For the Love of Books

Teacher reading groups hope to kindle enthusiasm for literature

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It is a little after 4 p.m., and eight teachers, a librarian, and a principal are gathered around a large oak table in the library of Armel Elementary School in Frederick County, Va. It looks like the sort of after-school gathering that might be discussing a troublesome student, parking issues, or some other matter of school policy.

The subject of discussion at this meeting, however, is books. “Good” books. Young-adult novels, adult fiction, professional development books. Textbooks and readers are definitely not on this group’s agenda. “Teachers can always find ways to use books in the classroom,” says Anita Jenkins, the 4th grade teacher who leads this group. “But teachers almost never take the time to discuss books among themselves.”

Teacher reading groups like this one, which meets monthly, are springing up in schools all over the nation this year. The groups are an outgrowth of a two-year-old program known as Teachers as Readers.

Initially begun by the Association of American Publishers’ Reading Initiative and the Virginia State Reading Council, the program has an engagingly simple premise: Put books in the hands of teachers, encourage them to meet to discuss them, and, thus, rekindle in them a love of reading. The hope is that the teachers’ enthusiasm for literature will eventually spill over into their classrooms and schools, as well. “If you can really hook children into reading in the early grades,” says Mary Sue Dillingofski, who directs the AAP’s Reading Initiative, “you hope that they become lifelong readers.”

The Teachers as Readers program was launched in Virginia last year as an experiment involving 36 reading groups for elementary school teachers. The idea was loosely modeled on a project conducted in 1988 and 1989 by researchers at the Teachers College Writing Project at Columbia University. The researchers, Lucy Calkins and Shelley Harwayne, pulled together diverse groups of educators in New York City to read and discuss the works of Mary Gordon, Anne Tyler, and other contemporary authors. Five years later, Harwayne says, many of those groups are still meeting. “The intention was to give teachers an image of good ‘book talk,’ and, at some point later on, they begin to think about the implications for the classroom,” Harwayne says. “How can we create this same experience for our students?”

The Teachers as Readers project, however, seeks a more direct link to the classroom. It specifies that the groups read at least four new children’s books. The groups also can read one professional development book. Dillingofski says the focus on children’s books is important because so many are being published. The growth of the whole language movement, which calls for extensive use of literature in teaching reading, has helped make children’s publishing a $1 billion-a-year industry. “Five thousand new children’s books are published each year,” she says. “Teachers just can’t keep up, so they tend to rely on the same old chestnuts.”

Beyond that restriction, however, there are few guidelines. The sponsors require only that the reading groups include a principal or a district administrator and that they meet at least six times. It is also suggested that groups include no more than 10 members. New groups receive $500 or more to buy books for members.

The simplicity and flexibility of the program have contributed to its rapid growth. Virtually all of the groups started in Virginia last year are still meeting this year with no funding from the program, although some have found funding elsewhere. In addition, dozens of other groups have sprung up in school districts throughout the state.

This school year, the project has expanded nationwide and enlisted the aid of such major national groups as the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and the American Library Association, which use their resources and large memberships to advertise the idea to teachers. At least 6,000 school districts have received information kits on the program.

Jenkins’ group, which draws educators from both Armel and Virginia Avenue Elementary School in nearby Winchester, was one of the pilot groups formed last year. The group received $850 and read a variety of books, including The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg and Carolyn Reeder’s Shades of Gray. Each member of the group also read a different professional-development book and shared it with the others. This year, the group solicited a $200 grant from a local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars to keep going.

At today’s meeting, the subject of discussion is Nothing but the Truth, a young-adult novel by Avi. The story centers on a teenager who is suspended from school for humming along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” in class. The incident takes on major proportions as the media begin to report on it and the matter comes before the school board. The brouhaha has devastating consequences for both the rebellious student and his teacher. The narrative is told through the use of memos, transcripts of conversations, newspaper articles, letters, and journal entries.

The book’s familiar terrain sparks a lively discussion for the reading group. Over coffee and cake, the educators talk about how the experiences recounted in the book compare with their own. They refer to points in the story where a coach, a counselor, or a principal should have acted differently, and they express sympathy for the teacher and the pupil. “What I liked about this book,” one teacher volunteers, “is that you could really see both sides.”

It does not matter so much, these teachers say, that some of the books they read are aimed at readers older than their students, who range in grade level from 1st through 4th. “Now I enjoy reading books I’ll never use in my classroom,” says Mary Lou Gulosh, a 3rd grade teacher at Armel. “In fact, I like some of the young-adult books more.”

More important, these teachers say, are the other benefits the group derives from their meetings. “I don’t think there’s any doubt teachers need contact with one another to have some intellectual stimulation,” says Kaleen Baker, a 4th grade teacher. “Now, you have the time set aside, you know you’re going to do it, and, suddenly, you feel, ‘Gosh, I’m a professional.’ “

Melvin Pearson, Armel’s principal and the only man in the group, says the talks have given him a new perspective on his job. “I don’t work in a classroom every day,” he says. “Being involved with a group of teachers and hearing them talk about things they enjoy has helped my perspective and has helped me stay a little more open-minded about things.”

The involvement of principals or other administrators is key, Dillingofski says, because they typically set school budgets for children’s books. In a survey of the 36 pilot groups, 74 percent of the principals said they planned to increase their budgets for children’s trade books as a result of participating in the project.

What surveys cannot adequately measure, however, is whether the discussions are affecting the teaching going on in the classrooms of the teachers involved. The teachers in this group say their book talks are making a difference, whether it is simply using more picture books in class or modeling their enthusiasm for literature to their students.

Jenkins, who teaches at Virginia Avenue Elementary, says she has come to understand that learning literature is not a matter of coming away with one “right” interpretation. Pupils can develop their own perspectives. “My children,” she says, “are now doing literature groups that I don’t really feel I have to be a part of.”

Vol. 04, Issue 07, Page 15

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