Education Opinion

What the Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction (No, For Real)

By Donalyn Miller — September 09, 2012 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I don’t watch the Kardashians and I admit that I cannot tell them apart. Thankfully, my colleague, Christopher Lehman, found a way to connect the reality TV family with my passion for reading. I hope you enjoy Chris’s humorous and insightful guest post!

Christopher Lehman (@iChrisLehman) is an author, a speaker, and a lead staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. His newest book, Energize Research Reading and Writing, is available now. Find him at his new blog.

What the Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction (No, For Real)by Christopher Lehman

This all started on Twitter when Donalyn, I and a few friends somehow got on the topic of the Kardashians. And by “on the topic,” I mean: I brought it up.

Which got me to thinking--and please follow me on this one--we could learn a lot about reading instruction from this particular reality TV family. Or perhaps my real message here is: if we take up a metaphor - even seemingly as non sequitur as Kim, Kourt, and Khloe - we can see our instruction in a new light.

Brand Yourself as a Reader, So Your Students Will Emulate

Kim Kardashian is on television, social media, billboards, magazines, ads on sides of buses, even Oprah. Love her or hate her, she is everywhere. And everywhere she shows up she is styled to be glamorous, branded to be the very fashionable friend you maybe, just maybe could have in your life if you shopped at the same places and bought the same things. We need to take a lesson from Ms. K and brand ourselves as readers just as carefully so our students have that vision to aspire to.

Donalyn is the consummate example of this, when you think “Donalyn Miller” you instantly think “reading.” Why? Because she talks about books, posts about books, asks you about books, writes books about books, she is a one woman reading marketing blitz. So ask yourself, are you known as “a reader”? Do people look at you and think “that guy’s got to know a great book for me to read next”? Do your students think “when it comes to reading, she’s the real deal.”

So this year, brand yourself as a reader:

  • Have a predictable opening line. My friend Audra, for example, quite regularly begins conversations by asking, “What are you reading?” She has done that so often with me, that I have started doing the same thing with others. It’s as catchy as a catch phrase.
  • Any press is good press, as long as it’s press. Don’t think you can only talk about reading when you’ve just finished a great book. Even talking about how hard you are finding it to make time to read, or how you just can’t find a good book, is still a book conversation: “I have four half-read books on my Kindle that I just can’t seem to find the time to read. I’m particularly feeling bad about Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, because Melody, the main character just shocked her entire class and I’m nervous to find out what will happen next...” Ta-da, you’re talking about reading. Even if you feel ashamed.
  • Post your reading life anywhere you can. Place a “I’m currently reading...” white-board on your classroom/office/bedroom door. Post reviews on Twitter or Goodreads or Nerdy Book Club or anywhere you can think to. Wallpaper your room with book covers from books you have read or want to read next. Be as annoying-mazing with your branding as a Kardashian SlimFast ad followed by a Kardashian perfume ad followed by a preview of their next super new episode. Be everywhere.

If you are branding yourself as a reader, it also means you cannot dilute the brand by engaging in things readers just never do. Saying “I’m a reader!” and then forcing your children to turn to page 167 of Chapter 18 of the Language Arts textbook is like Kourtney posing for Us Weekly without make-up--it just doesn’t happen on purpose. An anthologized textbook doesn’t know your students, their strengths, interests or needs. Walk the walk, not just the talk. Readers don’t let readers skim to answer chapter questions.

Treat Your Library as a Marketing Genius Would, To Attract Your “Buyers”

We are all consumers, our students are as well. We must be enticing, intriguing, flat out marketing machines. If you see your classroom (or home) library as simply “a place to hold books” and your role as “re-sorter of those books” then, my friend, you are very boring. Also, you are not living up to mama-manager, Kris Jenner’s example: take every opportunity to promote your clients and your products.
This year, look at your library as if you need to sell those books, not just house them:

  • Rotate your stock often. Put some titles in more prominent places, really highlight books that match your current study, and move untouched titles in the place of ones that everyone is reading. Then do the whole thing again next month.
  • Special events boost “sales.” Perhaps make some books “special” that students have to wait for. A section of your library cordoned off by “caution” tape, stating that those new nonfiction titles will be made public in three weeks (while making sure they are just visible enough to build intrigue).
  • Poll your audience often and be responsive. Instead of labeling shelves “fiction” and “nonfiction.” Ask your students what kinds of books they love, then slap those tags right on the shelf. “Drama, Drama, Drama” and “Scary Murder Books” are some of my recent favorites. Enlist focus groups of students to help you review, restyle, and restock your library often.
  • A good manager also has an ever expanding product line and list of appearances. If you go to the trouble of setting up a gorgeous library, don’t just check it off the list. Instead, keep growing it (and when you run out of space, help the classroom next door or even one across town grow, too.) I wrote a post on the “book gap” and reasons for reading here (which contains some helpful statistics if you are making the case for more books to others!).

Reality Means Real (Mostly), Present It As Such

The Kardashian family is most well known for having cameras follow them everywhere, nearly all of the time. We see every fight, every joke, every move (and yes, maybe my wife and I make it a point to see every episode. Don’t judge.). The point is that they aim to be real, well mostly real. Our reading instruction, then, needs to take up that same lead. To be as close to real as possible.

There is always a place for scaffolding in instruction, for sure. I doubt that when you bend over to tie your shoe as an adult you first say, “Make a bunny with the laces. He runs aaaarrrooound the tree. Jumps in the hole. Close that burrow up tight. Now my shoe is tied!” You do not say that today, but you may have said that at one point to do shoe-tying well. I am completely in favor of providing supports for students, like teaching them to jot about their reading on post-its, then eventually in notebooks, all to practice metacognition that is eventually in their heads. But, even pseudo-real reality TV has a lot of real in it.

Anything you aim to do in reading instruction should go through a “does this feel mostly real?” test that I image the producers of any more staged reality show goes through (I’m not suggesting Kardashians is one of those, lawyers).

  • Ask, “Would this be how people normally act?” Meaning, does that funky seven-bubble chart worksheet feel exactly like, or a close precursor to, how you actually read and think about a text? If no, if it doesn’t feel on the line to real--pseudo-real--then it’s most likely not worth teaching with it.
  • Ask, “Is it mostly real?” You improve your reading by reading. Not just by listening to people talk about reading, not by filling out worksheets about reading. By reading. This time is the most essential. Reality reading means time for reading, really.

Lastly, any major television production has tons and tons of behind the scenes work to have it run smoothly (seriously, just watch the Kardashian episode when Oprah came to interview the family - their house was taken over by Oprah’s crew and equipment). You are your readers’ set designer, lighting tech, director, producer, acting coach. Every effort you make to live as a reader, design spaces that inspire reading, and support real reading time, will in turn make each one of your students a star.

I’d love to hear more about ways you are making reading a celebrity affair and I know others would to. Please share your stories and ideas in the comments.

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.