I am so happy to be making my way slowly through Donalyn Miller’s new book, Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits. This is the kind of book I want to rush through in an afternoon, but I retain more when I take my time and write about what I’m reading. So far, I’ve read the Introduction and first chapter, “Wild Readers Dedicate Time to Read.”
Many of my pre-service teachers want to teach workshop style, but almost none of them has ever experienced a workshop classroom in action. That’s a problem. We tend to revert to teaching in the ways we were taught, and when you’ve never so much as set foot in a workshop classroom, you’re really at a disadvantage when you want to set one up. I value books like Reading in the Wild because they invite readers into a reading and writing workshop and show not only why workshop pedagogy is essential but also how to make it work in a real classroom with real kids. It’s one thing for me to tell my students how it’s done; it’s quite another to see for themselves.
When you haven’t seen workshop in action, it’s easy to make huge obstacles out of what are actually small details. For instance, my pre-service teachers fret about how they will incorporate district-mandated programs or curriculum. Donalyn Miller has the answer. They worry that their principals aren’t going to support workshop pedagogy. But Donalyn Miller shares the research that supports it. They don’t know what they’ll do if their students fake read. Donalyn Miller has the answer to that too.
I also appreciate the methodology at work in Reading in the Wild. Donalyn Miller is a research scientist, and her classroom is her laboratory. I am always talking to my pre-service teachers about kid-watching, and Miller is an extraordinary kid-watcher. Scientists observe their subjects, take extensive notes, and draw conclusions from what they observe. Great teachers do the same thing.
Miller starts her book with the issue of time–making time for reading in class, helping students understand how readers in the wild find time for reading, and organizing workshop structures to make sure that we’re “creating a place where reading a lot, writing a lot, and thinking a lot happen in our classrooms” (41).
The chapter on time focuses on sharing with her students what lifelong readers know about dedicating time for reading and on resolving some of the time obstacles that come up for kids.
Edge time. Many kids have an “all or nothing” attitude about reading: if they’re assigned thirty minutes of reading for homework, they think they have to read for a thirty-minute block all at once. But readers rarely have long blocks of time for reading. We read a few minutes here, a few minutes there, maybe a longer stint before bed. Miller helps students find the edge time where they might sneak in a few minutes of reading.
Reading emergencies. A great time to read is whenever you’re stuck somewhere waiting for longer than you expected to be. She teaches her students to carry a book with them everywhere they go.
Binge reading. Many of Miller’s students have never experienced getting sucked into a book and staying up way too late finishing it. Sometimes passionate readers stop everything else just to read.
Self-awareness. Dedicated readers are self-aware readers. They know their reading habits and preferences and make adjustments when they need to in order to prioritize reading.
The chapter on finding time to read also tackles a delicate and important issue, fake reading. It’s all very well to create this wonderful space and issue an invitation to students to become readers. Not all students are going to be excited about accepting that invitation. I certainly had my share of fake readers–the ones who sit there for a whole class period staring at the same page, the ones who finish books much too quickly or not at all, the ones who always have to go to the bathroom during reading time. Miller explains how she uses individual conferences to address fake reading and reading avoidance.
The next section focuses on how to set up a workshop schedule. Like most teachers, Miller teaches in a district that has adopted certain programs or curriculum that teachers must follow and incorporate. She shows how she uses her time over the course of a week to meet the needs of her students as well as the needs of her district. She recommends dividing a class period into thirds: one-third for independent reading and conferring; one-third for direct instruction and guided practice; one-third for independent practice.
She concludes with some strong words for the negative Nancies: “We claim we cannot do it this way, this year, with these kids. We reject what we know is right for what is easier. It isn’t the pedagogy. It is our implementation and management of it” (40-41)
Next up: self-selected reading materials and creating the classroom library.