Education Opinion

Expert Readers Wanted

By Donalyn Miller — February 11, 2009 2 min read

It is flu season, and on the days when I look out to see seven empty desks, I am grateful to be a language arts teacher. Reluctant to start new material when up to a third of my students are out sick, I know that no day is wasted. We can always move forward by reading and writing.

Today, my students work diligently on their book reviews. Looking at published examples from Booklist and Publishers’ Weekly, we previously developed a list of criteria we noticed professionals use like information about the author, awards the book has won, and quotes from other readers and expert reviewers. As I circulate around the room, conferring with writers, finding websites, and digging out flash drives, I hear two boys whispering in the corner,

“I need a quote for my review, but no one else in class has read, Full Tilt.”

“Ask Mrs. Miller, I bet she has read it. She’s read everything.”

I smile. Yes, I have read Neal Shusterman’s bizarre carnival story. I happily give the young reviewer a quote when he asks, and recommend two newer books by Shusterman— Everlost and Unwind. I found both books just as weird and satisfying as Full Tilt.

There are many days when I don’t get it right—my lesson falls flat, my temper is short, or I am too distracted to focus on the child standing in front of me. My students forgive me on those days because I am one of them—a reader. I rarely fail when talking to children about books and why they should read this one. It pleases me when my students consider me an expert whose opinions about books they value; I convince a lot of kids that they are experts because they read, too.

Let’s not be disingenuous here, I don’t read children’s books solely because I need to stay current for my students. I read kid lit because I like it, and my students know it. They love to chat with me about how much the filmmakers cut when adapting Inkheart, or argue about the endings of Peak and The Hunger Games, which left us wanting more. My students are unaware of what it takes to become an expert reading teacher—knowledge of best practices, classroom management, and classroom experience—skills which take on an Oz-behind-the-curtain quality in their view. But my students already know what makes you a reading expert—you read!

This is what real readers do—debate what we love and hate, question authors’ and characters’ choices, and endlessly shape our understanding of the books we read through dialogue with other readers. Our need to find others like us draws us to books in the first place, and it connects us to each other as a reading community.

The best reading teachers are teachers who read. Research substantiates this even though we need look no further than our classrooms and our hearts to know it.

At day’s end, my student book club members descend on the school armed with handheld cameras. Their goal: interview teachers about their favorite books for a movie project. Students return connected to these teachers—many whom they did not know—instantly bonded by the books they shared. We may wonder if what we teach our students lasts them longer than a school year, only to be retaught and relearned again, but modeling a love of books and reading is a lesson that lasts.

I know from your posts that you are readers, too. Why not join the conversation? Submit a quote about a book or two you would like to recommend. Celebrate your reading expertise and share it with us all!

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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