The Important Decision I Made to Create a Reading Community Classroom by Kristen Rowlands
As an educator I face a daily challenge. How will the work that I do today equip my students to love reading? How will kids discover they are not alone in the world through the power of literacy in my classroom?
When I graduated from college I knew I wanted to help children. I was dedicated to helping kids feel confident, loved and valued. I worked using my degree in psychology and when I had my own children, I changed my focus from social work to education. I never anticipated that the commitment I made in college to helping kids feel valued, loved and confident was most relevant and needed in classrooms across America.
I started as a teacher ten years ago. I remember being in awe of the responsibility. I was spending more time with these kids than many of them spent with their own families. How would I take a group of diverse learners, from diverse backgrounds, each coming in with their own unique story and help them shine or feel shiny?
I was teaching in a large district in Ohio and it quickly became clear and seemed almost ludicrous to expect my students like the one who walked in with my principal on his first day and blurted out, ”My dad is dead because my brother shot him,” or those students whose families weren’t around, or those that spoke different languages, to sit and read and learn in the exact same ways. I was spending so much time creating a textbook classroom, carefully teaching every skill as it presented itself in our curriculum, but I quickly realized we weren’t reading in meaningful ways. I remember looking around my room one day thinking, we are not loving reading. We aren’t reading simply because we want to.
At home, my own children and I chose to read for pleasure before anything else. Reading for fun was a vital and rich part of our lives. I knew that there was power in literacy but I realized in my classroom that this power was being shackled by teachers manuals, assessment, and mundane curriculum. What I had learned in my teacher preparation coursework applied in theory but what I was witnessing firsthand was telling me if I wanted kids to experience how powerful reading and writing can be, I needed to change things up.
It was at this time that I read The Book Whisperer. In her book, I found a resonating voice in Donalyn, an educator in Texas at the time. She seemed to share some of the same concerns I was experiencing. She talked about cultivating lifelong readers, and creating a reading community in her classroom. In her book she shared the research that confirmed what I was wondering about and outlined what she did in her own classroom. She had already successfully paved the way. I remember finishing the book and thinking, “Donalyn is a teacher, just like me, who is doing exactly what I think I should be doing….and it’s working!”
With the wisdom from this resonating voice of Donalyn and the support of my principal and administrators, I began taking some risks that I felt would help me create a community that fostered a love of reading and not simply a classroom filled with compliant unengaged learners with heavy hearts.
I created a reading community classroom.
I encouraged kids to choose what they wanted to read. I modeled my reading life. I spent my time talking individually with students about books they were reading and learned how to support their literacy development by using these books as my teaching tools. I modeled how loving books and stories helps understanding science, social studies and math easier. I demonstrated how reading made me curious and then how reading supported the pursuit of answers to my curiosities. I created a place where readers in our classroom community didn’t talk about levels but knew what books fit them best. I modeled emotions and making connections using books my students loved. We talked about reading goals, plans, and our reading lives. I started to hear my students’ voices more than my own.
The differences and challenges the kids had outside our classroom seemed to fade and kids started to interact based on books.
Throughout this shift, I watched insecure kids feel more confident. Anxious students smiled more. Children showed empathy. Kids asked more questions about the world. Peers learned from one another. I noticed my students were more engaged in their learning overall. A love of reading spread like wildfire.
Ultimately, student reading motivation came when our classroom became a reading community where we honored every member’s voice and celebrated and enjoyed books.
When I moved from Ohio to California I was nervous about my new classroom. The demographics of my students were different. How would my outlook fit? What I have discovered is that every child deserves to be in a diverse literacy-rich classroom community where they are excited and active in their learning because they are supported in reading the books they CHOOSE TO READ.
What will motivate YOUR students to read and learn when they leave your classroom? It has never been more important for our children to learn empathy and be concerned about others. For students to be critical thinkers. For kids to be curious and to explore things they wonder about. We have a world of stories in books. When our students find themselves in these stories, they realize they are not alone, they find much needed hope in the pages. They fall in love with reading in a way that sets them up for success as a lifelong reader, learner, and valued participant in our world.
Kristen Rowlands lives in Los Angeles, California, where she just finished her tenth year teaching. When not spreading 3rd grade love in the classroom, you can find her reading, running at the beach, or hanging out with her family. She is a passionate believer in the power of literacy and how stories shed light in our world. Find Kristen on Twitter as @rowlak5 (3rdGradeLove)