September 11


Gift Giving Among Readers by Beth Sanderson

Recently I had dinner with an old friend.  Distance has kept us apart but we quickly caught up on family, friends and importantly, books.  You see, Annie is a reading soul sister.   With a “to read” list open in Evernote, we stumbled over each other in a rush to share book titles – biographies, obscure gems, stories of the London Blitz, even a few scary books to keep us up late at night.


Leaving dinner I realized Annie’s gift of personal book recommendations was better than any physical present.


This month I welcome 120 new students to my middle school classroom.  Shiny book displays, a robust classroom library, and crisp readers’ notebooks are at the ready.  But, we will not be a community of readers…not yet.


In September, the students will be a loose collection of diverse readers.  Some will arrive as voracious readers.  Others will arrive having never completed a book. At some point in the year we will become more than that – with our own traditions, language and enthusiasms.


How do I help spark the giving mindset? Several guiding principles will lead the way in my classroom.


I am just one of the community members.  My first year of teaching I thought student love of reading hinged solely on me – how much I read, how convincing I could be, how perfect my book talks were.  Boy was I off track!  This June we surveyed 300 sixth graders and found the primary reason students chose a book is a student/friend recommendation.


To find out about readers – we have to ask!  Talk is critical.  If students are to develop an easy rapport, the door has to open on day one.  Middle school can foster reticence so my students use dialogue books filled with questions to guide early conversations.  In the first week, books will come off the shelves to cover all the desks and tables. Students will swim in a sea of books together, sparking spontaneous conversations about an unusual cover, a beloved title or a personal connection.


Reading will surprise us this year. Thanks to Donalyn Miller we take the forty-book challenge.  Students know it is not about a grade but rather to be part of the conversation.  The beauty of the challenge is twofold: it puts us all in a boat together, pulling in the same direction.  But each of us is trying new things, reading out of our comfort zone. And experience demonstrates we can’t wait to share what we discover.


Think about others as you read.  When I read a book I keep a list of folks who might appreciate the story. But, the game changer is when students keep a list of people who might like a book. Nothing is better than overhearing a student recommend a book with the phrase “I thought of you when I was reading this book” or “This book is perfect for you.“


Practice generosity. This year my students will exchange holiday cards at some point.  Perhaps Valentine’s Day or The Global Read Aloud will be the spark for cards. The twist comes in the message – students will exchange cards with a personalized book suggestion inside.  Some cards will be easy to write but others will require a conversation with another student about what he/she likes to read.  Just imagine how you would feel if 25 other people sent you a card with a book just for you.


Gift giving is a two-way street. Gifting book titles feels wonderful but it can be equally thrilling to be asked and valued as a reader. Last year, Caroline had the pulse on great historical fiction.  Want an unusual title? Ask Olivia.  Daniel read reams of narrative non-fiction and converted many students. When book sharing becomes second nature, it goes beyond my classroom walls.  I work with a generous team of teachers who don’t mind a student popping in to find Caroline or Daniel for a book title.  We are a community not restricted by walls.


Members of the community sharing a great book!

Members of the community sharing a great book!

Becoming a community takes bravery.  Late last year a new boy joined our team.  The trepidation about middle school was magnified because he came from a very small private school.  On the first day I overheard another student ask him what he liked to read.  “I like manga,” he said shyly.


The next thing I knew several boys had dragged the new student to the manga and graphic novel sections of the class library.  Laughter ensued. The door was opened and another community member walked in.


I can’t wait to see what knits our reading community together this year.  What gifts will be offered? Who will step out and welcome a new member? How will we change each other as readers and people this year?


One thing I know for sure –it is not enough for me to be passionate about books. Each member of the community must find his/her reading spark.  Wonderfully, the light often comes on thanks to a classmate’s generosity.



Beth Sanderson is a middle school teacher and reading specialist in Northern Virginia. Besides spending time with her family, her favorite thing to do is talk about books with kids. Beth is grateful for her childhood public library, her high school creative writing teacher Dr. Galvin, and every reading soul sister and brother who changed her reading life. You can find Beth on Twitter @bbsand and follow her blog