutes.  Tomorrow six.  We will incrementally get stronger.  We will develop our fitness until finishing a book like this will be easy.  With your hard work I will help you get there.”

Building student stamina helped many kids gain the necessary confidence and ultimately fall in love with reading.  During his first class, Derek* was so turned off even by a couple minutes of independent reading that he put his head down for the rest of class.  By the end of the third week, his stamina has built so that he proudly finished the entire Wimpy Kid series.  While students understand the weight lifting analogy, not all are as easily hooked as Derek.  The kids, many of whom have been out of education for years, need to see hard evidence that change can happen.

Rose teaches the young adult girls.  Before starting independent reading, she asked the girls to consider where they thought they could read up to in ten minutes.  Then she asked them to put their bookmarks on that spot.  She told the girls to see if they could read up to the bookmark.  They started reading.  After only a few minutes, some of the girls exceeded their personal expectations.

“Can I go further?” they asked.  “Of course,” Rose said, knowing all along that this might happen and secretly cheering on the inside.  Rose knew that small moment was a huge win.  Her students concretely saw that change was possible.

Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to achieve a goal.  People with strong self-efficacy are often more likely to become successful people.  They think “I can get this done” and “I can’t be stopped” as they relentlessly pursue a goal. Someone with self-efficacy knows that if they work hard in a particular area, they will get better regardless of difficult circumstances.  Therefore, tied with building love of reading, we are also aiming to develop self-efficacy in our learners.

There are times when building confidence is really hard. Rather than focus on what’s not working like when a student is reluctant, instead we focus on positive habits.  We focus on the small wins like when a student asks to read for a little longer so he can finish the chapter in class.  In the same way that a weight lifter incrementally adds on weight, our students are incrementally getting stronger. The director of custodial services shared what he described as a “surreal” experience.  Kids over the weekend requested to turn off the television so they could read their books. Books no longer represent exclusion.  Victor Huge said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”  That statement is tagged across our school walls. The precious gift that books are showing incarcerated kids in Australia is that they are capable of change. As our kids become released from our school, it’s our hope that change helps lead to a better Australia.


Maddie Witter was a founding teacher and the Director of Instruction of KIPP Infinity Middle School in Harlem, New York for six years until she moved to Australia.  She is currently working with incarcerated youth in Melbourne and raising her infant daughter Gigi.  She is the author of Reading Without Limits: Teaching Strategies to Build Independent Reading for Life (Jossey-Bass, 2013) the first book in the KIPP Educator Series.  Visit Maddie at, on Facebook, on Twitter @Maddie_Witter, and her blog Reading Without Limits.