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.
While I love this story so much, I wonder if this school has a school library or librarian?
Excellent question. I’m wondering that, too.
And great mug, I have one just like it 🙂
I am a parent of two students at this school. The staff is fantastic, including Mr. Bailey. Yes there is a library and an outstanding librarian.
The school has a library and a librarian!
To provide the books needed to make this program work, an active, interested (and professional) school librarian would be absolutely essential. A well-stocked library sharing books would make it possible for students to make selections, find the variety they need, and share books of all kinds. Even with gift cards from Barnes & Noble, it’s virtually impossible for any teacher to stock a classroom library large enough to provide an actively reading class with books for a year. And it’s not economical, either. I would be willing to bet that the school librarian was very much a part of this reading program (and I’m sorry he didn’t mention her!)
Yes. We do have a librarian and a library. Unfortunately the district has cut the elementary library staff to a 3/4 time position. Mrs. Bugbee, our librarian, does an amazing job. We also spend a significant portion of our budget on keeping the library stocked with new books. We also stress the importance of building large classroom libraries.
Amen! It is wonderful to have a powerful librarian, but if due to budget cuts that is not the case, it is not difficult to create wonderful classroom libraries or checkout books from the public library!
Reblogged this on A Teaching Life and commented:
This is just the post I needed to read in order to believe in the power of the possible:
Thank you for your literacy leadership. Please continue looking for ways to spread these ideas about what works so well in your school.
Love this. Thank you for sharing this!!! So many wonderful ideas.
Inspiring post. I hope many teachers who are still doing AR read this & see that there is a way to read “around” it. My school does just what you do, love books, read books, without testing, just celebrating!
Love this post! Oh, how I wish I taught at a school with no AR!! Every day at dismissal my principal reminds students to have a book to take home, preferably AR. Why? So they can meet their AR goal, increase the school’s totals, so we can spin the “Wheel of . . . ” I cringe, and try to talk over the announcements to say, “Read something you love at home tonight!”
Thank you for this post. It takes a community of leaders to create a community of readers in a school, with a vision of creating life long readers and thinkers and not just great test takers. Because after all, life is not always a multiple choice test.
I just spent two weeks visiting classes in a school district infected with the germ. Wonderful teachers and library ancillaries struggling mightily against demoralization. This is just what I needed to read today.
Me too! And about the same timing. I knew I didn’t go into teaching to push kids into scoring higher and higher on high stakes tests. My students were reading every day and writing every day but the pain of the test bearing down and our newspaper printing their scores attached to teacher’s names spelled GET ME OUT of this insanity. It has been 3 years since I’ve had to administer a high stakes test and the relief is palpable. Seeing children growing into the strength of becoming learners who learn because that is what we are driven to do is a beautiful and rewarding thing. i love seeing that everyone reads at your school for 20 mins/day. Beautiful!
I absolutely believe in this post, however, with the Acuity and ISTEP tests the students take, is independent reading helping them understand the highly rigorous texts that the publishers put on these tests? The examples that I have seen on these high-stakes mandatory tests are not like the books that my students enjoy reading. I want to do the 40 book challenge, but my library does not have enough books in all of these different genres to check out to a K-8 building of students. I see the valid points of getting rid of AR, but with the 108 students I teach to and learn from everyday, AR is a quick, though impersonal way to make sure they are in fact reading and enjoying their reading due to choice. If there is not an AR test, I simply have them write a book review or letter to me about the book. I can tell by the detail and passion they put into their letter or review whether or not they read the book. I try to balance choice with traditional literature. I try to incorporate informational articles from Newsela, I do root word spelling words, I do grammar exercises by using student examples in writing and editing/revising on my apple tv to show the students correct grammar and interesting sentence structure…..yet a high-stakes test will determine if I am highly effective or simply effective……this is only my second year of full-time teaching….everyday I remind myself why I am there with my students, to instill a passion for reading. I have read all three books mentioned above, along with Kelly Gallegher’s “Readicide”, Debbie Miller’s reading and writing workshop books, Penny Kittle “Book Love” and Kylene Beer’s “Notice and Note”…..here is my bottom line question, Mr. Bailey, does independent reading help with these high-stakes tests? Even my advanced kids have trouble with Acuity. I teach 7th grade language arts…..
I’m not Mr. Bailey, but I can give you a response about the effect this type of reading has had this year on my fourth graders. Our kids took the NWEA test in the fall and again last week in both reading. All but two of my students (and they are already high level readers) increased their scores. Most of the scores were a very significant increase from fall. I was told my kids should go up by “a couple” of points, but most were up 5, 10 or even 15 points. In fact, a couple of kids who started on the low side made even greater strides, with one of them showing an increase of more than 40 points. Our team that proctors the test was amazed. Needless to say, I’m very happy that I’ve overhauled the way we “do” reading!
Great post! To answer your last question…yes, independent reading makes students better readers and better readers score better on state assessments. In my school, the students that read the most generally score the best on our NWEA assessment. Donalyn Miller actually just did a beautiful post highlighting the research behind independent reading. It can be found at the following link:
It sounds like you are doing a lot of amazing things in your classroom. Independent reading is the heart of our reading block. However, we still do lots of the things you mentioned in your reply. Kelly Gallagher’s “Article of the Week” is great for close reading and responding to text; Jeff Anderson’s work with grammar is the gold standard for grammar instruction; and using Newsela is great for building background knowledge. Our teachers read Wonderopolis with their students every day.
As far as AR, I don’t like anything about the program. I would rather spend the money on buying books. Also, I noticed students were only reading books at a surface level because they needed to be able to answer the “Trivial Pursuit” type questions AR asks students. I found that the best way to find out if students were reading was to talk to them. It doesn’t have to be just during a reading conference either. I would talk to students before school, while we were lining up to go to lunch, and cleaning up at the end of the day. I also looked for authentic ways for students to respond to their books…things like book commercials, writing reviews for Barnes and Noble/Amazon/Goodreads, or on our classroom blog.
We use a reading workshop model at Hemmeter. Independent reading isn’t the only component but it is the heart of the program.
Jim- I hope teachers take this away from your post- “Everything we do now is centered around building lifelong readers. ” Thank you for sharing all of the ways in which you build lifelong readers. Critical to education at this time.
BROTHER!! After 29 years as an elementary librarian and adjunct faculty at The University of Kentucky teaching children’s literature, I more than agree with everything you say! Thank you for saying it. I will share this blog with my principal, elementary curriculum director, teachers, and fellow librarians (all of whom care deeply about lifelong readers). I will also share it with my future teachers in my children’s literature class. I would only add (which should be, but often isn’t, a given) –teachers and librarians MUST place a priority on reading children’ s literature themselves. Please continue to share your message with other administrators.
@Becky- my two children are blessed to attend the school Mr. Bailey is the principal at and I can tell you he does indeed read many children’s books. He has his office door covered with his favorite books of the year. He also encourages students to put the name of the book they are reading on their lockers. He is an amazing educator and an even better person!
I agree! That was one of the main reason for requiring every staff member to read 20 minutes each day. You can’t be a great reading teacher, if you are not a reader.
What a fantastic role model for literacy you are! The positive feeling of a community center about a love for reading is evident. I’m going to share some of your ideas with my administration, especially the comfy chairs for reading all over the school. As an elementary librarian who also feels the push towards test scores and away from autonomy, your story is inspiring.
Jim, thank you for saying what those of us fighting GERM daily know is true! Kids who choose text on their own and get the gift of time to read become increasingly more proficient as readers. I’ve watched a teacher on an “at risk” campus this year stand bravely against the test prep craziness. She allows her kids to read 25 minutes daily and they’re not required to do anything but enjoy the experience. They do talk and write about what they’ve read and they are great at giving book recommendations to peers. This hero of a teacher is getting grief about her decision, but the “book buzz” it’s creating is causing many to take notice. Let’s hope that soon what you described (so beautifully BTW) becomes the rule and not the exception!
Found this post so inspiring. A good reminder of why we all read. And LOVE that the students are collecting books for other students in low-income areas. Thanks for the excellent post!
I applaud your efforts for your “reading” students and your teachers. You are certainly on the right track in creating life-long readers. Keep up the good, enjoyable, passionate work.
I am so glad you stayed in education and found a cure for that GERM infecting your students’ reading life. Allowing for the practice and the great modeling of reading is surely lifting the level of student achievement as well as the passion for reading. With books like the Amulet series and teachers who promote books, reading is engaging not points driven. Yay!
This is a totally awesome post. I wish my kids could go back to elementary school to be in your class. They would totally love it.
This is a great program! I wish my school was like that, we have to read for grades. I want to be a teacher too, and I hope I can do something like this for my students
Thank you so much for this inspiring blog post! The elementary school I’m the new media specialist at is very focused around AR and this is a nice way to show a perspective from someone’s viewpoint other than my own 🙂
It is a very interesting post, when I was reading I had a smile in my face. In a few years I will be a teacher (I hope so) and I am always thinking that there are a lot of things in the educations system that I think they are awful and that they must be changed; and of course I know that it is difficult. But Jim Bailey shows that changes are possible and that we can fight against the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement).
Baleys achieved in a simple way, his students become lifelong readers. Hi just gave them freedom to read what they want, and then share it with their classmates. But even being a simple thing why teachers didn’t try before? Because usually people are afraid of changes and instead of trying they just continue with the same methods.
In my opinion all teachers and future teachers should take as an example this article and try their students become lifelong readers because it is a very important aspect of education.
Say to end no doubt I will read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller and The Reading Zone by Nancie Atwell. Let’s see if I get my inspiration too!
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Merely a smiling visitant here to share the love (:, btw great style .