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Reading Rut

By Donalyn Miller — November 18, 2009 3 min read
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A few weeks ago, after finishing Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk science fiction novel, Leviathan, I wandered over to my bookcase of to-be-read books (lovingly called the Miller Mountain due to its dominance in my living room and the cascading nature of its contents) in search of another book to read. With over two hundred books crammed onto the shelves in double rows, I found myself reaching for Kristin Cashore’s Fire, the newly released companion to her hit fantasy book, Graceling. Looking at the other books spilling out of the shelves, I realized that some of these books had been waiting for me to read them for over two years--books recommended in workshops and blogs, books loaned by friends, books in series I started and never finished, books I missed reading in elementary school--noteworthy, meaningful books that I planned to read someday, just never today.

Driven by my need to keep up with the latest hot books and read them before passing them to my students, a lot of books slip my notice. As many books as I have read, there are hundreds of great books I have overlooked, ignored, or balked about reading. Always moving forward to the next new book, I never catch up or go back to books I may have missed. I was in a reading rut, reading in my comfort zone, selecting the books I wanted to read and avoiding those that weren’t new and exciting. I was a poor reading role model at that moment, and I knew it.

Wistfully placing Fire back on the shelf (silently apologizing to Victoria, who was waiting for me to finish it) I reached for My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George’s 1959 classic adventure about a teenage boy, Sam, who runs away from home and lives in the woods. I remember bringing this Newbery winner home from the class library last year. I was looking for more book suggestions for students who burned through Gary Paulsen’s Brian series and wanted more wilderness survival books to read. That weekend, I read My Side of the Mountain and committed myself to reading more of the passed-over books on my bookshelves.

The books I read and choose to share with my students influences what they read, and I recognized that many of them were in reading ruts, too--reading the same genres, authors, and series, never venturing out of their comfort zones, and certainly never reading anything OLD (for my sixth graders this means any book published before they were born). While I require students to read 40 books in a wide range of genres, I realized that many of them were reading the same books to meet these requirements. Our classroom library, brimming with over 2,000 books, was like a wardrobe of clothes, we used about 20% of the holdings 80% of the time.

That week, I shared my reading rut with my students and discussed with them the need to venture out and try books we may not normally choose. I went through the library and pulled scores of books off the shelves that I knew no one was reading. Some students admitted that they barely looked through the library at all, preferring instead to grab the book or two that their friends or I recommended. Together, we looked at scores of books, previewing titles and discussing what books we might read. Each child examined his or her own reading habits and committed to reading at least two books that they might not normally choose.

What an amazing experience this has been for my students and me! Students have discovered authors like Eva Ibbotson, John Bellairs, and Louise Erdrich. I was surprised to find out that many of my students missed out on older books by authors they love like Gary Paulsen’s Harris and Me, E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. For my part, I enjoy discussing books with them that I haven’t thought about in years. Instead of writing response letters and conferring about the same limited range of books--hard to keep that fortieth conversation about The Hunger Games fresh--our conversations have new energy. We all like reading the same books and sharing them, but everyone likes to be the trailblazer who introduces a book to the class no one has heard about or read! My reading habits have changed, too. These days, I alternate one older or less-well known book for every new book I read, and my students and I continue to discuss our reading ruts and how we can broaden our horizons.

So what is your reading rut? What books and authors do you gravitate toward and what types of books do you avoid? In your classroom, do you find yourself recommending and using the same titles year after year? What challenges you when suggesting books to your students or selecting books to read?

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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