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This is the first article I’m doing in a summer series on Empowering Readers. If you want to take a deeper dive into the topic, I also have the Empowered Readers self-paced course that I co-created with literacy expert Bonnie Hamer. It officially launches today. We’re offering an early bird special from now until August 6, 2021.

The eight students stood in line whispering to one another and fidgeting in excitement. A few of them had peeked into the windows to see what was new. One student had a tiny notebook with a list. Most of the students had pulled out their phones and were checking key information. There was a buzz in the air and a general sense of excitement. But this wasn’t a concert or a line to buy smart phones or even an assembly or a sporting event. This was the first library day of the school year. Although I wasn’t sure what to expect, I couldn’t have imagined what I would see.

A boy looked at me and asked, “What are you going to get?”

“I already have a book I’m reading,” I answered.

He shook his head. “Nah, Spencer, you’re going to get something. Every one leaves with at least two books.”

“Is that a rule?” I asked.

He laughed at the ridiculousness of the question. Right then, the librarian opened the door and the students streamed in . . . loudly. They jumped from display to display, reading the back covers and debating books. Our librarian seemed to embrace the noise as she called out specific books and named specific kids. Some of them had been checking out books all summer but she had built up “release dates” for the first week of school.

The cynical side of me would have scoffed at middle school students getting this excited about books. After all, there is a cultural perception that reading is inherently uncool. As a child of the 1980’s, I always felt that those “READ” posters (you know the ones with Mr. T or Michael J Fox and the word “READ” in all caps behind them) backfired. It was like the Ad Council was trying too hard by advertising. After all, we didn’t need signs for play or goof off.

But any cynicism I felt began to melt as I watched the sincerity of my students. They were pulling out their phones and reading the QR codes to get book reviews. They debated the merits of various series and, on occasion, mocked other students for their choices in books (something I would address in our first class meeting). The library was like a candy store for the mind and my students were beyond excited to be there.

At one point, the librarian called students to an open space and reminded them of some strategies for finding the right book. She talked about reading sample pages, checking out the synopsis on the back of the book, checking the 3-Star Amazon Reviews (which often provides the most measured review of the pros and cons) and even looking at the book covers to see who they were marketing it toward.

This library experience defied the stereotypes of the stodgy, quiet library. However, I’d argue that many school libraries have a similar environment because librarians, as a whole, are finding innovating ways to get students excited about reading.

Looking back at it, our school librarian was a leader of an empowered community. She was a true expert in reading, curation, media literacy, and library science. But she never presented herself as the sole expert in reading. Instead, she built relationships with students and worked with them to help find texts that would connect with their interests. As a true curator, she read a broad variety of books and constantly explored new authors and genres with the hopes of helping students fall in love with reading. She was also a master architect who designed systems that would empower students. She launched a buddy reader program where my eighth graders would read to first graders. She coordinated author visits and worked with teams of students to do book talks and book preview videos. In other words, she helped design the ecosystem of reading that would allow me, as the teacher to build a classroom culture of empowered readers.

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The Real Challenge Isn’t Engagement

We want students to fall in love with reading. We want them to get lost in a fictional world where they are so into the story they tune out everything else. We want them to wrestle with really hard themes that expand their worldview and push their thinking. We want them to fall in love with characters who are different from them, and, in the process, become empathetic toward others. But we also want students to see themselves in literature.

More than anything else, we want students to become passionate, life-long readers. It’s not about a test score or a reading level. It’s about a life-long journey as a reader. However, not every student arrives to our classrooms loving reading. Whether you are a language arts teacher or a supporting content teacher, you’ve probably met students who say those dreaded words, “I hate reading.”

This can feel disheartening when we see a reluctant reader. For what it’s worth, I don’t actually like the term “reluctant reader.” I actually prefer “reading reluctantly,” because it’s about the action and not the person. A student who reads reluctantly can, at some point become fully engaged in the process. But how do you engage that student who doesn’t seem to want to read? The reality is that engagement alone is not enough. Sometimes the issue is past trauma and experiences with reading. Often, it’s an issue of self-definition and identity. However, it can also be an issue of self-direction and ownership.

If you look at the following continuum, you’ll notice that there is a progression of student agency going from teacher-centered to student-centered.

The compliant reader simply reads because they have to read. The engaged reader is reading because it’s interesting. The empowered reader is choosing to read out of a sense of buy-in and ownership. Typically, schools focus time and attention on student engagement with the driving question, “How do I get a reluctant reader to get interested in reading?” While this is an important first step, it only address part of the problem.  If we want to students to become independent, self-directed readers, we need to move into a place of student empowerment.

The following video explores this shift from engagement to empowerment:

This isn’t a new thing. For decades, teachers have embraced independent reading time with initiatives like DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) or I-FART (Independent Focused Attention Reading Time). Okay, the last one is made up because I still have a pretty juvenile sense of humor. However, for years, teachers have found ways to give students voice and choice in their reading. As a student, I loved SSR. It always felt like we were cheating somehow and not really “doing school” because I didn’t have to complete any assignments when I read silently. I just read. For fun.

However, student empowerment goes beyond student choice in the texts themselves. It also involves student ownership of the reading process. It’s what happens when students ask their questions and make their own arguments. It involves letting students choose which reading strategies work best for them and helping them identify which scaffolds they will need. An empowered reader has an opportunity to create meaningful book reviews, engage in dynamic book talks, participate in self-directed book clubs, and write their own fan fiction.

Note that compliance and engagement both have a necessary role in teaching reading. There are times when students read something that they might not initially enjoy but in the process it exposes them to new ideas and broadens their worldview. Student agency is critical but there is a value in learning to be humble as a learner and reading something you might not initially find engaging. I remember falling in love with the book Invisible Man after a teacher chose it as a novel read-aloud. It expanded my worldview and gave me a new perspective that I had never considered. By reading it together as a class, we had multiple layers of interpretation and engaged in powerful, critical conversations.

And yet, even in these moments when students don’t have voice and choice in what they are reading, we can still provide voice and choice in how they read. We can find ways to design lesson plans and classroom systems that empower students with voice and choice, even in the moments when they might not be selecting the reading material.

For the rest of the summer, we will be exploring this theme in-depth in the Empowered Readers blog series. If you want to take a deeper dive into the topic, I also have the Empowered Readers self-paced course that I co-created with literacy expert Bonnie Hamer. We’re offering an early bird special from now until the first week in August.


8 Ways You Can Empower Readers in the First Weeks of School

The start of the school year provides a great opportunity to get students excited about reading. You can do this in a way that builds on student agency and provides meaningful voice and choice for students. The following are eight ideas for how to make it happen.

  1. Have students complete an interest survey or inventory. This can be a simple Google Form with favorite books, least favorite books, author pet peeves, and other reading-related preference questions. You can also ask questions about student interests. This allows you to gather data on student reading trends. You can find out, for example, how many minutes per week your students have been reading. It also signals to the students that you care about their reading practices, geeky interests, and big ideas. It’s a get-to-know-you activity directly related to the content area. This might even be something that students complete during Meet the Teacher Night (or Meet the Teacher Knight).
  2. Do a book show and tell. Here, you can ask students to bring in their favorite book. Let them know that it doesn’t have to be recent. It can be a favorite picture book from their early childhood. If they don’t have a favorite book, you can have them pick out a book from the classroom library and talk about why they would choose it and why it piques their interest. The goal here is not a book report or even a book review. It’s a simple book talk, where students offer a recommendation based on things like whether they found the plot interesting or whether they liked the characters. This process empowers readers because it’s centered on their personal experiences. You might even invite guests from the community to share their favorite books. This is a chance to show students that being a reader isn’t confined to the ELA classroom. Have other staff or community members come in to give a short informal book talk about their favorite text (custodian, school nurse, principal, science teacher, sports coach, local politician or business owner etc). This has the added bonus of breaking stereotypes students might have about who is and isn’t a reader.
  3. Empower students to help create the classroom library. Instead of setting up your own classroom library, have your students plan and set up and organize your library for you. You can have plenty of books there ahead of time but you can have students work in groups to create the organizational system or to design the book displays that will draw students’ attention. This has the added benefit of helping students learn about genres while gaining awareness of what they have access to. It’s also a fun way to get students actually exploring the classroom library and reading the book blurbs.
  4. Create spaces where students can celebrate reading. This might start with a door display with a curation of books they might want to read. However, you can also have spaces where students display books with short blurbs recommending the book. You can use a QR code generator that sends students to a site where the book information is located, along with reviews, average stars, and even preview videos.
  5. Empower students in goal-setting. On an individual level, you can have students set goals for the number of hours or minutes they read or their fluency scores. You can also create whole class goals and use things like “reading chains” (paper loops that connect each time a student finishes a book), progress bars, and other visual celebrations of reading.
  6. Create a period where students can explore as many books as possible. When Bonnie Hamer taught high school English, she would do a”speed dating books” activity, where students would rotate around and rank various books based on an inside-outside circle activity. Another option might be to do a classroom library scavenger hunt. Whatever you choose, the goal is to provide an exploratory period where students can find their favorite book.   
  7. Provide scaffolds for students and teach them how to self-select the scaffolds on their own. The goal here is to take a Universal Design for Learning approach, where all the tutorials and supports are available to all students. This reduces the stigma associated with needing additional supports while empowering all students to find resources that they think would be the most helpful.
  8. Launch a First Chapter Fridays. Here, you read a portion of the first chapter of a novel and you do a quick book talk to pique students’ interests. The goal is to expose them to diverse authors, genres, and texts.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. You might have some of your own activities that work really well in getting students to own the reading process. I’d love for you to share some of your ideas in the comments below.


The Vital Role of the School Librarian in Empowering Readers

At the start of this blog post, I wrote about a librarian who empowered my students with voice and choice in reading. I truly believe that any conversation about empowered readers has to begin with a recognition that librarians are a critical part of this process. A few years ago, I created a sketch video that just barely scratches the surface of all the ways that librarians make a difference.

I often hear people ask, “If we have the Internet, why do we still need librarians?” It’s true that the information landscape has changed. It is easier than ever to create a work and publish it to the world and with a tap of a button, we access information from anywhere at any time.

But actually, that’s why librarians are more vital than ever. In an age of instant information, librarians help students learn to ask better questions, find valid sources, analyze the validity of sources and deconstruct the information. Librarians teach students the art and science of content curation, where they learn to connect ideas from multiple sources and apply a unique lens to the information. They ignite a passion for learning, whether a student is geeking out on an informational text or getting lost in a fantastical world. Librarians inspire students to think divergently and experiment with innovative ideas. Using design thinking, librarians can help students engage in research and development as they create empathy-driven design products.

Every week, my son and my daughter get excited about library time. To them, it’s like a candy store where they can find a new novel, make a new product, or chase their curiosity. In a world of constant noise and shallow distraction, libraries are a refuge where children grow in wisdom. Librarians inspire creativity, critical thinking, empathy, and systems thinking. In other words, they help our children become the kind of people we want them to be. They are the architects who design the systems that empower readers.

As teachers, we need to lean on librarians for support in fostering a love of literacy. They can help us find text for students who are reading reluctantly. They can provide key insights for us in curating our own classroom libraries. We can partner with librarians in creating events, book fairs, and author talks. They can give us feedback on our book review projects and we might even partner with them in mini-lessons for students in how to find the right book. As we start off the school year, we may want to do a scavenger hunt in the library and help students see that the library really isn’t like a candy shop at all . . . it’s way more awesome.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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