Independent Reading is Born Out of Community

Independent Reading is Born Out of Community

post by Rebecca Marsick, Associate member of The Educator Collaborative

Independent Reading is Born Out of Community

It is 7:50pm on the first Thursday of the month. While the late hour (for early morning rising teachers) requires heavily caffeinated tea, I know that by 9:30, I will feel energized with new ideas from colleagues around the world. This is the incredible benefit of being part of one of The Ed Collab’s Thursday night Think Tank sessions.

In November 2020, the virtual Thursday Think Tank meeting occurred two days after Election Day, and was the soul-feeding I needed after what seemed like an endless period of political turmoil. Brendaly Torres and Julia Torres (no relation other than their brilliance) tackled practical ways to help students engage with independent reading in a time when absolutely nothing seems practical. 

Their suggestions made me think even more deeply about the importance of independent reading when everything else seems so uncertain. Whether it is how we will be attending school, the state of the nation, the fight for equity, or any of the other aspects of teaching that we must grapple with on a daily basis, we know that reading can both empower and \sooth. Therefore, our students must continue–or maybe even start–choosing texts to read for independent reading.

To ensure that students have texts, we must also ensure that these texts are representative of the wide range of identities that exist in our classrooms and in our country. Oftentimes, we cannot see the identities of our students and we cannot assume how they identify. The choice of texts that we offer can validate students’ identities, especially those that they may be hesitant to share. Therefore, it is up to each of us to interrogate our classroom libraries, both physical and digital, and ensure that there are books that represent the plethora of identities that exist both within and outside of our classrooms. Articles, like this one by Tricia Ebarvia, a co-founder of #DisruptTexts alongside Julia, Lorena Germán, and Dr. Kim Parker, demonstrates why this is such a critical endeavor. Fortunately, there are a myriad of book lists that teachers can Google in order to find books that will help round out their collections.

Another important element of independent reading includes teachers who are also taking the time to book talk. Book talks are a wonderful way for teachers to introduce and validate many different identities through their selection of books. It does not help to have a wide range of books on the shelves if the students do not know they are there. This excerpt from Penny Kittle’s Book Love has some great suggestions for how to structure a strong book talk.

In considering where to begin with independent reading, the first step is ACCESS.

In this new world, we must consider how we give students access to books in both a LIVE and a VIRTUAL environment. Julia and Brendaly suggest including the following:

Live Virtual
  • Prepare signage and guides for COVID-19 safe care of materials
  • Follow library guidelines for circulation ideas
  • Collaborate with public libraries
  • *Donations are even better than library books

*In considering donations, there are many ways that Julia and Brendaly have worked to secure books for their students. 

The following is a list of grant opportunities. (However, Julia partners with a local independent bookstore and works with local elected officials who are eager to help support her efforts.) 

Social media can also serve as your best book friends, as reaching out to the “Twittersphere” is often very rewarding in terms of who will send books your way, as Julia found with the organization Black Men Read.

Once students have books in their hands, they need time to read them.

While it often feels like we need twice as much time to deliver the instruction we would like to, one of the best gifts we can give our students is time to read in the classroom. This is something that most elementary classrooms embrace, but as students move into middle and high school, time to read disappears. And with it, so do readers. In the NCTE Statement on Independent Reading from 2019, it is clear that students need time to build reading stamina, which means that we must give students time to practice in the classroom. Additionally, if we can help students to become “hooked” on a book in the classroom, it is more likely that they will continue to read at home. 

Independent reading helps build stronger readers. Since teachers need to see growth in their students’ reading,  Julia and Brendaly also included ideas for how to track a reader’s growth. They noted that students and teachers have different roles in assessment in the following chart:

Teachers Students
Protect reading time.

Conduct virtual reading conferences.

Provide a variety of ways for students to reflect.

Set aside time for reading.

Confer with teacher and demonstrate reading skills.

Establish goals and develop tools for self-reflection.

These conferences can take place during a long block of independent reading time, but it is essential that teachers maintain protected time for all students to read. This means that the conferences might be conducted in a breakout room, or in a quiet corner of a classroom, or right outside the classroom door so that students who are reading are not distracted.

For more detailed information about how to grow readers through independent reading, Julia’s piece Supporting Middle School Readers Tackling More Complex Texts delves even more deeply into these ideas.

Reading is collaborative, so students also need time to share what they are reading with one another.

How often do you find yourself talking to a friend, colleague, or stranger about something you just read? I know that I have a bad habit of interrupting people on subways, reading a book I loved, to tell them how much I enjoyed it. Or stopping someone who is browsing in a bookstore to give them my unsolicited opinion. Reading is not a solitary activity. This is why book clubs have exploded across the country. People love seeing Obama’s recommended reading each year, and Goodreads currently has 90 million members.

Once again, Julia and Brendaly had suggestions for both using this collaborative process as a means for co-constructed curations as well as a natural form of assessment. Below is a chart they shared that includes various ways to allow students the ability to collaborate about their independent reading.

Co-Constructed Curation Assessment

So, what does independent reading look like now?

I have been thinking about this since I spent the evening in November with my steaming tea and Julia and Brendaly’s inspiring ideas. Like reading, learning is a collaborative process, which is exactly why “Collaborative” is such a foundational term in The Educator Collaborative’s name. 

Independent reading is almost a misnomer. While the physical act of reading may be conducted independently, the rich discussions, the many different ways to share opinions and ideas about one’s reading, the means for assessing our readers’ growth, and the celebrations within the classroom are not independent activities. Reading is about building community and taking part in community–which is what the Thursday night Think Tank does for us all. 

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