Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reading in the Wild: Reading as Connectedness (#cyberPD)

When Twitter connections selected Reading in the Wild (Donalyn Miller) as this year's #cyberPD book study, I found myself grateful for the chance to go back to the treasure trove and reread parts of the book alongside so many others. For more on the #cyberPD project, visit Ruminate and Invigorate for this week's installment.

"Reading seems like something we do alone, 
but it isn't." 
-Donalyn Miller (Reading in the Wild, 2014, p. 128)

This week this was the line that resonated with me in a way I knew I needed to explore further through writing. Just this very morning at work in the summer program, I listened to a colleague's concerns that many teachers have a vision of reading as a controlled, solitary activity. The image of a student "reading" tends to be of the student alone with a book, no? Unfortunately our conversation went unfinished as the day began. But then, this quote was there for me to consider again this afternoon. How do we portray reading in the classroom? What image of reading do we paint for students? If we pause to really consider our own reading behaviors, can we honestly say our actions are solitary?

Before we read, we talk about what to read. We elicit recommendations and opinions that lead us to our selection. We probably talk about related books-other books by the same author, other books like this one, even other books that are NOT like this one. When we anticipate a book's release, we count down the days with other readers, we speculate and predict, share reviews and behind the scenes notes as we learn of them. These behaviors are as much a part of reading as the act of turning pages and diving into a story.

When reading the book-the part that probably most often looks like being alone-we react and respond to the message the author has crafted for us. The characters become friends, sometimes foe. The characters' feelings, conflicts, and choices remind us of other people...and we might tell them. We remember our own experiences or lessons learned, and sometimes we are saved us from having to learn all of life's lessons ourselves. We find ourselves asking our own tough questions, and we talk about hard situations and tough choices with others. We are hardly alone.

After we turn the last page, we share. We talk. We tell someone else-to get it, to skip it, to give it to so-and-so. We recount our thinking, our relationship with the text. We post to Twitter, to Facebook, to Goodreads, to blogs. We add it to visual displays and record keeping lists. But we usually don't keep our reading to ourselves.

Reflecting on this quote in Reading in the Wild reminded me of the reading experiences I had when I read Brown Girl Dreaming last month.

At first, the social aspect of reading was indirect and subtle, like an overheard conversation. Known readers on Twitter began to buzz about Jacqueline Woodson's new book, Brown Girl Dreaming (available August 26). A frequent sufferer of f.o.m.o. (fear of missing out), I was sufficiently curious. Then, my friend Justin returned from the IRA conference with an ARC. He did what readers do-he read it, told me about it, and let me borrow it. I had only just started when Justin and I met Donalyn for dinner. She had just finished reading Colby's copy. Guess what we did? (Really, this is a gimme: Donalyn, book, dinner?) We talked. We talked feelings, opinions, related works, memories. We talked about who we would recommend the book to next and how we would share it.

I had a little disruption to my reading life that week (ahem, Boothbay Literacy Retreat!) and it took me longer than usual to finish. (I also wanted to linger in it so badly.) All week, I was sharing the special company of Jackie Woodson in the pages of her book, listening to her share the stories of her childhood and being reminded of my own-so very different. This is to say nothing of the added bonus that came with reading after Justin had, noticing passages that he had marked and noting those that struck me, too.

When I did finish Brown Girl Dreaming, I talked to people about this book. I tweeted. I blogged. I shared by word of mouth. People responded. I responded to others. I got on my computer and sent an email to Linda, who I had seen comment in another conversation that she was interested in the book.  We wrote back and forth a little (me about Brown Girl Dreaming, Linda about having just finished Locomotion-same author). Justin gave me the nod, and I shipped the book out to Linda.

Brown Girl Dreaming was not an "alone" reading experience. 
If anything, my experience with Brown Girl Dreaming made tangible the real connectivity of reading.

I feel gifted with a new chance to awaken to this notion that reading is not solitary. But what does it mean for me as a lead reader? What can I do to promote the awareness that reading is connectedness in my classroom? How do I not only permit the social act of reading, but promote it?

Three things I want to try to promote connectedness:

1. Taking the lead from my interest in Justin's response to the text, I want to see what will happen if I leave post-it note flags or pencil notes in books after reading them. I don't want to distract my developing readers, but I do want to extend an invitation to react to parts that made me think, note places that made them think, and see what-if any-conversation ensues. I know Justin has put copies of books he marked up in his library. I'm curious to see if my 4th graders will connect with me and each other this way. (And maybe this will create a spin-off to Donalyn's graffiti board model, too.)

2. Included in our discussion of Brown Girl Dreaming was the need to find other readers to whom we would recommend this book. I am better now than ever before at regularly incorporating book talks into the reading community's routines. (My students will ask for Book Talk Tuesday on any day of the week, actually.) What I am not good at (yet) is helping students synthesize their thinking about their own reading and handing over the hot seat to them to make peer-to-peer recommendations. I want to be more deliberate in promoting their ability to influence other readers by giving attention to this.

3. I'm dreaming up a way to emphasize our connectedness through books visually. I want to find a way to illustrate for and with students what the chain looks like when readers pass books along amongst themselves. The copy of Brown Girl Dreaming that I read changed hands three times. I don't know how many times Colby's copy got passed. But I also know that a book vine has since been started and other copies are being mailed reader to reader, state to state. On a smaller scale, I want to encourage students to share books with other readers, and to begin taking interest in what each other are reading. I think this might be workable.

How have books helped you feed connectedness?
How do you promote connectedness in your classrooms?


  1. Great thoughts, thanks for sharing. I love your personal story about connecting to a book and connecting to others, and I think sharing that with your students could be a powerful model. One idea I have been thinking about recently is trying to encourage students to recommend books to each other - maybe even building in the question "Who would you recommend this book to?" when they finish a book ...

    1. Thanks, Katie. I appreciate your feedback. I'm sure I'll tell the story of Brown Girl Dreaming to students more than once in the coming school year. I think you are right, there's hidden potential in our stories about reading that we take for granted. I think I have, over time, come to realize that students listen to everything I say, and that telling them stories about books and authors and reading is hugely powerful in their impressionable stage. And, we can't assume that they will hear about the excitement of reading anywhere else, so why hold back?

      Asking kids about who they would recommend a book to next could be a really powerful opportunity for formative assessment also. Just think of the insight we could glean from their response about their bigger understandings about the themes, messages, and genres of books! It is sophisticated thinking to make a thoughtful recommendation to someone about a book. Hmm... Thanks for stretching my thinking!

  2. I love the idea of a visual to show how reading is connected. I'm very interested in thinking through different ways to promote and encourage reading communities outside of my classroom. Your post was very helpful in sparking some thinking.

    1. I have no idea what that visual might look like in actuality, but I think it will be powerful if I can find a way to create a representation showing how a book becomes shared. Maybe it's a list on a paper clipped to the inside of a book? Maybe it's a bulletin board display with yarn connecting reading people? I'm not sure... But I haven't let the idea go.

      If it is at all helpful to you, I'm sharing the link to an article I co-authored for the New Jersey English Journal. The content is the same as the presentation my colleagues and I gave at NCTE '13 about reading communities. We are all heavily inspired by Donalyn and her books, but what we do is truly an amalgamation of a number of influences. Here's the link, if you're curious:

  3. Melissa,
    What an enjoyable read! You are so right about the social aspect of reading. Perhaps Twitter makes this more apparent to us. I've been thinking a lot about those students who need more support and am wondering how much helping them find a greater connection to the reading community would help them progress. Your quote was perfect for the start of this post. Reading isn't something we do alone.

    Your suggestions for building connectedness in our classrooms are helpful. I'm very interested in how you will help students to see the connectedness of the books they share in the classroom.

    I'm a little jealous you've managed to get your hands on a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming. I cannot wait for it to come out at the end of August.