Spill the Beans: Share Your Reading Life

As I collaborate with teachers who are implementing reading workshop, I share with them categories for mini-lessons. There are the procedural lessons in the beginning of the year. There are the lessons on reading skills. There are the lessons on reading strategies. There are the lessons on ways to develop our reading habits. I include in this last category the importance in sharing with students our own reading habits. Not as teacher to student but as reader to reader.

Sharing our reading lives with students becomes particularly important for students who do not have family members who read. I suggest teaching a mini-lesson series on how we find books to read. Actually, I think  books find me, and they find me in different ways. I love biographies, but not everyone’s life interests me. The ones I love to read are about the actors during the golden years of Hollywood in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I get book ideas when I read reviews in newspapers or magazines. I get book recommendations from friends who are readers, and I make recommendations myself. If a particular topic interests me, I’ll look through the bibliography and find another book to read on that topic. If there is a movie I want to see based on a book, I’ll read the book first. World War I has been a major interest of mine. I have read novels, poetry and nonfiction of that time period.

I wouldn’t overwhelm a mini-lesson with all the ways I use to find what I want to read. Each way would be a lesson. These lessons become great topics for our reading conferences where we can  invite students to share ways they use to find what they want to read.

Spill the beans. Share your reading life. It is a wonderful way to build reader-to-reader relationships with your students.

What Are You Reading?

I’m always curious about the reading lives of people, so I ask them,”What are you reading?” Their responses fall into an informal rubric I’ve developed over the years. Some share immediately. Ah, a reader I’m thinking. Some pause, ponder, then share. Hmm . . . readers but haven’t been reading lately I’m thinking. Some are embarrassed. Readers once but not what they do any more I’m thinking. Some just quizzically stare. Non-readers I’m thinking.

I also ask this question when service folks come calling. The handyman who has come to fix the handle on our storm door. The man who comes to clean out our septic tank. The women who come to clean twice a month because my husband and I gave ourselves a gift for 24 cleaning sessions from a local cleaning service. Nice gift! Only five sessions left. Withdrawal is imminent.

The cleaning folks are not always the same;  and, of course,  I ask them all what they are reading.

One young woman in her early twenties whom I’ll call Lisa answered immediately. She had just finished another Ellen Louise Hopkins book. She has been a fan since high school when she began with Hopkins’ first book Crank. She told me she, her sister and two other friends always go to the book store together when another of her  books comes out. I asked Lisa what drew her to Crank. I expected her response would focus on the controversial drug-centered life of the main character, a  female teenager. You know, reading about a forbidden topic in graphic detail. I was surprised by her answer. She said her mother had been a drug addict when Lisa  was growing up. Lisa explained that she used the books to help her grow up, a parenting guide in a world gone crazy. The teenager in the book was also pregnant. Lisa disclosed that she also had a child during her teenage years.


How many times in my reading workshop trainings have I preached the importance of cultivating the reading interests of students. I have always pointed out that life-long readers are people who have discovered topics and stories that interest them. I am a passionate reader. My interests range far and wide, yet it was Lisa who reminded me again  how books can act as parents for our emotional wounds. Ellen Hopkins spoke to Lisa through her books because Hopkins’ own daughter was a drug addict, and she claims that about 60% of the book is based on her daughter’s life. It’s real and Lisa could relate to that realness.

And Lisa’s reading continues. She told me she and her sister, with respective families, were going camping the coming weekend. Her sister was bringing a novel set in the location where they had grown up. They planned to read it out loud to each other around the camp fire. Sounds like life-long reading to me.


Bullies and Naivete’

An upper elementary teacher I am coaching asked me recently if I knew of some strategies to address the bullying she was encountering in her classroom. She said she had talked to the class and spoken privately to individual students. It wasn’t working.

I suggested she show parts of a sixty-minute DVD from PBS entitled Animal Odd Couples. Or do a read aloud from the New York Times Bestseller Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer S. Holland which tells about 47 remarkable stories from the animal kingdom. The stories are short and captivating. Two picture books I also love are Tarra & Bella by Carol Buckley and Owen and Mzee told by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff and Dr. Paula Kahumbu.

Now, it’s naive to think that showing a DVD or reading a story about unusual animal friendships is enough to stop bullying. It invites discussion. Questions to consider. What are the dispositions of these disparate animals? What dispositions do they share in common? What conditions were present that might have supported their friendship? How do these two animals interact with other animals? What draws us to these stories? What are the animals teaching us? Do animals bully? If so, under what circumstances? I have found that exploring these unusual friendships helps students move into a discussion about bullying?

I also shared with the teacher the March, 2013, Volume 20, Number 3, issue of Voices from the Middle, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. The entire issue is focused on tolerance. Articles in the issue offered a variety of clearly explained lessons on bullying as well as a list of young adult books students could read on the topic. A good source for book titles on bullying can also be found at www.readwritethink.org/parent-afterschool-resources/podcast-episodes/books-about-bullying-30778.html

Even with the suggestions offered above, I am not naive enough to think that it will cure bullying. Bullying comes from a place of fear and our culture these days is pandemic with fear. When we as teachers provide lessons on bullying, we need to provide an environment of emotional safety. How emotionally safe do we feel ourselves? What fears do we have to let go of before we explore bullying?