For school leaders across the country who are making plans and drafting budgets for next year, I have a simple but urgent plea for you: prioritize books. Though I know I don’t have to convince anyone of how important building students’ literacy skills is, I also know that we are not all on the same page about how to invest resources to help students grow as readers.
In my work supporting teachers and schools to implement whole novel studies and other student centered reading practices, too often I hear that access to books is a persistent obstacle. Frequently, teachers are the ones voicing the issue, which suggests to me that school and district leaders need more information or a better understanding of why access to books is so important, and what it should look like.
Not having access to books has real and wide-ranging consequences for student learning. I want you to understand that teachers are making curriculum and pedagogy decisions based on what’s in the book room, rather than their knowledge of students and literature.
Book Shortages Impact Outcomes for Students
Here are some situations teachers have shared with me that show how lack of books impacts their planning.
Impact on Curriculum: I think my students would find the new novel “All American Boys,” by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds compelling and relevant. It would be challenging in terms of content and point of view, yet readable in terms of language and style. But I have to choose between “Of Mice and Men” (not a good choice for starting the year) and “The Hunger Games” (most students have read it already) because that’s what’s in the book room.
Impact on Pedagogy: I’m excited for my students to read Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel, “Speak,” together. I can’t let them read at home, because there are only 30 copies in the book room, and I have 100 students. So we will read only in class for seven weeks, and do little else, to get through the reading. (Whole novel studies typically take 2-3 weeks for the reading of the novel, and include other activities as well, because students do some of the reading at home.)
: We have only a literature textbook to work from, so we only teach short stories, poems, and excerpts of novels from that book. When I chose to become an English teacher I had other ideas about what would be best for students, but what can I do? I have 150 students, and cannot afford to purchase books for all of them.
I find it mindboggling for access to books to be a struggle for teachers in the United States. I’m concerned by the popularity and need for sites like Donors Choose, in which teachers raise funds on their own for supplies (like books) that truly and immediately serve students. One thing you do not see teachers going on Donors Choose and asking for is funding for more test prep materials or software for tracking student data on the latest inauthentic assessment of progress toward standards, something many school leaders feel compelled to fund.
This is where my blood pressure starts to rise. Our schools are not necessarily too poor to pay for books. Instead, too often, funding that goes to support students’ literacy is spent on products that don’t include books kids will actually read! This is an argument worth having.
I say this as a teacher who would frankly not agree to teach in a school where I could not get books for my students to read—but I’ve also had the luxury of teaching in a large urban school system where my options for where to teach were many. If I were stuck in a school with no books, then sure, I could find ways to teach. In fact, I could teach in a field with no academic materials whatsoever, but the outcomes would be different. We’d learn, but our learning would be about the world around us, driven by the things we could access and explore in that environment. Realistically, reading might not be a significant part of that learning.
What is the world that students in your school are exploring when they learn? What reading experiences can students in your school access on a daily basis?
If your primary concern (maybe due to external pressure) is student achievement as measured by test scores, think about the students you know who perform well on these tests. By and large, these students read a lot, in and out of school, academically and for pleasure. I guarantee that access to a variety of high interest books will improve student outcomes on any measure of learning (including other content area assessments).
[To see how research supports this point, check out Columbia Teachers College Reading & Writing Project Research Base, NCTE’s Call To Action: What We Know About Adolescent Literacy, and ALA’s Independent Reading and School Achievement for starters.]
A Checklist For School Leaders
Here’s an ideal, but attainable checklist for school leaders who want to optimize students’ access to real reading experiences. Are the following statements true in your school?
- You can walk into any English classroom, and there are books immediately visible.
- You can walk into any content area classroom and and there are interesting reading materials (not just text books) visible.
- There is a classroom library in every ELA classroom that includes single copies of books for students to select for themselves.
- There is a process for periodically updating classroom libraries, ordering new books to keep current.
- Students know what the process is for selecting and signing out a book to read.
- In classrooms—or in another area that is accessible for teachers—there are multiple copies of books that can be read in small groups or as a whole class.
- Teachers know what the process is for acquiring books for their students, including class and grade-wide sets.
- Teachers make curriculum decisions based on the needs and interests of their students, and their knowledge of literature—rather than what is in the book room. (Ask your teachers if you are not sure.)
- Open a student’s backpack and there is at least one book, other than a textbook. (Or they can show you their reading material on their tablet.)
- Best-case scenario, there is a library in the building, or a public library close by that students know and use.
- Ask any student what he or she is reading and they can tell you about it.
Based on my own experience in city public schools, every item on the checklist above is possible, but teachers absolutely need the support and encouragement of school leaders to make this a reality.
Here are a few suggestions for how administrators can prioritize student reading:
- Allocate funds for purchasing books that are selected with students in mind.
- Provide time for teachers to put together book lists, but do not do this unless the funds will actually be there to place the orders. It takes a lot of time for teachers to make selections, especially for populating classroom libraries. Here are some helpful lists of book titles:
- Nerdy Book Club’s Top 10 Lists
- The Best Books For Middle School According To My Students--2017 from Pernille Ripp (and the same list from 2016)
- We Need Diverse Books Lists By Category and Suggestions By Genre
- Young Adult Library Services Association’s Book Lists
- Create a simple process for teachers to request or place orders for books, and a realistic timeline for their arrival, so that they can plan accordingly.
- If the school truly cannot afford new books, give teachers time—PD time, or offer paid out of school time—to write those Donors Choose grants. (Note: I consider this a temporary workaround, not a system or solution.)
- Make sure teachers have the furniture in their classrooms to create visually appealing classroom libraries.
- Support teachers to research and share best practices around managing classroom libraries, so that book loss is minimal (always difficult).
To close out this post, and to allow my blood pressure to go down a bit, let me add that there are so many teachers, schools and districts around the country that are making the wise investment in books for students to read. These schools are finding creative and inspiring ways for staff and students to share their enthusiasm for reading and to build the culture of reading in their building. Let’s follow the leaders here.
Please add your own suggestions for how school leaders can support student reading!
The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story 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.