By Christina Nosek and Kari Yates
Christina glances around her classroom as she gathers her trusty clipboard and pencil case full of post-its and pens for conferring. She watches as her fifth graders quickly settle into their reading routines, nestling into beanbag chairs and pillows, and quickly losing themselves in the pages of their self-selected books. She smiles to herself. It’s obvious this has become a classroom of readers. Everyone is so engaged. And then she notices Marla.
Something about Marla’s fiddling with her supply box seems way too drawn out. Christina is curious. Marla is usually one of the first to settle in to engaged reading. So, rather than rush in with a reminder to get started, Christina takes another moment to watch and wonder about what might be going on. After more digging through post-its and pencils, Marla eventually picks up a book and chooses a reading spot. Yet, instead of truly engaged reading, Christina sees more telltale signs of the very opposite as Marla seems to aimlessly fan the pages of her book and play with her bracelet.
Clearly, something is off with Marla. Because every other reader seems engaged, Christina knows that checking in with Marla will be her first priority for conferring today. Before she approaches Marla, Christina takes a moment to look back at the notes she jotted during their last conference . Her past notes quickly remind her that Marla was just pages away from finishing The Penultimate Peril, the final book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Christina recalls how Marla had devoured one book after another for weeks. Suddenly, she has a hunch about what might going on with Marla.
Wherever there are classrooms where teachers commit to the brave but messy work of letting students choose books for themselves, there will always be a need for lots of reading conferences focused on book choice. We think this is critically important work for reading teachers; work that has too often been brushed aside or treated as something we take care of with a few quick lessons in the fall before moving on to the real work of teaching reading. Great books are the magic fairy dust of engagement. We’re sure of it.
Think about your own reading life for a moment. When have you been driven to stay up late into the night completely captivated by an author’s words? Or, lock yourself away in the bathroom just to sneak in a few more pages or chapters? And, on the other hand, when have you had dry spells as a reader? What was missing in the times when you didn’t feel that same sense of urgency to squeak out a few extra minutes, or even move onto the next chapter of a book you had started? Most likely it was the absence of a compelling book. It’s easy to recognize that the ebb and flow of adult reading lives is driven by the books we choose just as it is for our students. Great books don’t seem to care a bit about our busy lives. They demand our time and attention right now. They won’t let themselves be ignored. They refuse to lie dormant on the bed stand. They follow us around in our thoughts even when we are away from them. And some of them become such a part of us, that even when we reach the end, they refuse to let us go. They live on inside of us, making other books pale in comparison, leaving us temporarily unwilling or unable to believe there could ever be another so perfect for us.
When it comes to building vibrant reading lives, book choice is everything. At least it is the something that everything else depends on. In our text, To Know and Nurture a Reader; Conferring with Confidence and Joy (Stenhouse, June 2018), we share four intentional directions that a teacher might pursue in a conference including:
- Book Choice
- Healthy Reading Habits
- Strategic Process, and
- Authentic Response
While all four of these conferring directions are critical to nurture in every reader, we view book choice as the foundation on which everything else is built. Why? Because we believe that with an engaging text in their hands, everything else has at least a chance of coming together, but without a text they care about, everything else quickly falls apart including habits, strategic actions, and meaningful ways of responding to texts.
So it makes sense that until all of our students are consistently finding their way to texts that engage and delight them, book choice will often be the focus of many our one-on-one conversations with students. Today, we highlight a few of the common reasons that drive us to focus on book choice in a conference with a young reader.
- When we’re first getting to know a reader. Whether it’s the fall of the year or the moment that a new reader joins your classroom, making time to explore past and present book choice strategies will provide windows into their success, struggles, and skills in quest for finding great books. What you learn in these early conferences with young readers can inform future conferences, small group lessons, and whole group instruction about book choosing strategies. It can help you connect readers with similar interests, and inform your choices about how to organize and supplement the classroom library with topics, authors and series your kids will want to read.
- When a reader isn’t settling into engaged reading. Whether it presents itself as consistent trips to the restroom, endlessly abandoning books, fiddling in the supply box, or flipping aimlessly through pages, the symptoms of disengagement can look the same for many readers while the root causes might be very different. It can be easy for our thoughts to go to stamina, attention problems, or even intentional misbehavior. However, we find that more often than not the real culprit is the absence of texts the reader finds worthy of their attention. Of course, sometimes kids might have books they want to read and be disengaged for other reasons, but until we’re convinced a worthy text is in the mix, we continue to focus our conferring efforts around book choice. Disengagement is a symptom. The more time we take to understand it, the better positioned we find we are to work thought it. Conferring allows us to do just that.
- When a reader is showing new signs of engagement in a book. Conferring focused on book choice isn’t something we reserve only for when a reader is having difficulty finding engaging texts. We also sometimes choose to focus here when a reader has had obvious book choice success, finding a book that seems to take their engagement to new heights. Leveraging a conference to help a reader reflect on how and why they found their way to a particular book and what it is about that book that’s making it work, can be powerful path identifying strategic and transferrable actions they can draw on again and again when making book choices in the future. How did you find your way the last book that you couldn’t put down? What could you learn from that to find your way to another one like it in the future?
Book choice and engagement are inseparably linked. The time we invest in supporting to develop the skills and strategies to consistently find their way from one engaging text to the next is time well spent in the reading classroom. Until every last reader has found his or her way to a book they can’t wait to dig into and don’t want to put down, there’s still urgent work to pursue.
Christina Nosek and Kari Yates are the coauthors of the upcoming To Know and Nurture a Reader from Stenhouse Publishers. Christina is a fifth grade teacher and literacy coach in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kari is a staff developer and consultant living in Moorhead, Minnesota. To read more from them, visit their new blog at https://toknowandnurtureareader.com/. You can also follow them on Twitter: @ChristinaNosek and @Kari_Yates or on their Facebook Page.