It is never too late to lead a non-reader to reading.
This week on the Heinemann Podcast, we’re joined by Penny Kittle, author of Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. Book Love is fueled by a passion for reading and the belief that every student deserves to live a rich literary life.
Today, we’re talking about the groundwork behind Book Love, its evolution into the Book Love Foundation, and some exciting ways to get involved with the foundation this summer. Here now is Penny…
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Penny: I certainly think that the ideas at the heart of Book Love are as important as ever, that we're still struggling to engage students with reading. And we're still trying to unpack what would it mean if we treated them more like readers in high school. And as I work with teachers all over from AP programs to kids who've been identified as struggling readers, we find the same central things are a problem. The kids aren't reading, they aren't reading a lot of what they're interested in reading, which will give them the will to persevere. And then because of particular standards or pacing guides or expectations, teachers are afraid to give them time to read, which of course ignites their interest in reading, and then how to confer in that space. So the big central ideas of Book Love are as important as ever and out of reach in the field I think for many teachers. So we have to find ways to reach them.
Brett: I mean, and there's certain things in the book that just seem still so important. I mean, one of the things you say really on in the book is teenagers want to read if we'd let them and quizzes don't make people read and you cite at various points in the book, it's so easy for students to sort of fake their way through a quiz and all these things. And just that lack of joy is something that you don't want to see a child have. You want to see them fall in love with reading.
Penny: Yeah. And the idea Wendell Berry said the job of the teacher is to arm children with tools against loneliness. And there are so many ways that reading allows kids to escape the tyranny of distraction of their phone, the constant pressure to be responsive on their phone and instead to have the sanctuary of the reading act as Maryanne Wolf called it. Where you settle into someone telling you a great story and you don't need to be on the watch to learn something, but instead to relax. I mean your heart rate actually slows as you read and relax into this beautiful vision of the world. That might challenge you, might surprise you or scare you, but it also might simply allow you the time to process things that are happening with you. And that space is sacred and it is of course what every teacher wants for every student that they'll love reading.
Brett: One of the things I sort of stayed with the building a classroom library chapter for quite a while because I knew we were going to talk about the Book Love Foundation. And I think for me, I don't know what was the history of the Book Love Foundation. How did it come to be following your book?
Penny: Well, the last two pages of Book Love, I introduced the idea that we're going to start a foundation and it was almost like a dare to myself and my husband because as I was finishing writing it, Tom Newkirk who was my editor was just so tremendous in helping me decide what the heart of the book would be. And when we decided it would be about independent reading, not the core text, book club, independent reading balance that I talked so much about, but really just about independent reading that the teachers that I meet would often say, but where am I going to get these books? I'm a new parent. I'm struggling to keep my family afloat on a teacher's salary. And I kept hearing "I'm not going to be able to order this diverse collection of texts that you're saying we need in our classrooms."
And I walked into a bookstore at an airport of course, and I was struck by how these beautiful shelves and these collections of books invited people to find the heart of what they love. Oh, I love biography. Oh, I love stories of the business world. And then you could go settle there, find from all these titles, something you wanted to read. It was the perfect combination of conditions that readers need. And I thought every classroom should look a bit like a bookstore. Every English classroom should feel like "I've walked into this beautiful collection and I'm hungry to figure out what's here." So I wrote that in the back of the book and said we actually bought a domain name and created a website with no idea how we were going to create a foundation. And then I assembled a few people in our job that very first year, 2013 was to figure out the systems we needed in place in order to send books to a teacher if we could raise money.
And so we have of course through the generosity of Heinemann, my love, is one library every year is given by Heinemann and one is given by Booksource, our partner in shipping and handling and helping teachers choose the books that they want for their classrooms. And then one from my husband and I. And so we only tried to give away three libraries that first year and we got 40 applications in the mail. My daughter, I was talking to her the other day, she remembers sorting those for us and deciding where they came from. And we actually photocopied them to give to people to read because they were coming in the mail to my house. And now this year we have more than 400 applications and I have a huge army of readers. And the same process we've used from the beginning is that a pair of readers read a pile of applications, usually about 25, and then they each come up with a list of what they consider to be finalists.
And then those finalists are brought to our big meeting... finalists night. And we negotiate among the entire group of readers and board members who were going to award libraries to. But the beliefs of the foundation, the first one is that all kids need access to a diversity of texts. So our central belief is that we need to help teachers diversify what they're presenting to kids in reading. And then our second most important belief is we want to empower motivated change makers, teachers who want to make a lasting difference in the reading lives of their students. And then third, they help those teachers our Book Love grant winners to become leaders in the field, to encourage them to begin presenting at conferences and leading in this work.
Brett: I know you've spent a lot of time sort of collecting the stories of the libraries that have gone out into the world and the teachers and the students and the lives that have been impacted by this. Share a little bit with me about the impact that this work has had.
Penny: It's probably the greatest thing that happens to be now is that I often will walk through a conference hall or, present to teachers and someone will come up and say, I'm one of your book club grant winners and I get to have that moment. Maybe it's only two or three minutes with a winter to talk about how that work has changed their role in the school, their work with kids. What often happens is that a teacher who receives this grant will find of course a lot of attention in the school. One of my favorite stories was a teacher we awarded a grant to in Oregon who when the books arrived they came in on pallets, big boxes of books and they were at the central office area and as they came down the hall, all the kids came out of their classrooms and watched them arrive in her classroom and then the kids from her room came running down, "can we help you unpack them?"
And one of them opened the book they had, she said, never had brand new books in a classroom library and opened this book and smelled it and said "this smells like love." I know, I teared up when she told me this story. But for many of the classrooms we award books to the students don't have books in their home. Some of them don't have homes. And so to be allowed to take home this beautiful hardcover book that was written just for them, young adult literature that's written for the age they are by incredible writers. We know how many incredible writers are reaching kids through their words. That exchange to me is so powerful. So we have, I listened to his stories like that all the time, but the other piece that's contagious is not only the enthusiasm for the kids in that teacher's classroom, but other colleagues begin to say, "Wow, why are your kids reading so much? How come they are enthusiastic about reading when I can't get my students to do the assigned reading?"
And that conversation builds this feeling in the school of we're going to become a culture of readers, this middle school, this high school, and now elementary schools that were funding and that's of course a lasting contribution to a school community is to build a culture of reading.
Brett: Well, one of the exciting things that you're doing this summer is a book club around Book Love and it's... Tell us a little bit about what's going on and how people can participate.
Penny: Well, this is our third year and we are so excited because we've worked out the kinks as we've gone along. We had 1,200 people in the book club last year. And so we didn't know how to handle all of the orders and all. But this year we've got it down. And so we select a professional development book and this year for the secondary group, that's We Got This by Cornelius Minor, a book that will challenge and lead them to think in new ways about our work. And in the elementary club they're going to read It's All About the Books, Clare and Tammy's book about not only libraries, but really how do we increase interest in reading through all these classroom conditions and practices.
So the neat thing is that both of the discussions are on the same Facebook group. So a teacher who joins our book club has access to K-12 educators and thinking about the teaching of reading, which I think is really valuable for all of us to see that big picture.
But then we choose three other books that they can take directly to their classrooms, but come at reading in different ways. So like for the secondary group, we have a young adult book Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King, which has a bit of magical realism in it, it's a complex fiction book that will force teachers as readers to kind of unpack how do we read when the book takes us in all these different journeys.
And then we have Facebook live sessions set up with all the authors of all the books we choose. We also have a nonfiction book every year and this year it's Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo. A powerful memoir of her years teaching. And then reading and individually reading to a boy who's been incarcerated. And then The Red Pencil, which is actually our first book of the summer, by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Is a beautiful novel in verse that combines drawing as well as the story of a young girl who is handed a pencil and what that changes in her life as a writer. And that one is particularly suited for middle school. So we try to have this series of texts that teachers could use in lots of different ways.
In the Summer Book Club not only do you have all of these teachers online and these Facebook live opportunities and that book club remains vibrant all school year so you can go back and later and say, oh how did they organize their reading ladders to assess what kids have done that first quarter and someone will have given you lots of thinking about that. And as they post, other people respond all year long.
Brett: So how can people sign up? How do they learn more and how can they participate?
Penny: It's summerbookclub.org and when you go, you just have to decide if you want to join the secondary or the elementary if you're going to order books with us. And we're actually down to about 150 books, swag combinations, the Book Love bag and the Bracelet and the journal.
You can order all of that stuff to come directly to your house, or you can simply join online and then you're responsible for getting the books yourself. Once you select which package you want, you'll then pay us. And when you pay the foundation, every dollar you're sending us is going to support a teacher library. So the online version only a $60 you have access all year to these discussions and connections with authors, but you're also doing something truly good for the world, which is you're giving us money to give to a teacher to create a library.
The Summer Book Club invites teachers to read for pleasure, and we need that in our lives as much as our students do. And summer is such a beautiful time to sit back with a book, read, write about it, think about it, and re-imagine what our classrooms could look like in the fall.
Check out this summer's elementary and secondary selections, It's All About the Books and We Got This, both available from Heinemann!
While challenging the teacher as hero trope, We Got This shows how authentically listening to kids is the closest thing to a superpower that we have. Cornelius Minor identifies tools, attributes, and strategies that can augment our listening, allowing us to make powerful moves toward equity by broadening access to learning for all children.
It’s All About the Books is a practical yet detailed guide to creating a system where classroom libraries and bookrooms work seamlessly together to make it easy for teachers to find books to engage and scaffold all students in a school community.
Penny Kittle teaches freshman composition at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She was a teacher and literacy coach in public schools for 34 years, 21 of those spent at Kennett High School in North Conway. She is the co-author of 180 Days with Kelly Gallagher, and is the author of Book Love, and Write Beside Them, which won the James Britton award. She also co-authored two books with her mentor, Don Graves, and co-edited (with Tom Newkirk) a collection of Graves’ work, Children Want to Write. She is the president of the Book Love Foundation and was given the Exemplary Leader Award from NCTE’s Conference on English Leadership. In the summer Penny teaches graduate students at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. Throughout the year, she travels across the U.S. and Canada (and once in awhile quite a bit farther) speaking to teachers about empowering students through independence in literacy. She believes in curiosity, engagement, and deep thinking in schools for both students and their teachers. Penny stands on the shoulders of her mentors, the Dons (Murray & Graves), and the Toms (Newkirk & Romano), in her belief that intentional teaching in a reading and writing workshop brings the greatest student investment and learning in a classroom.