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Schools that Read Together: Cultivating Reading Communities at the Secondary Level by Heather Rocco

Approximately three years ago, Chatham Middle and High School teachers implemented an independent reading initiative for their students. There are many components to implementing an effective independent reading program, especially at the middle and high school levels.  To explain all we did (and do) requires a much longer blog post or, say, full texts written by brilliant educators like Donalyn Miller or Penny Kittle (our IR muses).  Instead, I’d like to focus this brief post on one of the most surprising, yet inspiring results of our independent reading initiative.  This initiative strengthened our school community.  


All our students have one thing in common – books.  They are readers.  They know the classmate sitting next to them reads.  They know their teachers read.  They know that they belong to this community.     


Community of Readers

Books bring people together.  Readers have book clubs, book stores, libraries, used book sales, GoodReads, best seller lists, and even fan fiction. As we immersed ourselves in independent reading, students abandoned social bravado to say to a classmate, “You’re reading that book? I loved it!”  Ta-Da!  Students (who previously had nothing in common) launch into a conversation about Red Rising, Perks of Being a Wallflower or Unbroken.  It is a spectacular to watch students make these connections.  


I do not intend to oversimplify.  We cannot only rely on hope that these magical moments will occur. We work at cultivating our reading community. We have growing classroom libraries thanks to education grants and used book sale obsessed teachers.  We tally numbers of pages read and post a class’s monthly total.  We have a student/faculty book club that meets once a month.  Yet the primary reason our reading community flourishes is because we share our reading lives with each other every single day.                     


Hey kids! What are you reading?

The secondary level teachers encourage students to share their reading in many ways.  These varied opportunities allow students to peek into their peers’ reading lives.  Shannon Falkner, English teacher at Chatham High School, has her students join a class GoodReads group. She says the impetus to create this group was simply to track what students read, but it has grown into so much more.  Her classes use the web site to “share our reading lives, make recommendations, write reviews, learn about one another’s interests, and have discussions about the books they read.” These digital and face-to-face discussions allow students to connect with their peers in meaningful ways.  Thus, bonds are formed over books and a community grows.  Here are a few other ways we ask students to share their reading:


  • Classroom Design – Many teachers allot space in their classrooms for a book wall.  Students cover chalkboards, bulletin boards, and closets with their book titles. Carly Nacer, a sixth grade teacher, notes that her students “always look to the board for suggestions.”  She adds, “[They] also can see just how many books we are reading as a community.”     


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  • Book Reviews – Frequently, we ask students to review the books they read. Students post on blogs, in GoodReads groups, or on the class web page.  Just as frequently, students rely on each other’s reviews to help them choose their next books.  Morgan, a high school senior, posted a review of The Next Best Thing on My List by Jill Smolinski on her blog.  In the comments, several classmates mention they are adding the book to their “next read” lists. Plus, there is a comment from the author!  Morgan’s teacher, Oona Abrams, tweeted the blog’s link to the author, and she responded on the blog itself!


  • Book Talks – When students are not writing about their books, they are talking about them.  Students present book talks to the class. Students chat with their neighbor their current reads.  Sometimes, teachers create genre groups, allowing those students to chat with others reading fantasy, realistic fiction or horror.  No matter the format, students love to talk about their books and to hear about books.    


Teachers Read Too

To truly build community, teachers must participate.  The teachers are readers.  We share our reading with each other and, most importantly, our students.  Chatham Middle School teacher, Tim Casey, explains, “I’m excited when I tell [students] about the books I read, and I think that excitement can be contagious.”  Here are a few ways the teachers make their reading lives public:


  • “Currently Reading” – Many teachers add an “I’m currently reading…” section to their email signature, listing the book or books they are reading.  Some even note the book they have just finished and the one they will read next. Parents, students, and colleagues often start their email replies by first asking, “How are you liking [insert book title here]?” It is a great way to start a conversation about books.


  • Classroom Posts – Many teachers post the book title they have read, are reading, or want to read in their classrooms.  Again, it opens the lines of communication about reading between the students and their teachers.  Sixth grade teacher, Jen Agens, says, “Each time I finish reading a book, I print out a picture of the novel’s cover and add it to my wall. It’s a great visual representation of the YA Lit I read, and you will often find many of my students reading the same books as me as a result.”

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  •  Read With Them Adolescents are a dubious bunch.  Unless they see teachers with books, they will always doubt if teachers read all the books they claim to read.  Seeing your busy teacher read sends a powerful message about the importance of making time to read.       

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Don’t be fooled.  Chatham Middle and High Schools have some students who are struggling or resistant readers, but we continue to seek the right books to inspire them to find the joy in reading.  We also have, however, over 2000 students and teachers who are readers.  Now, that’s a powerful community.  


Heather Rocco (@heatherrocco) is the K – 12 English Language Arts Supervisor for the School District of the Chathams in New Jersey where she proudly works with talented, dedicated teachers.  She is also a consultant for The Educator Collaborative and serves as Associate Chair for the Conference on English Leadership. She loves her children, books, poetry, yoga, running, and the New York Yankees.