Getting on the Bus by Donalyn Miller
Last Monday, a tiny corner of the world celebrated the announcements of the American Library Association’s 2016 Youth Media Awards. Watching the announcements via live streaming, I switched between jotting book titles in my notebook, Voxing my excitement to my #bookaday group, clapping and hooting, and texting friends who were attending the announcements in person. The celebration continued online all week as authors and illustrators shared their gratitude on social media, and in-the-know librarians and teachers commented on the books we enjoyed, the books we missed (and immediately ordered), and the books we wanted to share with our students and children.
There was also a bit of armchair quarterbacking about who won and who didn’t win. I am surprised when some of the people who question a book’s merit admit they haven’t read it. Judging a book by its cover? It seems some feel confident judging a book by the commentary around it. I appreciate conversations that expand my understanding of children’s literature and its value, but reading reviews, following authors and book chats on Twitter, and attending conference sessions about books don’t replace reading the books and making my own judgments about what I want to share with students or promote to other teachers and librarians. Most teachers and librarians are unaware of these conversations or the books discussed at all.
A colleague at my school once asked me, “Do you really read all of the books you review on goodreads? My friend and I think that you read books enough to decide what you think about them, and move on to another one. You can’t possibly read all of those books.”
Her remarks offended me and I didn’t handle it well, “Isn’t that deceitful? Making public evaluations of a book you didn’t read? Do you understand that you are questioning my character when you make such a statement? Yes, I read every single book. If I don’t finish a book, I don’t post it anywhere.”
I overreacted, but I am intolerant about teachers and librarians who don’t read. I recognize this failing, but I have seen the power that a teacher or librarian’s knowledge of books has for students and the lack of interest children have for reading when their teachers don’t know much about books.
For the children we serve, we may be their only reading role models. Even when family members read, many parents rely on teachers and librarians to recommend books for their children. If we are charged with fostering children’s literate lives, it follows we should know a lot about the types of books, websites, and other media young people read. Teachers who read are more effective in engaging children with reading, more likely to use recommended literacy practices in the classroom, and more likely to provide students authentic opportunities to share book recommendations and responses with each other (Morrison, Jacobs, and Swinyard, 1999; Nathanson, Pruslow and Levitt 2008; McKool & Gespass, 2009).
While a small, enthusiastic group celebrates and debates books that won awards this year, many teachers and librarians have never heard of The Last Stop on Market Street, this year’s Newbery winner (as well as Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor). This means that many children haven’t seen it. An award win guarantees a book’s addition to many community and school library collections–which will increase teacher’s and librarian’s awareness of these books over time–but it may take years for these books to trickle into kids’ hands.
It may shock people outside of our profession, but teachers’ knowledge of children’s and young adult literature and how to use books in the classroom aren’t skills that are universally expected or sought in many schools. Few teachers take more than one children’s literature course before entering the classroom. After becoming teachers, there is little encouragement or opportunity for many educators to expand their knowledge of children’s and young adult books. Ignorance of the types of books available for children to read or the importance of using authentic literature in the classroom limits children’s exposure to meaningful reading experiences.
Teachers’ lack of knowledge about children’s and young adult literature doesn’t rest solely on their shoulders, though. In many schools, reading for pleasure and regularly visiting the library are seen as frivolous pursuits in the scope of short term academic goals. School and district leaders lay off librarians, cut budgets for books and professional learning, narrow measurement of children’s reading ability and motivation to data points on spreadsheets, and question teachers who give their students time to read.
This week, a colleague on Twitter sent me this message, “My principal says creating lifelong readers isn’t important. We should be focusing on college readiness.” I wonder how college-ready kids will be if they don’t read anything but test prep packets and excerpts from textbooks. If we graduate kids from high school who don’t read much and see little value in reading, we have failed.
On Tuesday (the day after the ALA award announcements), I visited a middle school in an impoverished area of Dallas. The school building was new—a beautiful oasis surrounded by broken street signs, houses and stores with barred windows, and feral dogs digging in trash cans. Inside the school, I found my way to the library tucked into a corner on the second floor. The library was spacious and beautiful with floor-to-ceiling windows, a bank of computers, and lots of places to read and look at books.
In the hour I was there, only three children came in to check out books. Asking about students’ use of the library, the librarian identified several challenges. After some violence last year, students are not allowed to travel in the halls unescorted, which means they cannot go to the library unless a teacher brings them. Teachers, concerned with standardized test scores, spend class time drilling test prep and giving assessments. There are few books in classrooms for children to read, and most teachers won’t let children take their classroom books home. Teachers contend there isn’t time to visit the library. The librarian told me that there are some classes she hasn’t seen since before Thanksgiving. New to the school, she doesn’t feel she can make waves. I casually mentioned the ALA Awards’ announcements the day before, but she didn’t know the books that won and doesn’t have money in her library budget to buy anything for the rest of the year, anyway. Her students, predominantly African-American and Latino children, will not see The Last Stop on Market Street or take inspiration from Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson’s magic this school year. They may never see it.
The administrators, teachers, and librarians who strive to remain current on literature for young people, invest time reading lots of books, and share our book knowledge with others may represent our profession, but we are not representative of many educators. Beyond debating and honoring books on a title-by-title basis, how can we increase the understanding and use of children’s literature in our schools? How can we increase the amount of authentic reading experiences children have at all? How can we move beyond our own classrooms to improve our profession and the reading lives of children?
I wake up every day asking these questions and seeking answers. I know that many of you do, too. How can we extend this conversation beyond the Nerdy Book Club community and into our local communities and schools? Beyond what works in our own classrooms and libraries, how can we engage our colleagues in meaningful dialogue and professional learning?
Reviewing books, fostering relationships with authors, attending conferences, and serving on award committees may expand our knowledge base and personal network of like-minded people, but how can we extend this conversation to colleagues who don’t have these opportunities or understand the value? Readers of this blog are in the choir, we are on the bus, we are walking the walk. What does this mean if the only children who benefit are the ones in front of us?
It’s not enough to count our blessings when our own schools and the schools in our communities do more to engage teachers, children, and families with reading. Children’s reading lives should not depend on their luck in getting a teacher who knows about books or a school with a librarian. All children deserve these opportunities. Every year.
Lifting up children’s literature and celebrating it doesn’t lift up children if they never see these books and read them.
I am confident we can do more together. I look forward to continuing this conversation and sharing ideas.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.