A Reader’s Notebook: Letting Books Live On by Melanie Fuemmeler
As a classroom teacher, I always felt it second nature to share my reading life. After all, I had 28 beaming faces (well, most were beaming) looking at me each day to guide them as readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, and scientists. Sharing what I loved to read with my kids was a favorite part of the day. While book recommendations got a decent amount of energy going around some books, it didn’t take me long to realize that the long-term excitement I had hoped it would bring simply wasn’t there. The cycle went something like this–I (or a student) did a book talk, students got jazzed about that book, everyone wanted it (even the kids who had no intention of reading it), everyone read it (or pretended to), and then the inevitable, “Now what?” That last part always bothered me. Why was I always the one they looked to answer that question? I wanted them to answer it. Sure, I was happy to give guidance but this went beyond that. This was dependency. I would respond, “You tell me. What would you like to read next?” I don’t know.
I realized I was only scratching the surface in sharing who I was as a reader. It was not enough to only share the texts I read and loved (or hated). They needed to know why these books did or did not work for me. That moment of clarity birthed my reader’s notebook.
I opened to the first page and began drafting an answer to that very question–who was I as a reader? In a matter of minutes I had memories spilling out of me from childhood summers, grade school days, high school hallways, and beyond detailing my unique experiences that turned me into a lifelong reader. From there, I drafted that narrative into “100 Things About Me as a Reader”- an idea I read about on another blog. It was incredible all that came back to me as I reflected solely on my reading experiences. Things I hadn’t thought about in years or even remembered at all suddenly came forth through my pencil, spilling onto the pages in smiles, sighs, and cringes.
I showed up the next day charging my students with the same task. They began writing about who they were as a reader. For some, this was quite difficult and they came up with strikingly little. I showed them my example and how I’d transformed my narrative into my “100 list” as we came to call it. I told them not be intimidated by the number, but rather to use it as a metric to really think about the many elements that make us a reader. Just as we learned that sharing books wasn’t enough to turn someone into a lifelong reader, it also wasn’t enough to simply label yourself as a lover or hater of reading. I encouraged them to dig deeper, to know why they felt that way. That’s what this was all about. I was also careful not to tell them “finish” their list, but rather to keep “adding to it.” I did not want this to seem like an assignment or task to simply get done. I wanted it to be an opportunity for reflection every time they opened a book. Therefore, the list may reach beyond 100. Or perhaps this year they might only get to 30. The number didn’t matter so much as the practice–purposeful self-reflection.
Since that time my reader’s notebook has evolved greatly. I have since left the classroom to become an instructional coach. When this change occurred I knew it would mean more professional reading. However, the fact that I would still be working in elementary classrooms created an urgency within to keep up-to-date with children’s literature. So, I started to track my reading month-by-month in my notebook, color-coding the titles as personal (green) and professional (pink). From there I would make my book stack or “shelfie” to share with fellow educators and students via social media. I picked up the idea of a book stack from Penny Kittle. In the session I attended she talked about the power of the physicality of an actual stack of books. I have found this to be so true. Writing them down is one thing, but to many students that feels very book log-ish which equates to no buy in. However, when students can stack the books they have read to physically see all of them together–now, that becomes a powerfully validating moment. I still like to document the books I read in order to evaluate my volume. Which months did I read more or less? Why? It’s important to share that with students so they know it’s likely (and okay) that the same will happen to them.
When preparing to work in classrooms, I generally dedicate a page to researching the mentor text I intend to use, including the author. I find taking time to learn about the author helps me and the students connect to the text at a deeper level. It also energizes students to read more texts by that author.
Debbie Miller’s planning circle has been transformative in my teaching. She encourages teachers to first plan with the students in mind, considering what you want them to be reading, writing, talking about, or demonstrating during their work time. Then, based on that, you develop your mini-lesson with the appropriate scaffolds and instruction to get them there.
Finally, I model my expectations for the work students will do. Whether it be text annotation, written responses, discussion questions, or any of the other various reading strategies they could employ. I want my reader’s notebook to show my thinking about what I read and how I construct meaning that matters to me.
Ultimately, the pages within this notebook can be anything you want or need them to be. The only requirement – that purpose, power, and possibility come alive on its pages. Students thirst for this and they count on us to provide it. We can’t let them down.
Melanie Fuemmeler is a K-5 Instructional Coach in the Park Hill School District in Kansas City, MO. She provides literacy professional development throughout the region through the Greater Kansas City Writing Project and UMKC. This summer she is excited to be facilitating the Student Writing Project in UMKC for the very first time. For her, reading and writing go hand-in-hand, like coffee and creamer, which she must have when doing either. In her spare time she fosters this love of literacy in her 10-month-old daughter, Lillian, through endless reading and library trips with her reader’s notebook.