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Reading & Literacy Opinion

Bring on the Books

By Donalyn Miller — March 16, 2009 3 min read
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In a favorite daydream, I put caution tape across my classroom door, disappear for a year, and read the cascading pile of journals, presenters’ handouts, and books in my home office. Considering my teaching contract and my daughter’s college tuition, my dream sabbatical is unrealistic, but one way I try to stay current is by participating in several book studies a year. I see these as a particularly rewarding and low-cost form of professional development.

Donalyn Miller

There are two types of book-study groups commonly found in schools: professional book groups and literature groups. In a professional book study, teachers examine instructional techniques with the goal of implementing these practices in the classroom or broadening their pedagogical knowledge. In a literature book group, teachers select and discuss books of interest to their students as read-alouds, or of interest to themselves as mentor texts or independent reading.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Determining the focus of your group is the first step in designing a book study. Are there practices that your district mandates all teachers employ? Districts often distill teaching practices down to the techniques teachers can quickly apply, but exploring the source material rather than the summarized version creates an understanding of why such techniques are meaningful.

Did a staff member attend training or read an article that sounds intriguing? That might be a good basis for some collaborative study. You could also extend a one-shot presentation given by an education speaker by launching an in-depth study of his or her work.

A literature book study can influence the books you share with students and promote more reading among your staff. Is there a book list or author’s work that you want to read? Are you in a rut in class, using the same read-alouds, picture book lessons, and book recommendations? How long has it been since you read a book for fun?

A literature study can help spur your imagination. If you need an entry point, try recommended literature from book review publications like Booklist magazine or skim the American Library Association Web site for new titles.

Plan Ahead

It’s important to develop a timeline for reading the book and meeting to discuss it. If you are implementing techniques from a professional book, break the book down into chapters or small sections that are manageable for teachers to try in a week or two. With literature groups, you can hold fewer meetings—perhaps one a month—and ask participants to read the entire book between meetings.

Books to Get You Started

Professional Books for Literacy Teachers

Everyday Editing: Inviting Students to Develop Skill and Craft in Writer’s Workshop by Jeff Anderson (2007)

Going With the Flow: How to Engage Boys (and Girls) in Their Literacy Learning by Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm (2006)

Improving Adolescent Literacy: Content Area Strategies at Work by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (2007)

To Understand New Horizons in Reading Comprehension by Ellin Oliver Keene (2008)

What Really Matters in Response to Intervention: Research-Based Designs by Richard Allington (2008)

Literature Group Books for Upper Elementary and Middle School Teachers

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (2008)

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt (2007)

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry (2008)

After selecting books and determining assigned readings and meeting dates, decide how to conduct meetings. Will one teacher serve as a facilitator? If a staff member attended an outside session that serves as the basis for the book study, he or she can lead the meetings, providing the additional perspective and expertise. If no one has experience with the topic or you want to include as many teachers as possible, you can divide the book among the book-study members and ask everyone to lead a meeting for a particular section. For literature groups, members can take turns recommending books for the group and then lead the discussion for their selected book. This way, the burden for leading discussions doesn’t fall on one teacher and the books chosen represent a variety of perspectives.

You’ll also want to develop a plan for documenting participants’ reflections and discussions. Keep notes as you read the book and bring your observations and questions to group meetings. As you implement new practices or resources in your classrooms, reflect on students’ responses and your observations of what worked and what requires further discussion or study. If it is difficult to hold regular meetings or you would like a permanent record of your book-study work, consider setting up a wiki or a collaborative Web site where participants can record responses and reflections, post additional resources and lesson plans, or track reading lists and book reviews.

Beyond reading the book together, how do participants continue to support one another? Plan follow-up meetings to discuss how you use the practices you studied. Bring in examples of students’ responses to the children’s books you read. Share your progress or trials with colleagues and seek support when you need it. You will be surprised how far one book can take you.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Bring on the Books

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