Veteran teacher and author Linda Rief has inspired thousands of practitioners across the nation to lead adolescents on a journey to becoming lifelong readers and writers. In her newest book, Read Write Teach, Linda offers the what, how, and why of a year’s worth of reading and writing for middle and high school students within a framework that is as flexible as it is comprehensive. In a two-part blog series, we speak with Linda about the book.
In your introduction you write, “I want my students to understand that I am what I teach—a writer and a reader.” Why is this important?
My good friend Maureen Barbieri once asked her students what helped them most as writers and readers; they told her it was that she “got in the pool” with them. One of them said, “You’re not like the PE teacher who walks along the edge of the pool yelling, ‘Go faster! Pull! Pull!’ as we swim the lanes. You jump in with us, and try it yourself.”
When I write along with the students I have a far deeper understanding of what it takes to craft a piece of writing. I need choice, time (and deadlines), good models, and constructive responses.
It surprises me that in teacher interviews for language arts positions, we seldom ask, “What are you writing? What are you reading?” None of us would put our kids on a team if the coach had never played the game. We would never hire a piano teacher or a karate coach or a dance instructor who had never participated in the activity.
Because I read, students trust me to put books in their hands that they might actually be interested in reading. The more I read, the more I know what real readers do—read books for pleasure and to understand the worlds in which we live and don’t live. The more I read, the more books I want to talk about, write about, inhale and let sit inside me. I read for pleasure, to learn something I don’t know, and to experience or understand other lives. The more I read, the better I am able to give students those same reasons for reading.
Because I read, I am far more aware of what real readers don’t do: they don’t build dioramas of scenes from the books, they don’t take quizzes and essay tests on the efferent content of the reading, and they don’t turn to Cliff Notes to figure out what someone else thinks the book means.
The more I read, the more I know what real reading isn’t: it isn’t choosing books by lexile numbers, it isn’t testing the reader through computer programs like Accelerated Reader, it isn’t everyone reading the same book all the time, and it isn’t taking tests and quizzes to “prove” you read the book.
The more I read, the more I’m able to put books and kids together. The more I read the more models of fine writing I find for students and myself.
At the end of every year, I ask the students, “What did I do that helped you most as a writer and reader?” They always say, “You wrote with us and you read with us.” I want my students to know that I am “in the pool” with them, just as Maureen was with her students.
You spend a lot of time getting to know your students at the beginning of the year. How does getting to know your students well help them and you?
I do spend a lot of time getting to know who these kids are and what they like/dislike, what their lives have been like, what influences them, what interests them, how they feel about themselves. The better I know my students, the better I’m able to help them find ideas to write about and books to read. I want to help them gain confidence in themselves. Their knowing that I respect and trust them as learners helps immensely when I ask them to push and challenge themselves to work hard at writing and reading. I have a deep respect for all kids. I want them to have a voice in the world; for that to happen I have to take them seriously and they have to take themselves seriously. The more I know them, the better the chances I can help them grow stronger. They trust me, and I trust them.
In your first chapter, “Grounding Our Choices in Our Beliefs” you eloquently write, “When kids are engaged in the process of writing something that matters to them, they do write, and they do read, thoughtfully and thoroughly.” It’s sometimes hard for teachers to give up control of the books their students read and the topics they write about. What led you to this belief?
Because I write and read, I know I have to give kids choices about what they write and read. My best writing comes from something I want to say or have to say. My deepest reading comes from books I want to read.
Still, there are times when I try kinds or topics of writing, or read difficult books, that challenge and push my thinking. I do some of those same things with kids—suggest they try this kind of writing, try a new author or a different genre. It’s like handing someone a jacket from the rack in a clothing store: “Try this on. I think it would look good on you.”
When kids care about what they are writing and are deeply interested in the book they are reading, they do their best work. When we are deeply interested in something—gardening, auto racing, painting, cooking—we give it our all.
When kids know their writing can, and will, go beyond the classroom to a real audience, they want to make it the best they can, both in content and in conventions.