Vital Signs: How We Measure the Quality of the Reading Life by Paul W. Hankins

On August 8th, we wrote to Nerdy Book Club about the “code situation” that seems to mark the beginning of each school year. The reader’s heart in the state of arrest. It was a rather bleak picture that so many of us recognized that I was “heartened” myself to know that I was not alone in my assessment. I was able to garner second, third, and fourth opinions as it were. I am so grateful for all of the feedback of that share and the comments you left for me after posting this look at where so many of our readers are at the beginning of the year.

And I am happy to report that after four months of an intensive “by-the-book” program of personal intervention and holistic approach, a large percentage of our Room 407 Readers are thriving.



Yes. Living.

A recent thread at Facebook had commenters exploring the idea of the 40 Book Invitation and whether or not the number was a sort of quantitative measure akin to the kind of measurement we might seek from a reading management program like Accelerated Reader or Reading Counts.

To this I would say no.

And not much more. Because it is Sunday. There’s a lot of time to take up this conversation during the course of the week. Since, it is Sunday, this post is designed to celebrate The Reading Life.

And we all know that life can be very complicated, can’t it? Why, the very definition of life can and does polarize social and theological discourse communities. When we attempt to quantify and measure anything we hold precious and dear, we are at a sort of emotional and cognitive dissonance with ourselves.

If this is the reading “life,” should not the very act in of itself be the source of our appreciation and our awe? Much the way we would take in a sunrise, a drop of water falling from the tip of a blade of grass? A rainbow trout leaping from a swift, moving river.

These things are life. We read them and semiotics takes over, yes? The signifier and the signified. But I digress. Again.

And because I know–from my experiences in working as a medic on a cardiac step-down unit that not all numbers we take up for the purpose of assessment are necessarily bad things. We call these systemic values “vital signs.” They have numbers attached. Systolic. Diastolic. BPMs. RPMs. Segments. We write these numbers down in a chart. We watch them improve or stay much the same across scheduled times and days spent on the ward.

There’s even that little breathing thingy wherein one tries to suck the ball into the top of a plastic chamber. Not everyone can do this. Imagine what a mind-blow it was for us young corpsman to learn that it wasn’t so much the ability to hit the top of the chamber with the ball, but how long one could sustain the position of the ball in the top of the chamber.

Vital signs are always–by way of human nature–a formative assessment. It’s the absence of value and flatline–the summative assessment that is mortality–that we are all trying to avoid (and here we’ll stop to let everyone take their own pulse; I assure you that you are fine).

But, where were we? Ah, yes. The end of the first semester. A set of vital signs to be recorded. A traditional writing piece at the end of the first semester in our classroom is the “Three Take-Away Experiences from the First Semester Essay.” It is a simple invitation attached to a rather comprehensive packet (including vocabulary review and questions around the two books we had finished as a group), but I get to see what students might say–in earnest–about their experiences in the English classroom.

Here is a list of comments from ten Room 407 Readers at the end of the first semester. These are shared with you as a means of celebrating what these kids have done, not what I have done. We do this together, but these snippets are what the kids in the room are taking away at the end of the first semester.

I’ve not taken the time to edit the raw remarks of these students. I have left references to my name within the responses as these tell me–at a glance–that I need to systemically phase myself out a little bit by the end of the year if we are going to maintain this therapeutic reading milieu in which our readers now find themselves.

I want to you to be able to read them as I see and interact with them every other day. Morgan’s “tough talk” of the guy reader who fell in love with Chris Crutcher titles (and we were able to secure for Morgan a signed copy of PERIOD 8–this was the day Morgan’s heart rate bordered on tachycardia). Gabriel, the guest student from Mexico who just might go back to his country to read in his own language, no doubt encouraging others to do the same for his charm and influence upon his classmates here. Ashlen and her tender journey through a pregnancy most evident to all in the learning community that included an independent reading of titles like THE PREGNANCY PROJECT.

Morgan: “I started out hating reading. Then I met this tank, Mr. Hankins. He has helped more than anyone else has. This year–as of right now–I have read 56 books. I have never read this much in my lifetime. I thank Mr. Hankins because he helps everyone and is one of the smartest people. Thank you for all of your help and for pushing my lazy a**.”

Nic: “My favorite thing about the whole year was the reading. I really enjoyed the books we read together in class. And the ones I read on my own that were recommended by Mr. Hankins. He got me into the LEGEND series and I absolutely love these books. I even read in my free time! Saying that is a huge shocker for people who know me.

Madison: “I can honestly say that I probably have only read a total of three books my first two years of high school. But, when I came into Room 407, it was different. I didn’t have to read huge books that were hard to understand. I got to read what I enjoyed.”

Alex: “My final experience isn’t one time in general. My favorite experience in the class was/is the way Mr. Hankins encourages reading. Prior to junior year, I read a total of six books in high school. I have read almost twenty this semester. I feel like this class has brought out the reader in me.”

Gabriel: “First of all, I have say is thanks to Mr. Hankins, is reading. I read for school maybe once a year in Mexico for some class but now I don’t feel like I am doing it for some class. Sometimes now, I just want to read instead of watch t.v., so this experience of reading has change me. The time I ask him for a book he know what I would like so maybe I will start reading in Spanish when I get back to Mexico.”

Katilyan: “I’ve read more this year than any other year. I can work at my own pace. I’ve realized that I have come to enjoy reading. It’s books that I want to read, not what the teachers want me to read.”

Sam: “Believe it or not, I found reading and listening to books wasn’t really all that bad. Mr. Hankins does an amazing job of narrating books. The way he changes his voice, I can feel/smell/and taste the book when he reads.”

Jessie: “The 40 Book Invitation is–you guessed it–an invitation where you read a certain number of books by testing the waters of different genres. I enjoyed it because I got to read the titles of books I want while meeting the criteria for Mr. Hankins.”

Desley: “It’s setting a goal for me. I want to try to see if I can’t exceed that goal. My take-away is that it is possible to enjoy reading and to make time for reading no matter how busy I am.”

Ashlen: “Just because I am getting older doesn’t mean I have to give up on the kid inside me (not literally, okay?). The picture book readings, the “wonders,” and the graphic novels–they have all taught me not to forget the imagination I once had. The fact that Mr. Hankins makes picture books into just as much of a treasure as any 500-page novel is one of my favorite things.”

Ten touch-points tucked into the final examination packet. These little glimpses into how my readers in the room are processing the invitation posed at the beginning of the year.

There is a number I am most interested in.

It’s not forty.

It’s one.

One reader. One book. One moment. One share. One time within the year wherein a kid begins to see him or herself as a reader. Some come early. Some a little later.

One reader. Reading.

One story is a sign that something is happening. One good thing.

And how do we qualify any of this? We talk to them. Reading is a part of our daily conversation. How would it not appear within the takeaway at the end of the first semester? It’s what we do. It’s what we all do.

These essays will come in from seventy-five readers. But it is these ten stories that I share with you on this first day of winter break? I might ask the question. . .how many of us would like to walk away from the first semester of school with these kinds of take-away experiences? They are an absolute delight to me.

The heart of this reading community is beating steadily.

They come in and quickly scan the shelves and the marker rail on the whiteboard to see if there are any new titles. Yes. They are almost breathless with anticipation (and breathlessness as a reader is common occurrence–symptoms may vary).

And we have one more semester. For many of our readers, this two-week break has begun by stopping by Room 407 to take home a book stack for “reading emergencies.” The pulse is strong within these readers.

This is the manner in which we check our vital signs.

Until the end of May when there is time only for. . .one more book talk. But May is still two weeks and a semester away. We still have work to do before discharging these readers.

We must always strive to be patient (and I KNOW you see what I have done there).

Season’s Reading and Happy Holidays Nerdy Book Club!

Paul W. Hankins teaches English 11 and AP English Language and Composition at Silver Creek High School in southern Indiana. Paul participates in numerous online forums regarding reading and writing. In addition to membership within many professional organizations, Paul is a Wonder Lead with the National Center for Family Literacy and the non-fiction site, Wonderopolis. The creator of RAW INK Online, Paul is celebrating with his students in Room 407 the 5th Anniversary of the site which brings young adult readers and young adult authors together. At home, Paul is married to his wife of fourteen years , is the father of Noah (7th grade) and Maddie (6th grade). Mia, Pepper, KitKat, and Butterfinger remain loyal fans of Paul’s poems and posts and most of his attempts to write something.