Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Call to Armchairs

Clockwise from top left: student-designed shirts promoting books for an outside reading festival, book cover projects, tallies in the May 2009 outside reading competition, the reading corner of one of my former classrooms 

Hearing the Call
When I first began teaching English, I didn’t have time for outside reading. It was all I could do just to get through my actual curriculum, staying up late into the night planning lessons to make the canon appealing: choral readings, outdoor play performances, multigenre projects and poetry slams. My students were just as busy, pleasure reading pushed aside on their nightstands by coffee cups enabling them to stay up studying, practicing their instruments, and taking preparatory SAT tests. When I left Appleby dormitory every Tuesday night at 11 pm, many of them were still working.
 In my second year teaching, I faced off with my Honors American Literature students.   
“Why are all our books about murder, suicide and adultery?” they asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied, wisely.
It was a question I had asked myself since college. For some reason, the brightest literary minds through the generations have often chosen to grapple with the topics of death and betrayal, exploring them to reveal the human condition. Fed on a diet of only such literature, would my students learn to love it as I did, back when there was time to read before bed, and in the car, and on the weekends? Back when I had to use a carrier bag to get my books home from the public library? My students spent their time in the library on computers or chatting in hushed circles. I never bumped elbows with anyone back in the fiction section, on those rare occasions I made it there myself.

These questions were still on my mind when I arrived, two years later, at my new job in Sofia, Bulgaria. Faced with some of the brightest young minds in the country, I wondered how to hook them on English language literature. Would The Crucible and The Canterbury Tales cut it? In search of answers, I ordered Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone. Soon I was reading stories of students in love with literature, ever eager for a new book. Atwell’s message was a call to armchairs – get the students books they love, sit them down, and let the magic happen.

I was ready for magic.

Modern Opinions
As a teacher, I often trust my instincts when it comes to what will help my students learn. After all, I remember what it’s like to be a teenager: always sleep-deprived, always busy, never doing enough to suit everyone. But my personal history is not my only resource when it comes to outside reading. Free choice reading curriculum is showing up all over the press.

Though other teacher-writers like Richard Kent have used free choice reading effectively as part of a student-centered curriculum, most in the educational community regard Nancie Atwell as the commander-in-chief of reading workshop.

In The Reading Zone, Atwell calls for an English classroom in which students define their own reading curriculum, guided by their teacher’s advice and mini-lessons. “I could no more pick the book that would invite a whole class to make friends with reading than I could decide who my students should grow up and marry” (Atwell 27). Her focus is on finding a wide variety of good choices for her students, helping them learn to get into the reading zone, and teaching them the skills they need to read and write well.

Donalyn Miller, “The Book Whisperer,” writes for Education World on encouraging reading, and takes a similar approach to Atwell. She lists four components of a successful program: proving reading role models, giving students plenty of time for reading, allowing them to choose their own books (with advice when wanted) and having access to a wide range of appealing literature (Delisio 1).  These ideas match pretty well with Atwell’s, though they don’t necessarily demand as full a shift from the traditional curriculum. All these components provide a challenge to busy teachers with crowded curricula, but they are not really complicated. It all boils down to this question: is there time for a different kind of reading?

The New York Times once ran a controversial article called “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like,” by Motoko Rich.  It features a teacher, Lorrie McNeill, who has embraced the free choice curriculum. McNeill built a classroom library and mimicked Atwell’s program of poetry mini-lessons and plenty of time for reading, then saw a big improvement in her students’ performance on their state reading exams. Though it was a well-balanced look at the ups and downs of this new trend in curriculum, Rich’s article sparked controversy across the internet, including a backlash against Atwell’s ideas. Some people worry about what will happen to common knowledge, to appreciation for great literature, if students can just read whatever they want.  The Times is no longer accepting comments on the article, but they put up 433 before cutting off the conversation. Sarah, of Long Island, wrote “I’m all for democracy in the classroom. But Captain Underpants? ‘Text Speak?’ I’m a member of ‘Generation Text,’ at 22 years old, but having these sad excuses for a handle on literacy is frankly embarrassing.” Greg, of North Carolina, wrote “…If we aren’t going to consider the quality of what is being read, then a love of reading is no more or less beneficial than a love of television-watching, slot-car racing, or pizza-eating.” It seemed to me these angry responses looked at the lowest common denominator: the student who read only the easiest literature, refusing all guidance and recommendation, never searching for something more as his or her skills improved. I needed to see for myself if this would really be the trend among my smart young students, but I doubted it.

I settled upon my own path, more like Miller’s, influenced by Atwell’s reading workshop, but without giving my classroom over to it completely. I would incorporate what I loved about Atwell – free choice of literature, book talks, and reading time in class – as one part of my curriculum, just as I had incorporated other interesting pedagogies throughout my career (Harkness discussions, literature circles, electronic portfolios). Every teacher’s classroom is a combination of what she discovers in the educational world – I might not be as extreme in my method as Atwell, but that was no reason to be angry with her.

Selling the Magic
I started my program small, requiring the students to read one free book first semester. I gathered a few of my favorites from the school library – Ender’s Game, Little Women, The Hobbit – the books I remembered loving as a teenager. Soon we were spending one afternoon a week curled up in the school foyer, reading.
Students showed sparks of enthusiasm; one combat-booted boy greeted me most days with “Are we reading today?” It seemed a good sign. At the end of the semester we held a reading festival. The students ordered pizza, decorated the room with posters about reading and presented a variety of artistic book-related projects. Everyone seemed happy with the way things were going, but I wanted more. I had already committed to the one book per semester phenomenon, but what would happen if I pushed the edge?

In May, I decided to tap into the competitive nature of modern school life, and announced the first class-to-class outside reading competition. Of my two sections, whichever read the most in the month would earn a day off from class, with a party to substitute. The top three individual readers would also receive prizes. By the end of the first week, battle lines had been drawn. While one class was full of consistent readers, the other had two shooting stars competing for number one status. One student went over five hundred pages in the first week. Others turned eagerly to my shelves to replace their first book with their second, then their third. By the end of the month, both classes (of less than fifteen students) had surpassed ten thousand pages, with the top two individual winners reading over three thousand pages in just four weeks, while also keeping up with their other work at the most competitive school in Bulgaria. Suddenly new options opened to me. If kids could read three thousand pages in their second language in a month, just for fun and pride, I had been setting my sights too low.

 I felt the magic at my fingertips, and began crafting next year’s assignment and considering my book buying options. Over the summer I picked up a few sure hits at bookstores and combed the library for more. I began constructing what I hoped would be an irresistibly tempting reading wall at the back of my classroom. I spilled books across tables and shelves, hung suggestion lists and posters, and put up colorful sign-out sheets to help me keep track of my library.

Things took off on the first day of school, as I began pitching books like a used car salesman. The titles I promoted left my shelves immediately, while the others languished. Most kids wanted guidance; they wanted sure things at first.

“Will this be impossible to put down, like Harry Potter?” asked one student, holding up a copy of Dracula. 
“Not exactly like Harry Potter – it’s a challenge, but I think you’ll like it if you like to be scared.” He took it.

As I got to know the students’ tastes, my recommendations became more tailored, and the students began doing their own book talks, making their own recommendations. Nick Hornsby’s Slam, a story about a teenage boy whose girlfriend has a baby, passed quickly from hand to hand. So did The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Students pestered me to know when various titles would be back, and who had the sequels to the books they were reading. They asked me how they could find more English books in Bulgaria, and I told them about the English shelves at bookstores downtown and online delivery. I began asking the librarian for special orders: more L.M. Montgomery, more Phillip Pullman, and could she find the budget for Rocket Boys to please my young scientists? Before and after class, I joined students at the shelves or watched from my desk as they guided each other toward great books.

It was so easy to incorporate outside reading into our daily routine. The students had no trouble reading multiple books simultaneously: our joint curriculum, their individual curriculum. I knew how it would be from my own reading – one book is read sitting up, at a desk, the other, sprawled on a couch or a hammock or in the car on the way to visit family. But what I knew and they didn’t, was how much that car and couch time would enhance the desk time. I could see it happening already, as students began choosing harder books, books with increasing depth. A leap from Anne of Green Gables to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a realization in a book review that The Vampire Diaries was alright for a lazy Sunday, but totally predictable. My students were discovering the multiple possibilities enfolded in different kinds of books: escape, knowledge, philosophy, empathy, entertainment, stimulation.  As I explained to one student that the Paolo Coelho in his left hand would question his priorities in life and the Phillip Pullman in his right would sink him into a world of fantasy, his friend tapped the Coelho with a knowing “this one.” My students were proving right the high expectations I had for them back when I wondered over the negative comments on The New York Times article. 

These days, the outside reading program seems to run of its own accord. Every few weeks I bring a few unpopular books back to the library and search for new ones to both suit and stretch my students’ tastes. Every day the books rotate as students return new favorites or rejects and take out something else. Occasionally, I invite students to pitch a great book they’ve just finished, or I make my own plea for a favorite. Still no takers for Watership Down, but I know I’ll succeed someday. As my students read their vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension improve, and so does their love of literature. I hope, when they step out the doors of my classroom for the last time, they’ll find their way to the library for the rest of their lives. Out of the small pond and into the sea.

In the end, for me at least, the public debate over the canon versus personal choice is a fruitless one. Why can’t we give students both?  If we can capture their imagination with one, soon there will be room for all. Students who already enjoyed the canonical texts of the English curriculum will fall for Tolkien, Rand, and Rowling; students entranced by Asimov, Pullman and Alcott will suddenly find Orwell and Dickinson a little easier, a little more interesting.  Every book helps. 

Assessment and Posterity
In Bulgaria, I am not allowed to weight “outside reading” as more than five percent of final grades. Students don’t care. I spend as much energy and enthusiasm on this minor part of the grade as I would if it were worth fifty percent, and so dothey. It’s not about the grade.

But of course, to keep outside reading a vibrant part of the curriculum, teachers need strategies to keep track of student progress. One easy way is to check in every other week on a simple class chart. Ask students to write their names, the books they’ve read and are reading, and the total pages they’ve read so far. This simple check-in system lends itself well to honoring top readers. I create a top ten readers chart after each check-in, and students race to the bulletin board to see which student is “winning.” I offer a prize and certificate to anyone who gets into the “One Thousand Pages Plus Club” over the course of the term. 

When the quarter ends, students submit a reading log of the books they have read, signed off on by their guardians. For each book, they write a one-page review, focusing on what they did and didn’t like, favorite characters and the author’s style.  After giving them their grades, I compile the best reviews into a class binder or turn them into posters, so students choosing their next books can see what their classmates thought of them. Almost everyone earns an A – their enthusiasm for their books carries them on to read the required five hundred pages per quarter with no trouble, and to write about them enthusiastically and thoroughly. Maybe next year I’ll make it one thousand.


Whether Atwell and her ideas terrify or delight you, there is surely some benefit in students reading what they love. How much they read what they love, and how much they read what English experts love, is up to every teacher. There are a bevy of strategies to promote literature to teenagers, and the best salesman is someone who loves to read – you.


Atwell, Nancie. The Reading Zone. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
Delesio, Ellen. “The Book Whisperer: Inspiring Kids to Read.” Education World Online. 5/11/09.
Rich, Motoko. “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.” The New York Times Online. 5/11/09.

Popular books to include in your class library

Science Fiction
  • Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card
  • The Foundation Series, By Isaac Asimov
  • The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling
  • The His Dark Materials Series, by Phillip Pullman
  • Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr, by Christopher Paolini
  • The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R. Tolkien
Popular Fiction with Girls/Women as Protagonists:
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Wells
  • The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
  • Memoirs of A Geisha, by Arthur Golden
  • Persepolis, by Marjane Satropi
  • Chocolat, by Joanne Harris
  • Anne of Green Gables Series, by L.M. Montgomery
  • Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Popular Fiction with Boys/Men as Protagonists:
  • Slam, by Nick Hornsby
  • Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelson
  • The Things they Carried, by Tim O’Brien
  • The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
  • The Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho
  • Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
  • Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
  • Anne Frank; The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

Fun Ways to Promote Outside Reading to your Students

  • Invite teachers, parents, or other community members to do guest book talks
  • Create a tic-tac-toe or Bingo card with book titles, and offer a prize to anyone who reads all the books in one row
  • Have a competition between several classes to see who can read the most, or an individual competition among all students
  • Put up certificates in a wall of fame for anyone who reads over 1,000 or 5,000 pages
  • Put on a book festival in which each student creates a project about his/her favorite book – have food and music, invite other classes
  • Create a “Favorite Reads” blog and post student reviews of their favorite books for future classes (see ours at
  • Compile a “Favorite Reads” binder with top student reading logs
  • Spend a whole class period in the library encouraging students to explore every area – fiction and nonfiction
  • Connect outside reading books to the curriculum, giving short book talks when a book relates to the class material. For example, pitch Into the Wild while reading Walden, The Things They Carried while reading A Farewell to Arms, Slam while reading The Scarlet Letter. If you’re having students create graphic novel pages from a text or as an autobiographical project, pitch Maus and Persepolis on the day you introduce the assignment. 
  • Assign or invite students to interview parents or teachers about their favorite books and create recommendation posters to put up
  • Bring in the Book Review section of your paper for students to browse

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