Pernille Ripp agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Passionate Readers: The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.
Pernille is a 7th grade teacher in Oregon, Wis. She opens up her educational practices and beliefs to the world on her blog www.pernillesripp.com and is also the creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, a global literacy initiative that since 2010 has connected more than 2,000,000 students.
LF: You begin the book by talking about teachers needing to be aware of their own “reading identity.” What do you mean by that phrase and why is it important for our work in the classroom?
I started to realize a few years into teaching reading how many of my own “instinctual” decisions were, in fact, not instinct, but rather stemming from my own reading experiences as a child. I did not grow up with strong reading role models in school, but instead had them at home through my mother who breathed life into books for us every single day. I became a reader through my mother’s love of reading, not through the lessons of how to read in school. So as an adult, when I did not spend time reading children’s books, or even a lot of time book talking new books in our classroom, it was because I did not realize that it would make a difference to the students. I, wrongly, assumed that all of my students certainly had strong reading role models at home much like I had had, and that I, therefore, did not have to be one in that very real sense. I spoke to my students about my adult reading at times, but it was never a central part of how I taught. My own reading identity meant that the visibility of reading through conversations, book sharing, and even discussion of which books I was abandoning did not happen.
Yet research now shows just how important it is to be reading role models for our students (Loh 2009) and how valuing independent reading time in class changes the reading experience itself. So we must look inward before we start to mold our classrooms. We must see how our own reading experiences shape the very experience we create for students; how what we value becomes what we make time for. ow what we read becomes what we book talk. How what we don’t do or don’t speak about does not get taught. That is why journeying into your own reading identity is so important; so that you can answer the question, who am I as a reader and how did I become one.
LF: You also discuss the importance of students developing their “reading identity.” Why is that important?
For a long time we have been obsessed with reading skills, making sure that all kids CAN read and comprehend. We teach it, we test it, we re-teach it, and we even retain kids based on whether or not they can read. And while we are certainly right to be obsessed with the skills of reading, we need to include a focus on having kids WANT to read. It simply does not matter whether all the kids we graduate can read if they then choose not to once they leave our schools.
If you ask most kids, “Who are you as a reader?” very few kids in my experience know what to say. They will often tell you how they feel about reading but that is about it. So a child’s discovery of who they really are as a reader beyond whether or not they like to read must became a central lesson throughout our year. Kids should know where they like to read, what they like to read, how they like to share books, and also know their own bad habits. They should be able to tell you deeply about their reading experiences because the development of that has been a central tenet of our instruction for years. Making their reading identity a focus also means that we make room for all the types of readers in our classrooms, and not just the ones that like reading. When a child identifies as a non-reader or even as someone who hates reading, we have to make room for that in our learning. We have to uncover the reasons why and then start our conversations there, rather than dismiss them not wanting to read as foolish or tell them that they have just not found the right book yet.
So student reading identity development starts on the first day, where I ask them to rate their enjoyment for reading and then also who they are as a reader. Their answer becomes the baseline for our further conversations as we then start to explore different facets of that identity. We reflect, we discuss, and we, hopefully, develop what it means to be a reader together so that the kids who pass through our doors end the year with a much deeper understanding of how reading matters and why they should continue to develop as a reader. We have to remember that we are not just teaching these kids this year but that we are planting seeds for who they will be as adults.
LF: You have an extensive chapter on classroom libraries. What are two or three specific suggestions that teachers should keep in mind when creating their own and/or questions they should ask themselves while evaluating what they have now?
For me there are three central questions you should ask; who is represented in your library—subject matter, authors, and illustrators—how are they represented, and who are you book talking? We need diverse books, hopefully more and more people see that, but we also need diverse representation in our author and illustrators. It is not enough to purchase book with a multi-racial character when once again the author is not. We need to use our purchasing power for good by including Own Voices authors, authors who are from a marginally represented group who write from that unique perspective, and then highlight those books with our students.
We need to critically analyze what we have in our text selection and make sure it is not just one or two stories of an entire nation or experience that is being represented. Are our texts featuring all types of people doing everyday things and not just highlighting one or two famous representatives from an entire culture? As one of my 7th graders asked me, “Mrs. Ripp, why are all of the picture books with black people in them about slavery or civil rights?” He is right and it is up to me to change that narrative in our classroom. So I have been combing through my library with an eye for what is missing and how are people represented? Where are my book gaps and are the books I have harmful in their representation? Just because a book is considered a classic does not make it less harmful if it depicts for example Native Americans in unfavorable ways. And then also thinking about which stories we display and book talk. What we talk about we bless, so which books receive more of our attention? As an example, we should not be waiting until February to create displays that feature African Americans, those should be a constant in all of our displays and not stand as a separate entity.
We have so much influence, not only over the reading experiences that our students have with us, but also in what they believe about others who may or may not look like them. So we can choose to use that power for change and ensure that our classroom and school libraries become a part of the social justice discussion and narrative that is unfolding much more loudly in our country right now.
LF: What are a few dos and don’ts teachers should keep in mind if they want to help students develop a love for reading?
Do be a role model of what a “real” reader looks like; share your great habits and the bad ones. Too often our kids who are not established readers think that strong readers have it all figured out; when to read, what to read, and how to understand the text, and yet this is not true. I consider myself a strong reader and I often fall out of my reading habits, I have to plan for my reading, and I sometimes cannot find a great book to read. So share in order to have them share what their reading lives look like. And step aside, their reading journey is theirs to explore, not to be a copy of your own.
Make sure that when speaking happens in your classroom, that it is mostly student voices that are doing the talking. Also, be a champion of kids’ reading lives. Protect free choice, the time to read, and doing meaningful work in our literacy instruction. Speak up when you see programs being implemented that harm the love of reading, speak up for your own kids when they are subjected to poor reading programs, and question your own decisions. We cannot grow if we do not reflect on everything we do, the good and the bad. Know your research so when someone tells you that something is research-based you know enough to be a part of the conversation. And then always, always, always ask the kids; how can I be a better teacher for you and do something with the truths that they share. This book was written because my students had so much to share that pushed me as a teacher of reading. I hope that their words will push your thinking as well.
While there are many things I could list under don’ts, especially things like AR, reading logs, and neverending reading tasks to keep kids accountable, my biggest don’t is: Don’t be the teacher that kills the love of reading for a child. Question your practices, educate yourself, keep the conversation going with your students and then continue to push yourself to become a better teacher of reading.
LF: Thanks, Pernille!
The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.