Curing the Reading GERM by Jim Bailey
Four years ago I was ready to leave education. I loved my school, I loved my principal, I loved my colleagues, and most of all I loved my students. Unfortunately, I was infected with a GERM, as Pasi Sahlberg calls it, the Global Education Reform Movement. The obsession with high stakes testing, lack of autonomy in the classroom, and general standardization of education was forcing me to reevaluate my career path. I was most affected by this GERM in the area of teaching reading, if you could even call what I was doing teaching reading. It would have been better titled, “Accelerated Reader time,” or “Over teaching a novel class,” or “Everyone read the same boring excerpt and complete workbook pages period.” Whatever it was, it definitely was not reading. Luckily, several people in my life had also been infected with this GERM and they knew the cure. They had just the prescription: The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, The Reading Zone by Nancie Atwell, beginning my professional journey on Twitter, and engaging with a small group of passionate colleagues that were ready to help me fight this disease.
Four Years Ago: Full Infection
Five years ago my school was completely infected with the GERM. Independent reading completely revolved around Accelerated Reader (AR). My students did not read for pleasure, they read for points. If the book wasn’t on AR, they didn’t read it. Students were not talking about their reading or discussing big ideas. They were storing just enough information about the book to get 10 out of 10 on the low-level quiz. Get enough low-level questions right and you might get that can of pop or get to pick a dollar store prize from the AR store. If you happen to be short a couple of points, no problem. Just quickly read a few Clifford books. They are worth .5 points each. You could easily get those last two points before the period ends. Who cares if you hate Clifford, you will get your goal!
Whole group and guided reading time wasn’t any better. The district had just adopted a brand new basal series. My student workbooks arrived over the summer; 451 pages of worksheets. It was bigger than our local phonebook. There were even hundreds of additional pages you could print online. I wanted to scream, I wanted to shout, I wanted to rip all 451 pages out of the workbooks. But more than anything, I wanted to find a cure.
Three Years Ago: Starting Treatment
Recovery started with two books, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller and The Reading Zone by Nancie Atwell. I loved them. It may sound dramatic, but these books changed my life. I have no doubt I would have left education if I hadn’t found those books at that time. I read each book multiple times. I was determined to build a community of readers. I wanted to build real readers who read not for points but for pleasure. Although I was still required to do AR in my room, I completely deemphasized it. We traded in our AR point goal for the 40-book challenge. No more low-level tests to prove you read the book. Instead, we were going to talk about the books during reading conferences. Anyone can fake it on a book report but it’s hard to fake a reading conference. If you didn’t read the book, it was obvious during the conference. However, it was really a non-issue because when my students were given the freedom to read for pleasure, they didn’t need to be held accountable. They wanted to read the books so they could talk about the books with other readers. Our classroom was slowly transforming into a reading community. We implemented daily book commercials and kept ‘someday’ lists to read. Students developed reading plans. It was not uncommon for a student to list the next ten books they were planning to read. My fifth graders were reading independently every day for 40 minutes and begging for more time. Although my students loved independent reading time, they also loved the minilessons and guided reading sessions. We traded in the 451 page workbook for reading notebooks. The basal reader was replaced by SCOPE magazine, high interest articles from the internet, and other trade books. We adopted Kelly Gallagher’s article of the week idea. Read aloud time was sacred in the room. 20 minutes every day, no matter what. It was a reading utopia, and it was working! Several students jumped 2 or 3 grade levels on the annual reading assessment. Students told me they read more this year than all the other years of their life combined. My 32 students read over 1000 books that year. It was my best year as a classroom teacher. It also turned out to be my last. That summer I was hired as the principal of the building I had been a teacher at for the previous eleven years.
Two Years Ago: The Road to Recovery
Before I learned about the Nerdy Book Club, I had a group of like-minded colleagues that I called my reading peeps. We were a team that shared a passion for creating lifelong readers. We supported each other in building classrooms that valued independent reading and strived to create a community of readers. We saw that this approach was benefitting our students and wanted to share our learning with other teachers. We hosted book clubs using The Book Whisperer, The Read Aloud Handbook, and The Reading Zone. We joined Twitter and found other teachers just like us all around the world. My peeps and I participated in Twitter chats and attended camps. In addition, of course, we found the Nerdy Book Club, a never ending source of encouragement and professional development. As a team, we were able to defeat the evil GERM that was affecting our school.
Present Day: The Model of Health
Today our school is a model of reading health. AR is gone. Some teachers were reluctant to give it up at first. They were not sure if they could hold students accountable without the tool. However, they quickly learned that reading conferences served as a far better tool. Also, you should have seen the smiles on the teachers’ faces at the first professional development when I handed each teacher a gift card to Barnes and Noble and ordered them to go now and fill their classroom library with books. The gift cards were loaded with all the money we saved from not purchasing AR. Everything we do now is centered around building lifelong readers. We have book doors on every door in the school and our locker tags share what students and staff are reading. We frequently invite authors into the building for author visits. I am convinced there is no better way to motivate students to read and write than to have authors visit your school. We celebrate them like the rock stars they are.
Every single student and staff member in the building reads for 20 minutes a day. We even have comfy chairs set up in front of the office to model the practice. We invite parents and central office officials to come in and read or serve as guest readers. I visit classrooms throughout the year to do book commercials. A principal or teacher book talk is very powerful! The book immediately becomes a must read in the classroom. I did a book commercial on Amulet earlier this year and all 29 students have now read the book.
This is a picture of students interested in reading Jess Keating’s How to Outrun a Crocodile with your Shoes Untied after my book talk. Even our community service project is centered on reading. The kids are collecting new or like new books to donate to high poverty schools in our area. Even my coffee mug promotes our goal of creating lifelong readers. Even as we are a picture of reading health, we understand the importance of preventative care. We continue to collaborate with like-minded colleagues, participate in Twitter chats, attend conferences, and learn from each other in order to remain a healthy reading school.
Jim Bailey is the principal at Hemmeter Elementary in Saginaw, Michigan. He has a passion for helping all students become lifelong readers. Jim spends his time reading, cheering on the Detroit Tigers, and enjoying time with his family (wife, Laura, and two sons, Evan and Griffin). He is an all-around nerd who probably spends too much time obsessing over Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Clash of Clans, and comic books. You can follow him on Twitter as @jcbailey3.