August 03


Reading is a Forever Thing by Brooks Spencer

As part of a High School English conversation, a couple of teachers were overhead saying “My students won’t read outside the classroom, so there is no need to assign independent reading. It’s a waste of time.” They felt their classroom novels were enough.

I don’t understand how you teach English without expecting students to read in, and out of, class. EXPECTATIONS being the key word here. The expectation of checking out a library book, or downloading a book to read on their own time, does not stop in Elementary and Middle School.

I currently teach 9th and 11th English, below level to Honors. As a former Reading Specialist and K-12 Library Media specialist, I believe there is a book out there that can change your life, or at least your view of reading, and I will help you find it. (Shout out to Donalyn!)

Independent Reading is part of my curriculum, along with the reading we do in class. It is not an option. It’s not always easy, but it is worth every little battle. Every three weeks, my students are expected to read a book and do a report, (not a mobile, diorama, poster, or other time user) always involving sharing their read with the class. The whole book has to be shared with me, but frequently their job is to entice other students to read their book. I model Book Talks early on, so their sharing with the class becomes part of our routine.

The first I-Read comes a few weeks into school. I have students read half of their two Summer Reads, a novel and a nonfiction, and we finish together. By that time, I have gotten to know them and what kinds of books appeal to them, what books they are ready for, and what books to recommend.

It is my job to stay up to date on young adult fiction and nonfiction. I have to be able to recommend books – life-changing books, break your heart books, inspirational books. Priscilla Cummings once said to the effect, “A book is a safe place to explore difficult situations.”  Situations like bullying, drinking, drugs, abuse, violence, rape, death, grief, love, racism, suicide, gender equality, obsession – situations teens might already know something about, but need help processing. Books, stories, articles, all help students make CONNECTIONS TO LIFE. The teen years are crucial to making those connections.

While we cannot get to every great book, sometimes hearing about a book that has made an impression on someone else, can be powerful. My  I-Reading is designed to help students explore literature. I conference with them frequently, a great Donalyn strategy, which increases the rapport. The first assignment is Your Choice, then, Change Your Genre. The next might be a Re-Read. I read about that one in a Nerdy Post last summer. Students choose a favorite book from upper Elementary or MS, and re-read it. The report is a before and after, what do you remember, and what did you discover this time? They loved this one and so did I. (THE OUTSIDERS was a favorite re-read, I did GONE WITH THE WIND, that is a whole other post!)

I do every assignment with them. We do BOOK CLUBS, a great way to “work smarter, not harder”. With Book Clubs, students go in depth and actually teach the book to the class. Your group reads a book, but you get to hear, in detail, about other outstanding books. Win, win.

Another new one I incorporated this year was a Free Choice that includes finding a nonfiction article that pairs with the story. For instance, I read THE MARROW THIEVES and pulled an article on DNA manipulation – making connections with the real world. A
Biography, Short Story collection, and a Banned Book, round out the list. Toward the end of the year, I do a Teacher Recommend, a book I think they will love but probably won’t find on their own. This one takes a lot of observation and setting books aside.

As I read and hear about books, I share with my students. My reward is a waiting list for books I recommend.  I set aside days when they can just read. Reading is important, so I give it valuable class time. This is also when I can conference individually.

On my final exam, I ask students to tell me what I-Read was their favorite. I am both amazed and validated with the answers. Some students this year have liked older books like DEATHWATCH. Several connected to CATALYST thinking about their college choices. GYM CANDY is one they constantly recommend to each other, and caution not to give it away. Students from previous years come in to remind me to do ALABAMA MOON and other favorites. This is how a community of readers sounds.

Students, even High School, want and need our guidance. We do them a disservice when we give in to their less than enthusiastic response to outside reading. Elementary and Middle School teachers have worked tirelessly to establish good reading habits and expectations. High school – build on that! Students should know that we value reading so much, we make time for it. Independent Reading doesn’t stop in Elementary or Middle School. Not on my watch!

I would like to also acknowledge Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kettle and all the Young Adult authors out there who inspire me to keep pushing.

Some Independent Read Favorites this year:


GYM CANDY – Deuker



CATALYST – Anderson

UNWIND – Shusterman

DRIVER’S ED – Cooney


ALL AMERICAN BOYS – Reynolds/Kiely

RASH – Hautman

HIDDEN – Frost



Brooks Spencer tried to retire, but couldn’t. She currently teaches English at KVA Academy in Henderson, NC, plans Field Trips to The Poe Museum in Richmond, courthouses, and old cemeteries.  Her grown sons recommend books to her, so she must have done something right!