For back to school this Fall, the type of instruction offered will vary by school, district, or state. Some schools will return to 100 percent in-person classrooms, others to 100 percent remote teaching, and still others to some hybrid of the two. Reentry will be hard enough, but how can teachers of middle school and high school English nurture a love of reading, encourage independent reading habits, and build a community of readers under these conditions?
Penny Kittle’s Book Love was written well before our current health crisis, but its ideas remain applicable in and adaptable to today’s conditions. In fact, adaptation of one of Penny’s most powerful suggestions can help knit together a community of remote, independent readers just as it does in regular classroom situations.
An adaptation of one of Penny’s most powerful suggestions can help knit together a community of remote, independent readers just as it does in regular classroom situations.
I buy cheap notebooks at an office supply store and label them with common themes in literature, one per notebook: guilt; hope; fate; cruelty; isolation; justice; gender; freedom; coming of age; ambition; alienation; abandonment; conflict; suffering; yin & yang; the bonds of family; sacrifice; friendship; man struggling against nature/man/societal pressure to understand God; overcoming adversity; life lessons; empathy; change; courage; acceptance; love; death and dying; decisions; discipline; oppression; forgiveness; and belief. I paste the following explanation on the inside cover of each notebook:
These notebooks are for us to share. I write in them; you write in them. A big idea book is a multiyear conversation, because I use them year after year. You’re talking across time to students who are stumbling along through elementary or middle school right now but will one day sit where you are.
The meat of a big idea book is your thinking. I want you digging for what is beneath the story you’re reading. You chose this book (this theme) for a reason. You can see how it connects to what is happening or what is explored in the book you’re reading. You might connect the ideas or situations in the book to something in yourself or another book you’ve read. You might take the ideas in the book and go farther with them . . . thinking as you write.
You are doing a mini–book talk for someone who comes upon your words later. Try not to give away anything important that readers would rather discover on their own: you know how you hate that. You can skim a big idea book and find a dozen book talks from students like you. Add the titles to your to-read-next list, and you’ll have a range of possibilities when you’ve finished one book and can’t decide what to read next.
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If this seems somehow familiar, it’s because we adults do this same thing all the time in places like Goodreads, discussion forums about our favorite books or authors, and sometimes even in Amazon book reviews. So although there’s nothing more powerful than seeing another’s thinking in their own handwriting, big idea books can be easily adapted as online discussion threads in web-based collaboration tools; classroom collaboration tools such as Edmodo; by using the private, invitation-only features on blogging platforms such as Wordpress, or via whatever similar resource your school or district makes available.
So although there’s nothing more powerful than seeing another’s thinking in their own handwriting, big idea books can be easily adapted as online discussion threads in web-based collaboration tools.
Rather than buying a notebook, set up a thread with a headnote to students like the one Penny places in her physical notebooks. Then ask students provide entries in the comments. You, too, should put your thoughts into these discussion threads, to model your thinking and your love of reading.
Taking Penny’s big idea books online helps you encourage students to read, think, and write independently whether they are in the classroom itself, sometimes in it, or learning remotely. Everyone can participate and see one another’s thinking, which connects them intimately to one another as a community of readers and adolescents.
Parts of this blog are adapted from Book Love by Penny Kittle.
Learn more at Heienemann.com.
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.
Learn more about Penny Kittle on her websites, pennykittle.net and booklovefoundation.org, or follow her on twitter at @pennykittle.