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Dedicated to Teachers

Podcast: Harnessing the Joy of Reading with Donalyn Miller

Harnessing the Joy of Reading

What reading experiences have inspired you, helped you to see your own life more clearly, or connected you with others?  How do we teach to those experiences?

Today on the Podcast we’re joined by Donalyn Miller to tell us more about her newest book The Joy of Reading.

The Joy of Reading is a guide for teachers, librarians, administrators, and families to create the conditions for joyful reading. Co-authors Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne draw from their decades of work to provide practices that nurture joy while identifying factors that dissuade joy, all with a clear understanding of the realities of today’s classrooms and libraries.



Below is a full transcript of this episode. 

Steph: Today we are joined by Donalyn Miller. Donalyn is a new author to Heinemann, but she is not new to our listeners. I'm sure she has a long and robust teaching background, an award-winning teacher, author and staff developer. Donalyn has primarily taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade language arts and social studies, and some of you may know her as the co-founder of the Nerdy Book Club and the founder of the annual summer #bookaday Challenge. Donalyn has also written The book whisperer and Reading in the Wild. So welcome Donalyn.

Donalyn: Thank you for inviting me to talk with you today, I'm excited to be here.

Steph: So as I mentioned, you have a couple if books out previously, but we are here to talk about your newest book that you co-authored with Teri Lesesne, The Joy of Reading. So can you tell me a little bit about The Joy of Reading?

Donalyn: Well, Teri Lesesne and I were dear colleagues and friends for many years, we often gave conference presentations to together. Some of our listeners may have seen us at a conference present together. We collaborated on articles together. Teri was a big supporter of Nerdy Book Club, and was often the pinch hitter that we would call if someone was not able to turn their post in on time, we had a gap in the calendar, we used out that she was the fifth nerd, we could always call on her. So we had a long relationship and we actually started working on this book in 2014. The first folder in my computer for the book is labeled 2014. The Engagement Manifesto is what it was titled at the time. That was Teri's title. And Teri and I really worked on this book, it was a whole journey of seven years of everything that we have learned as teachers, as people who work with adults, as readers ourselves, as parents, and as grandparents, everything that we knew that engaged kids with reading.

And we talked to thousands of kids too. Sadly, Teri passed away last August, just weeks before the manuscript for the book was due, and I'm sad that she will not be able to see it because, I know how fiercely she was dedicated to the reading lives of young people. How important it was for her that young people have autonomous reading lives, that they have access to quality books that engage them, and I think she would be proud of the message that she has put in the book.

Steph: Let's just start with a basic question of, what is reading joy, and why is it so important for students?

Donalyn: Well, when we are talking about joy, we are really trying to move away from some temporary frivolity, and often we feel that some adults are suspicious if children are enjoying reading too much. We've heard this. It must have been rigorous if kids are having fun. When we talk about reading joy, we're talking about more of a long-term investment, I think. The over of reading lifetime, what does reading offer you, that provides engagement, edification, learning, touches your spirituality, your intellect, and in other ways that reading can become a part of our lives and really add to our lives. When we talk about joy, what we want is for kids to have the opportunity, to be able to build that connection with reading, where reading is personally meaningful to them, and not just something that they're being told to do for a school job, or because of some future college and career readiness goal.

Teri and I believe, and many other teachers, of course believe that you can teach kids how to read without killing their love of reading in the process, and in fact, we feel that it's more successful when engagement is something that's a concern. Sadly, over the years, I've heard colleagues say, "It's not my responsibility to make my kids love reading. Am I supposed to teach them how to read? It's their parents' job," or various other read on why joy should not be a concern. But when I talk with young people of all ages, and if you will sit down and talk with them, they will tell you, that when teachers listen to them and engage with them about their interests and care about their reading lives, they feel seen. That when teachers give them time to read, they read more. That when teachers give them some choice in what they get to read, they like reading more.

I think a lot of the things that Teri and I talk about in the book, some of them are tried and trues, and I know that some teachers will read them and go, "Oh yeah, I forgot about," let's say, "Read alouds," for example. Not new, but we revisit them again and kind of remind people, "Oh, read alouds are still here, they still have value, and here's what we've learned about read alouds in the past decade or so." I think there's that mix of the grounded practice that many teachers will recognize, with the relevance for today. And then some other... The conversations that we've had with so many kids and teachers over the years are woven throughout the book as well.

Steph: It's so interesting to hear you say that piece about, "It's not my job to teach students to like reading, I just need to teach them how to read." Because it sounds like so much of what you're being is so integral to reading. So if that's the case and we know how important this is for kids and readers of all ages, why do you think this attitude of, "It's not my job to get kids to like reading," and why is this coming up in school so much?

Donalyn: Part of it, I mean, I've already alluded a little bit to, I think there is this social stigma around intellectualism sometimes. As much as nerd culture has found more of a popular footing in the past 20 years, let's say, we could look at Wil Wheaton and The Big Bang Theory and President Obama for making nerds a little bit cooler, but there's still this feeling of, "Kids need to know how to read." But if people read too much, they're nerds, there's something wrong with them, they're antisocial. If you're reading, what are you not doing? There's a certain amount of judgment that does come in. And even adult readers feel it sometimes from other adults. So certainly, I think there's that bigger social piece that we could certainly talk about. But day-to-day, what's happening is, there's an incredible amount of pressure on teachers to care about other things than children's reading lives.

There's an incredible amount of high stakes pressure on teachers, to make sure children perform on standardized tests. Although we can persuade colleagues that investing in students reading lives long-term will improve their test performing short-term, and let's be clear, it's a short-term concern, their reading lives are a long-term concern, that we can invest in their reading lives and their test scores will improve. And there's many studies that back that up, there are other researchers and teacher practitioners who talk about the link between engaged invested reading, and an increase in students reading performance. I just think there's a lot of pressure on teachers to make reading a performance, and kids aren't given time necessarily to cook reading lives.

It takes time to build that confidence and competence as a reader, that helps reading become really joyful, and there's just so much pressure on kids to get to the next milestone, to get to the next marker. So I do think that's a big part of it too. I also think that there's teachers, ourselves, are not able to, or encouraged to invest in our own reading lives to the degree that we possibly could. And I've talked about this with some other colleagues recently, that it is unlikely you are inspiring someone to do something that you yourself are not inspired to do. And yet the reading lives of teachers perhaps are overlooked or not being fed themselves. So, if you don't value reading for yourself, you might not understand its value to your students.

Steph: So what barriers, and I use that term broadly. We could talk about structural barriers or perhaps personal, within a specific classroom. What barriers exist that prevent independent reading time, and I guess I'm also wondering, what barriers are teachers facing that prevent their own reading lives?

Donalyn: Of course, we can talk about the more, I don't want to say more glamorous, but let's say, more nuanced and fascinating conversations that we could have around choice and community, and how that affects individual readers. But honestly, Steph, two very boring things. Very foundational, Brick in the Road things are two of the biggest obstacles for teachers and for kids, and it's time and access. You can about choice all day long. I've learned that choice is a privilege that depends on access. Choice from what? If you teach a student, and this has happened to me, and I've talked to colleagues, that's happened to them too. You tell kids, "Oh, you can go off and read whatever you want for reading at home," and they bring in their reading log or used to it to have a conversation with them, and they've been reading the same book at home for two weeks, and you discover, that's because that's the book that child owns. So choice from what? So that fundamental access piece is huge.

And access means, I've talked about this with my friend Colby Sharp in our book, Game Changer!, and we were able to bring in other people who were sharing what they were doing about access in their communities too, because it is a pervasive issue. But it starts with that physical access piece. Do kids have books on hand to read? I don't care how motivational your summer reading program is, if kids don't have a book to read after that conversation, I don't the program's going to be a success.

So we have to make sure kids have the physical books. eBooks, audio books, paper books, and then if kids need assistive technology in order to access that book, that they have the technology too. And that access is inconsistent from community to community, and honestly, from family to family inside the same school.

So that's a system-wide conversation, that challenge is a challenge that's difficult for an individual teacher to overcome without, let's say, a classroom library resource. Many schools are losing their school librarians, which undermines access for children, but it also causes teachers to lose a valuable colleague that would help them locate the resources that they would need to support their students. So when you lose a school librarian, everyone in the school community suffers from that. So that access piece is a big piece that I think a lot of school districts, a lot of school leaders would benefit from an engaging with, with teachers and with community members. Talking to families. Public library is another aspect. And then that time piece, because there's so many demands on the school schedule, but if we don't set aside time during the school day for kids to read, then how can we say we prioritize reading, if we don't make time for it?

We know that kids read more when they see other people reading, which means that beyond just the time of... I mean, you and I would love it if we had 10 minutes to read every day, just set aside for us. But beyond that, the community piece, when that happens is important, we've found kids. So you may think, "Oh, 10 minutes isn't very much reading, it doesn't really matter." Well, yes, because if kids aren't reading at school, it's unlikely they're picking up the habit at home and going, "Oh, reading. I didn't do it all day, but I'm going to do it now." That doesn't happen.

They need that daily habit so they can keep going through their books. Beyond that, it's that community piece where they're sitting with their classmates, and everyone around them is reading too, and that has a powerful influence on their reading identities. So I know it's not flashy, setting aside time to read in the schedule, making sure kids go to the library, but those two foundational pieces, without those, anything else we would want to talk about, choice, community response, it doesn't make any difference.

Steph: So before we wrap up, you said something that remind me of something you said earlier in this interview and it comes up in your book, this saying, we really value reading, but then we criticize kids if they read too much. Sometimes they're reading the wrong things, and I feel like that really ties into that element of choice. Are we honoring kids choice? Or if you could just speak a little bit to that and what's going on with that dynamic.

Donalyn: Most of the schools that ask me to come talk with their teachers or work in their schools, it's be because they're doing some kind of independent reading, and they know that that's my thing. But choice is not defined the same in all of these places. On one end we see our choice tightly controlled, "Oh you can read whatever you want, but it must be this level. It must be this long. It must be this genre. No, you can't read that book, you read it last year. Readers don't reread things. No, you can't read that book, it's a graphic novel, it's not a real book. It has to be this reading level." So we tie so many strings to the kid that really, they only have one choice left, which is to choose not to read at all. Over here on the other end though, I see the pendulum swing too far.

We just open up the library door, throw kids into the library, "Be free, pick whatever you want." "You don't like to read, it's because you haven't met the right book yet." I've taught middle schoolers, they don't believe us anymore. When we say, "Oh, you haven't met the right book yet," they don't believe us. Where is this mystical book? Why is it so hard to find? It's like Atlantis, it might not really be there. But choice we know is so empowering. So what our students need are lots of opportunities to preview, share and talk about books they might read, because that's where their ability to choose comes from. We spend a lot of our conversations talking with kids, as teachers, I know, conferring with readers, "What are you reading right now? Talk to me about what you're reading right now." Or, "Oh, you just finished the book, talk to me about that book you just finished."

We prioritize or we lean into the books they're currently reading and the books they've recently finished. But there's benefit, real power in talking with kids about the books they might read in the future, because one, they can visualize themselves as readers in the future. But helping them learn how to choose their own books is one of the best ways we have to ensure that they will read in the future without us. Unfortunately, we complain if kids aren't reading the right things, sometimes adults often complain that kids don't read, and then we bemoan their choices when they do, "Oh, we want you to read Tom Sawyer, not The Lightning Thief." Actually a parent had a conversation with me about those two books one time, it was not a made up example.

So I think we have to value the reading lives of children, the books that are written for them are not written for us, it's a time in their lives where it's appropriate for them to read them. If a kid will read anything, I can challenge them to grow. If they won't read anything, we're kind of stuck there in that spot. Yes. So I think that's where we put our effort. Can we get them into anything they'd be interested in reading? We can take them from there.

Steph: In the spirit of modeling, reading joy, what is bringing you reading joy right now?

Donalyn: Oh my goodness. Okay. So I'm moving, and so many books are being packed, and it is so painful. But if you've gone through your books, what happens is, you find things. So I have a pile now of books I discovered that I need to read, that have been on my shelves all this time.

Steph: Oh yes. I have those piles too.

Donalyn: I'm also not a hoarder necessarily, but I am sentimental, and I hold on to things. So I found a book on organizing, that's called, Organize Your House, Keep Everything. So it's the exact opposite of all these books that tell you to get rid of your belongings. Basically, I think it's a coffee table book that shows you how to artfully design all of your collections into things. But, yes, that's what I'm reading right now. Books on organizing and the picture books I've discovered on my shelf. Oh, and I did just finish Kelly Barnhill, who won the Newbery award for her book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Her latest book, The Ogress and the Orphans just came out and it is so lovely. A Beautiful book about what it means to be a neighbor, what it means to be a good citizen, and what it means to be a family. It's really good.

Steph: Well, Donalyn, thank you so much for joining us. The Joy of Reading will be out next month, but listeners, I believe you can pre-order now, so head to heinemann.com and look for The Joy of Reading. Thank you so much.

Donalyn: Thank you.

AU_Miller-Donalyn_AuthorPhoto_webDonalyn Miller’s work champions self-selected independent reading, providing guidance and resources that foster children’s love of reading and the development of positive reading identities. A national and international consultant and bestselling author, Donalyn’s published works include The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009), Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013), and Game Changer: Book Access for All Kids (co-written with Colby Sharp, Scholastic, 2018) as well as articles in Gifted Child International, Education Week Teacher, The Reading Teacher, Voices From the Middle, Educational Leadership, Horn Book, School Library Journal, and The Washington Post.

Donalyn is also a co-founder of The Nerdy Book Club, an online community which provides inspiration, book recommendations, resources, and advice about raising and teaching young readers. Donalyn and her husband, Don, live in Texas atop a dragon’s hoard of books. You can connect with her on her website BookWhisperer.com, or on Twitter at @DonalynBooks

terilesesneTeri Lesesne's long and influential career was devoted to readers. Author of several books, including Reading Ladders and The Joy of Reading (co-authored with Donalyn Miller), she was known for the passion she brought to connecting readers with books. Teri was a middle-school teacher, a Distinguished Professor the department of Library Science at Sam Houston State University, Executive Director of ALAN (the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English), a National Book Award judge, and recipient of the 2007 ALAN award for her significant contributions to the field. Known to many as "Professor Nana," Teri’s legacy lives on in the librarians and teachers her work has nurtured.

Topics: Podcast, Reading, Teri Lesesne, Donalyn Miller, Heinemann Podcast, Literacy, The Joy of Reading

Date Published: 04/21/22

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