Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Wishing Upon a Star: Creating a Youth Culture of Readers

Recently, one of my teachers sent me a link to an interview of Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove, given to Fritz Lanham of the Houston Chronicle. The interview contained Mr. McMurtry's very pessimistic viewpoint that the end of book culture is near.

This is what McMurtry said:

I don't see kids reading. I think little kids love to have stories read to them, but when they get to 10 or 11 or 12, they run into this tsunami of technology: iPod, iPhone, Blackberries. They don't resist it, and it's normal that they wouldn't; it's their culture. I'm not so sure they ever come back to reading. Some will, but most won't.

I invite Mr. McMurtry to schedule a visit to Sarasota, Florida, where middle school educators are learning to stoke a passion for reading in the hearts and minds of their sixth-grade students. All across our district, teachers, students, families, and the entire community have immersed themselves in the joy of reading through an initiative called Starbooks.

What is Starbooks? When year after year, statistics are telling us that students entering middle school are reading less and losing academic ground, what actions should educators take? What is the proper response to mountains of data indicating that as students progress through middle school and on to high school, they continue that downward momentum? This deplorable situation is a nationwide trend, but in the Sarasota County Public Schools, educators decided to stop doing the same old thing and instead took radical action. Our belief that the slide toward a nation of non-readers can and must be halted has led to the creation of an initiative called Starbooks, and the notion that teachers can teach students how to love reading is its guiding principle.

Starbooks began last spring when our Director of Middle Schools, Dr. Page Dettmann, wrote a grant that would create a district-wide concurrent reading of a single book. The grant would provide a book for each sixth-grade student, fund teacher training, furnish each school media center with a comfortable reading lounge, and bring the author of the book to visit with students in each of our eight middle schools. All of this would happen twice each school year, with a fall and spring reading selection. In addition, the school district would provide funds for additional books that sixth-grade students could choose to read during their independent reading time. When Starbooks was funded by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County with a generous $217,000 gift, middle school literacy coaches got to work during the summer to bring the grant to life.

How do you choose one book for 2,500 people? Our first task was to choose a book, and as anyone can imagine, the job of selecting a book for an entire district can be fraught with pitfalls. We began by setting some criteria to help guide the process. The book couldn't be too long; our target range was around 250 pages. It needed to be quality writing; hopefully a title from a recent Sunshine State Reader's Award Program book list. Finally, the author had to be available on short notice to commit to spending four consecutive days in December visiting two middle schools per day. It was obvious that the Stars needed to be in perfect alignment for Starbooks to get the great beginning it deserved. The grant co-chairs spent their summer speed-reading through a mountain of young adult fiction. There were many great books from which to choose but very little time in which to make our decision.

In June, while attending the 2008 Just Read! Florida Leadership Conference, we received a great tip from the Okaloosa County School District that directed us to a book that met our criteria. Our friends in the Florida Panhandle gave a presentation about a similar initiative in their district, and they generously shared with us a title that eventually became the first Starbook. Our reading initiative was ready to get off the ground with a crescendo of drum rolls. The book we chose was Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick.

The school year was about to begin and we wanted to quickly get a copy of the book into the hands of all our literacy coaches, media specialists, and teachers. When the co-chairs read Drums, our affectionate nickname for the book, we fell in love with this beautifully written story and its respectful treatment of serious subject matter. But when the book went out to a wider audience, the task of choosing a book for an entire district became much more complex.

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie is about Steven, a very normal eighth-grade boy, who loves playing the drums, has normal teenage social phobias about girls, and is surrounded by a loving family. Then one day, he learns his five-year-old brother has leukemia. Many of our adult readers felt the book would be depressing, emotionally taxing, and too sophisticated for sixth-grade students. For a moment, it looked like we might have to look at other titles. But after a little persuading, we reached a consensus that Drums was the perfect choice to jump-start the reading hearts of our young sixth graders.

How do you coordinate and prepare for a district-wide event involving eight schools, approximately 90 teachers, and nearly 2,500 students? Even though we would not begin reading until late October, many preparations were needed to ensure success. Of special importance were communications with teachers, teacher training, and creating a series of "kick-off" events that would arouse some serious interest among our students.

Communication: In the first week of school, literacy coaches met with all sixth-grade Starbooks teachers. They included regular education Language Arts teachers, ELL teachers, and our teachers of students with specific learning disabilities. Part of this initial contact with the teachers who would actually breathe life into Starbooks, was to listen to and answer their concerns and seek ways literacy coaches could support their efforts. To help teachers begin to adapt their plans to incorporate Starbooks, literacy coaches created a pacing guide and timeline for reading Drums. These tools, along with ongoing conversations between teachers, their administrators, and literacy coaches helped create a positive atmosphere which greatly contributed to the success of Starbooks. The positive attitude towards reading we would later see in our students was first reflected in our teachers' open-minded commitment to the goals of Starbooks.

Teacher Training: Probably the most powerful and enduring element of Starbooks is the grant's professional development component. All Starbooks teachers and their administrators are receiving training from Doug Fisher, an educator who has gained national prominence for his work in secondary reading instruction. Using Fisher's book, Better Learning through Structured Teaching, co-authored with Nancy Frey, teachers in Sarasota County are strengthening their instructional practices. Grant money has provided two full-day workshops with Doug Fisher, and more are planned as the grant continues into its second year. Ongoing high-quality professional development is essential to the maintenance and growth of skillful teachers. Starbooks is helping to deliver those highly trained educators to Sarasota's middle school students.

The Kick-Off: As October neared, the first Starbook had been chosen, teachers were on board and being trained in strategies that would foster a love of reading, and now our attention turned to the object of all this activity, our sixth graders. Our aim was to build a frenzy of anticipation for reading Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. Once again, Okaloosa County provided the inspiration for a reading kick-off that will be hard to top.

First, we created anticipation for reading by asking the cryptic question: What is dangerous pie? In art classes, students brainstormed and drew posters predicting what it might be, and those posters were hung in classrooms, cafeterias, and anywhere else that students could see them and begin buzzing about the possible answers. Teachers began dropping hints about something big and very exciting soon to be arriving in sixth-grade classrooms. Students were becoming obsessed with unraveling the mystery of dangerous pie. On the day of the kick-off, sixth-grade teachers around the district escorted their classes to gyms, cafeterias, or courtyards. But why? What was going to happen? Were students finally going to find out the answer to the dangerous pie question?

As students gathered for the Starbooks kick-off, what seemed to be rather conventional presentations were suddenly brought to dramatic halts by the sound of drums. First heard in the distance, perhaps down the hall or outside the gym doors, the rhythmic cadences of drums distracted sixth graders from attending to adult speakers extolling the virtues of reading. Then suddenly, high school drum lines with their tenor drums, bass drums, snares and symbols reverberating came bursting into the sixth-grade assemblies. They had arrived to deliver books personally to their younger colleagues. The crowd went wild, and so did sixth graders' enthusiasm for reading. Starbooks' thrilling beginning set the stage for leading our middle school students to a new relationship with reading. We were on our way to a positive alteration of adolescent reading habits and attitudes about the value of reading.

What teaching strategies could possibly lead 21st-century teens to a love of reading? Following the advice of Doug Fisher, a few simple strategies became the key to the success of Starbooks. A practice called shared reading played a central role in actively teaching middle school students to fall in love with reading. Shared reading requires that each student have a copy of the book, and as the teacher reads the text aloud, the students follow along silently, keeping their eyes on text. Shared reading allows the teacher to model the habits of expert readers. Teachers were able to demonstrate the power of the written word to move them to laughter, anger, or tears. This example sets a powerful model for young readers to follow.

Shared reading also paces the reading selection so that the book is read from cover to cover. Many students reported that because of shared reading, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie was the first novel they had ever completely read. Shared reading was coupled with the think-aloud strategy to help teachers not only model the behavior of strong readers, but to also allow students a view inside the mind of a good reader. Both of these strategies are highly effective secondary reading strategies.

But the most radical strategy employed by our Starbooks teachers was the practice of keeping all Starbooks activities ungraded. Because the purpose of Starbooks was to create a positive change in the attitudes and habits of sixth-grade readers, teachers were asked to read with their students and allow them to read along just for pleasure. When they discussed plot, theme, and vocabulary, created character maps, or wrote their weekly literacy letter, teachers were asked to give students feedback on assignments, but not take a grade from any of these activities. By asking teachers to refrain from attaching a grade to reading, Starbooks also began to change the attitudes and habits of teachers.

Teachers, literacy coaches and administrators engaged in new and robust conversations regarding the relationship between assessment, accountability, mastery and grading. These sometimes difficult conversations were guided by an underlying awareness that the same old approach to secondary reading sorely needed repair. Among our Starbooks teachers, the question of when grades are an encouragement and when they are a deterrent to reading achievement became a subject for deep personal and professional reflection. This discussion concerning graded and ungraded learning activities has had a profound impact on our teachers. Supported by excellent professional development, teachers are continuing this reflection and gaining clearer and more precise ideas about what is needed to awaken the minds of their students.

Are the results of these strategies really changing the reading habits and attitudes of middle school readers? In the short term, overwhelming evidence is showing that sixth-grade students across Sarasota County are reading more and enjoying what they read. Media centers are reporting a dramatic increase in sixth-grade book borrowing, and anecdotal evidence from students and teachers supports evidence that sixth graders are more inclined to see reading as an acceptable free-time activity.

In my role as literacy coach, I can testify that the reading culture in sixth-grade classrooms is far more positive than anything I see in seventh- or eighth-grade classrooms. Whenever I am in a sixth-grade team, I am barraged by students telling me about the books they are reading. Students have an independent reading book on their desks at all times. They can't wait to get a free moment to read. Although we finished Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie in December, I am still having wonderful discussions with students about the characters in that book. Sixth graders are excited about reading.

Most observers of the Starbooks phenomenon tend to think it will take time, certainly more than one school year, to generate data revealing that this bold initiative has had a lasting impact on reading achievement. In March, students across the state of Florida will take the FCAT in reading, math, and science. I am hopeful that we will see the first statistical proof that Starbooks is making a positive difference for students in Sarasota County.

What I've forgotten to tell you. I've left out the author's visit. Jordan Sonnenblick rocks! His sixth-grade audiences ranged from 150 to 400 and he was cool, funny, and inspiring in all settings. Kids went wild for his autograph and those who received a Sonnenblick signature gained celebrity status on their teams.

The Starbooks grant also funded extremely successful Family Literacy Nights. Family nights helped middle schools forge a partnership with the Sarasota County Public Libraries who set up informational and fun activities for students and their families. The family nights included dramatic presentations of scenes from Drums, book swaps, bookmark craft-making, fun sessions on how to read to your dog, and delicious family dinners that ranged from pizza to chili dogs.

There are many elements of the grant that may seem insignificant, but without them, we would not have all the information needed to evaluate the effectiveness of the grant. Student focus groups at each school, teacher and student surveys, and the work of incredibly well-informed grant evaluators from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County round out the behind the scenes actors that brought Starbooks to life.

What's next? Anticipation for beginning a new Starbook is building. In late March, sixth graders and their teachers will begin reading Roland Smith's new spy thriller, I, Q. As their repertoire of literacy experiences grows, sixth graders will encounter new genres and meet new authors. The kick-off activities for I, Q will not include drum lines, but we are cooking up something intriguing for this book.

Next school year, Starbooks is scheduled to grow into seventh-grade classrooms, reviving twice the number of student readers. Thanks to the commitment of the Community Foundation of Sarasota, Starbooks has a bright future. There may even be a visit from Larry McMurtry in store. What a pleasure it will be to show Mr. McMurtry that thanks to Starbooks, book culture is thriving in Sarasota, especially among middle school readers.

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Debbie Shults is a veteran Sarasota, Florida, teacher, literacy coach and now blogger who is working to define a "new literacy" at her middle school. Click here to read more articles by Debbie Shults.