What I’ve Learned about Being a Kick-Butt Fifth Grade Reading Teacher–Part 1

Everybody has been in the closet about something or other, right?  Well, I have a closet of closets, but one of my most closely-guarded secrets was how I ran reading in my class.  As years passed, I found more and more time diverted from direct instruction and assigned reading to self-selected individual reading and talking about books.  This was during the heyday of the 10-minute mini-lesson, but instead of cycling through group after group of guided reading, we were mostly just….reading.  I worried that if my colleagues, or heaven forbid, my bosses, knew about this practice, I’d be…well, something horrible but unclear would happen.  Thank God for Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer!  Her words confirmed what I’d seen in my own teaching practice, that lots of independent reading, coupled with strategic and clear instruction, makes readers.

It’s sad that I couldn’t just trust my own experiences and share my practice openly, but I’m “out” now, and I’ve been thinking about what works in how I teach reading.  Needless to say, most of what works for me, I got from wiser practitioners and adapted to suit my own teaching style and students’ needs.  First and foremost, I read.  I’ve always been a reader, so that part is fairly easy for me, but I’ve found that reading widely in children’s literature is an essential practice, not a hobby.  My students, from the strugglingest strugglers to the zoomiest zoomers, want guidance in their reading lives, want a mentor who helps them discover their own identities as readers.  So I have to know the books in their world, from Henry and Mudge to The Hunger Games.  That is not always easy, because I read a lot of books that I wouldn’t choose for myself (although I also read a lot of fantastic books)–it is a professional obligation that is often a pleasure, but not always.  The reading never ends, either, because the world of children’s books is HUGE and EVER-GROWING.  I know a little bit about a lot of books, and a lot about a few books.

Cui bono?  The benefit is to my young readers.  Here’s what they get:

  • An adult who knows them, and can help them select books that they connect with in powerful ways, so that readers workshop is a time of rich silence, punctuated with sighs, short explosions of laughter, stifled giggles, and gasps of surprise.
  • Time and guidance to develop identities as readers, to learn what they love and what they don’t in books–and why, through conversations with fellow readers that are not only encouraged, but expected.
  • Invitations to talk books and share recommendations that create opportunities to expand their reading horizons, whether by subject or theme or genre or structure.
  • A role model who has a passion for reading, who lives her own struggles with ideas, characters, and reading choices out where they can see and consider from their own perspectives.
  • A fellow reader who is always willing to talk books and take recommendations from them as often as she give recommendations to them.
Time-consuming.  Occasionally expensive.  Unpredictable.  Complicated.  But it’s so worthwhile as, over the course of a given year, I see the kind of growth that endures.  That’s one thing I do that makes me a kick-butt reading teacher.

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