Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild, one of my favorite books about teaching, is the title chosen for this year’s #cyberPD event. This week, Literacy Learning Zone hosts a discussion of Chapter 5. I radically revised the Children’s Literature course I teach to elementary education majors last semester with one goal in mind: the care and feeding of wild readers. Most of my students in this course do not self-identify as readers; in fact, they are much more likely to tell me at the beginning of the semester that they hate to read. So we have our work cut out for us in sixteen weeks.
Wild Readers Show Preferences
This was perhaps the area of most success for my students. At the beginning of the semester, most students had no idea what kind of books they liked. My college students were much like Donalyn’s student, Hunter, who “expresses his reading preferences in vague generalizations like ‘scary books’ or ‘funny books'” (167-8). By the end of the semester, all of them knew what kind of books they prefer. They could name their favorites genres, their favorite books within their favorite genres, and their favorite authors.
I always set genre requirements for this course to encourage students to broaden their reading horizons and discover new preferences. After all, as Donalyn points out, our reading preferences “[grow] from thousands of reading experiences” (164), from “wide reading and lots of positive encounters with books” (167). For my students to develop true preferences, they need to have more reading experiences.
But this semester, due to an oversight as I was revising the syllabus, I didn’t set genre requirements. By the time I discovered that this important part of the independent reading assignment had accidentally been left off of the syllabus, I thought it was too late to fix the problem. All I could do at that point was model my own wide reading, book-talk books in different genres during every class session, and share many nonfiction read-alouds. It turns out, that was enough. I was very interested to see that students generally read as widely in different genres as they do with the genre requirements, and they read much more deeply in new genres they discovered in the class (especially graphic novels and nonfiction) when they weren’t trying to schedule their reading lives to jump through hoops I’d set for them.
Perhaps it also helped that we talked a lot about how our students’ preferences might be very different from our own reading preferences. If we’re going to be able to recommend books for each of our students, we need to read outside our own comfort zones so that we have broad book knowledge to draw upon.
Graphic novels were, by far, the biggest hit in my class. I ended up spending a small fortune adding to my collection so that I could loan books, because the graphic novels collection at the two libraries we have access to (campus and public) is quite limited. Only a couple of students had ever read a graphic novel before, but over half the class listed graphic novels as their favorite genre (it’s really a format, but again, sixteen weeks, only so much I can teach) on their final learning reflections.
There were two students who did not read widely in different genres, and I was very interested in their progress in the course. I initially wanted to challenge them to vary their preferences, so I recommended books in different genres that I thought they would enjoy. They did not enjoy the books I recommended, and they stalled as readers. Both of them, when asked what I could do to help them start reading again, said “Find me another book like One for the Murphys.” As long as I kept them supplied with a steady diet of realistic contemporary fiction featuring kids overcoming some kind of problem, they read voraciously. They weren’t interested in any other kinds of books or stories. (They were, however, willing to try some different formats–verse novels and graphic novels–that still featured that type of plot and character.)
These two students pushed me to reconsider my belief that wild readers need to read widely. On the one hand, many students in this course only discovered themselves as wild readers when they were encouraged to read more widely in formats (picture books, graphic novels) they hadn’t read before or in genres (nonfiction, poetry) they hadn’t read before. On the other hand, when students haven’t been reading at all for years, when they have no idea who they are as readers, and they discover one very strong preference, they may need more time to spend reading that one type of book before they are ready to be nudged along the reading ladder. I was disappointed because these two students seemed “stuck,” but they seemed to have a very different view of what was going on: they were enormously proud of themselves for discovering a reading preference, committing to reading, and developing a self-identity as readers. They were enjoying reading for the first time in their lives. What challenges and pushes most of my students may not be what challenges and pushes all students. I do want my students’ reading preferences to be based on “informed opinions” (167), but I think I need to be more open to supporting the paths my students need to be on rather than trying to ensure that everyone is on the path I think is best.
What I’m struck by at the end of these three weeks of #cyberPD is just how recursive all of these wild reading behaviors are–and consequently, how recursive our teaching needs to be. I started introducing my students to many of the ideas in Reading in the Wild early in the semester. With some of the ideas, I thought I would teach one mini-lesson and then we’d somehow be done: we would learn it and move on. Edge time, for instance. How many times do you really need to talk about that? But it turns out that many of my students had one way of thinking about and using edge time at the beginning of the semester and a different way of thinking about it at the end.
I believe that the thinking, insights, habits, routines, and lessons of Reading in the Wild need to be ones that we weave throughout our reading workshops, that we return to and explore in more depth and detail as our students develop their reading identities and begin to know themselves as readers. After all, lifelong readers don’t just learn how to be readers and then always know and do the same things. I’ve always been a wild reader, but who I am as a reader today is very different from who I was ten years ago, last year, last month. As it should be. If nothing else, I’ve read more, and books change us. Wild readers are constantly negotiating and enacting their reading lives, and our classrooms need to be spaces where we acknowledge and celebrate that.