Saturday, January 1, 2011

When books aren't good for "Independent Reading"

In my last post I raised the issue that some reading activities wouldn't necessarily be considered "really reading" by some teachers. This is a big issue because it makes a real impact on the reading habits and attitudes of many young people.  It also looms over many book choice conferences, as the teacher is often a silent third party in the conference.  As a librarian I am trying to please and reach the student, but the student is often choosing with an eye towards pleasing the teacher!

Before I go on and write any more about this delicate matter, I want to make it clear that I am not telling students what to read and what not to read. I stand firmly behind my students freedom to read, and champion their right to select their own books.  This means that I try to only give positive messages to students about their book choices, and insist that the school library is a place where others are not allowed to make negative comments about other students book choices.  The library must be a safe place so all students can learn.

However there are many book choices in my library that are not appropriate for a homework reading log, or that a teacher may not permit during "independent reading" during class. (Independent Reading  is an instructional period where students are expected to practice reading.)When a student brings a book to check out that falls into this category (or the gray area around it) I do believe in telling the student what I notice about the book choice and asking about his or her plan is for independent reading in the classroom and at home. 

What does this look like in practice? Here are some examples pulled from reading conferences during the last month:

No David! by David Shannon  was brought to the circulation desk by a fifth grade girl that had been browsing  the "Books for Brand New Readers" baskets at the rug area.  I had a wonderful conversation with the group about what they remembered about learning how to read and what made the No David books such a wonderful memory.  We ended up reading the book in chorus as the girls (and a growing group of happy observers) laughed and talked about why it was such a great book.  In the end they decided in the end to leave No David! for  some lucky "little kid" to borrow.  But they might come back and "visit" it again.

Flotsam by David Weisner was selected by a second grade boy.  I asked him if he knew that this book had no words, and he didn't.  I told him that David Weisner is one of my favorite artists and his books are amazing, complicated, and take a lot of thinking to figure out. This is not an "easy" book!  We spent a couple of minutes looking carefully together at the first two pages.  He seemed totally taken by the concept of a book as a puzzle where you have to figure out the story.  However I also offered to help him find another book - something cool with words in it - that his teacher would let him read during independent reading and put on his reading log home.  The student agreed with me that it looked like Flotsam was a a cool book, but not so good for practicing reading.

Another problem for "Independent Reading" is when students choose books that are far beyond their reading skills.  Second and third graders seem particularly prone to choosing the largest possible books they can find.  Eragon and its sequels Eldest and Brisingr are frequent victims of this particular book choice strategy.  Often the student will explain that their parents or teacher have told them to choose longer or harder books. When I tell them that "books are like clothes, you have to try them on"  most students will "try on" giant books like these and report that they "can read" them.  Arguing about that would be pointless and really counter-productive.  I really don't want to convince a child that they really aren't a good-enough reader!  Instead I ask them to read for one minute and estimate how long it would take to read a page. If one page takes about five minutes (not an uncommon estimate) then 100 pages will take about 500 minutes.  This is more than 8 hours.  600 pages adds up to 48 hours which means it really isn't possible to read this book before it has to be returned to the library.  "Eragon and the rest of the series are really great books and very popular with students in middle school, but it might be a little frustrating for you."  Although I don't really recommend these books for [second] graders I can certainly let them try it.  However I also ask them to select another book that they can finish if they read it every day. I would rather have a student have an extra book out from the library than be stuck with nothing to read!

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