Report from Louisiana: My Students Learned to Love to Read

By:  Pat Austin

The end of our first semester is upon us and I wanted to take a moment to reflect on my classroom reading project that I began this year and to provide an update since so many of you donated money or sent books to my classroom.

Over the summer I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer which then led me to other experts on the subject of independent reading in the classroom such as Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. I read lots of studies and did a lot of research before deciding to dedicate fifteen minutes of every class period to independent reading; that is a whole lot of class time and I wanted to be certain that this would be a good investment.  

It was.

Part of my concern that initiated this project was that our new curriculum, Guidebooks 2.0, strips pleasure reading and short stories almost entirely from my syllabus.  It is a scripted curriculum and we are not allowed to take away from it, but we ARE allowed to supplement it, sparingly. I decided that the most important thing to me, for my students, was to ensure that they did not lose their love of reading due to the prescribed, often dry, articles, speeches, and court opinions that they are required to read, especially in the tenth grade syllabus. We have two units:  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (9 weeks), and Macbeth (9 weeks). Both of those are wonderful stories (although we never read the Henrietta book, only articles about the story of Henrietta and the ethics involved); the problem is that the Guidebooks strip pretty much anything imaginative or engaging from the students.

I hoped my reading project would help keep them engaged and interested in reading.

In my classroom this year, from August to December, my students read just over 345 books, give or take a few. As they complete a book, each student logs the title and date into his Reading Notebook; the sense of accomplishment in looking over this list at the end of the semester can be great for most students.  

Some students read a lot more books than other students, but that doesn’t take away the accomplishment of those slower readers. I have one student who has never finished a book in his life but read all of Bob Batchelor’s biography of Stan Lee. I ordered that book specifically for this student and I watched as that bookmark sank deeper and deeper into the book each day. He read the entire thing; that was a huge accomplishment for this particular student.

At the other end of the spectrum, I had avid readers who relished the opportunity to engage in their favorite hobby and they read dozens of books.

Every Friday my students wrote a letter to me in their notebook reflecting on what they read during the week and discussing their current book. These letters opened a dialogue between us and strengthened our relationships. Reading became a common bond for us.  We talked about books and we talked about the real life lessons that they taught us.

One of the most popular books this semester was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I bought four copies of that book, and our school library kept another copy going.  The kids wanted to read it, they wanted to talk about it, and they wanted to read other books like it. When one of my girls finished it and wanted a similar book I handed her Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.  In this book a boy is considering shooting the person he believes killed his brother. As he descends in the apartment building elevator, he has “encounters” with family and friends who are no longer alive and he has an opportunity to reflect on his planned action.  My student was engrossed in this book and when she got to the ending, her jaw dropped and she looked up at me, wide-eyed, breaking the silence in the room with, “Mrs. Becker!”

I love that a book can elicit this kind of a reaction from a kid!

I have a male student who was a reluctant reader and he’s been working on Hatchet all semester. Nearing the end of the book now, he just shook his head and muttered, “This lil boy has been through too much…”.  

On Friday, as I was grading final reading reflection letters, so many of my students expressed gratitude for our reading program; one girl wrote, “One thing I learned this week is that I remember how much I love reading and I’m proud that I read multiple books this semester.”  Another wrote “I love that we get to read in here,” and yet another student who was not a particularly avid reader in August, expressed pride that she read three entire books this semester.

Through reading these letters each week it was really gratifying to see so many of my students enjoy reading and discussing their books with me. I’ll be honest though, not every student fell in love with reading. I had a couple of boys who never got off whatever random page the book landed on. I had another boy who just grabbed a soccer book with brief biographies of soccer stars and he would prop it open on his desk to hide his phone behind it. We had multiple discussions about this behavior but I also know that I can’t force a kid to read and I refused to penalize them with grades on this. I feel strongly that reading should be its own reward.

In the end I’d say with about 85% strong participation, 10% moderate participation, and 5% utter apathy, this was a real success for my students. I will definitely continue this program next semester which begins in January and will tweak it by talking more about the books I’m reading; I’ll also invite more open discussion about books my students are reading in addition to the one on one discussions we had this semester.

Since a significant number of the books in our classroom library arrived through donations from our Amazon Wish List, and some of those donations came through readers of this blog, I wanted to update and share our progress with you.  

Reading opens so many doors for students on so many different levels; I feel truly honored to be able to guide my students into the world of books.

Pat Austin Becker blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation. Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25 and on Twitter @paustin110.