Making Connections: A Powerful STEM Event with Capt. Barrington Irving

Elkin City Schools is a small school system in North Carolina serving approximately 1,200 students in three neighborhood schools: Elkin Elementary, Elkin Middle and Elkin High. When the opportunity arose for Captain Barrington Irving—the youngest person and first black pilot to fly solo around the world—to land his Flying Classroom at the Elkin Municipal Airport, the faculty, staff and community rallied to make it a reality.

I heard Captain Irving’s story at a conference I attended and knew immediately that I wanted my middle school students to get the opportunity to learn from him. His magnetic personality was certainly a draw, but the passion he brings to the work of striving for a better life is what really grabbed me. After all, he turned down football scholarships and, instead, pursued a career in aviation!  My goal was to put him in front of students who are exploring careers and making connections between what they are learning and their futures. I wanted them to see that big dreams do come true.

In Elkin City Schools, Our motto is Encourage, Connect, and inSpire. As Captain Irving described in his book Touch the Sky, a chance encounter with Capt. Gary Robinson, the pilot who became his mentor, inspired him to ultimately become a record-breaking pilot, entrepreneur, educator and business owner. I wanted our kids to understand that, as Irving wrote in Touch the Sky, “Regardless of where you come from, what you have or don’t have, you, too, can achieve your dream. Believe in yourself.”

In essence, I knew, without a doubt, the students would receive so much more than a powerful STEM experience. I needed someone to say to our students, “You can do anything you set your mind to! If I can, you can!” 

While the 170 Elkin Middle school students, teachers, administrators, Board of Education members, the town mayor and community supporters were standing alongside the runway, Capt. Irving swooped down the airstrip in a flyby before making a grand entrance. For many students, this was the first time they had watched a plane land and taxi the ramp. Upon arrival, not only did Capt. Irving disembark, but so did I! I now know that some students thought their superintendent had lost her mind, but for me, it was a thrill of a lifetime.

The airport hangar became the students’ classroom for the entire morning. There, they learned about Irving’s exciting and extraordinary expeditions. He took our students on a digital trip around the world, teaching them about deadly sea snakes in Koror, Palau, ecosystems in the Amazon, food waste in California, extreme temperature changes in a halo jump in Tennessee, plus a virtual tour of his very own digestive system through the use of a camera pill!  It was truly education beyond the classroom, the very definition of authentic learning. One teacher commented that the students were not just engaged in the presentation, they were mesmerized!  When a student is mesmerized, you know you got it right.

While Capt. Irving took off to Elkin’s elementary and high schools for school-wide assemblies, his instructional team stayed behind to lead the middle schoolers on an excursion of their own. Students tested their engineering and design skills in a project based-learning activity where they learned how airplanes fly. The “flight crew” (the middle school teachers) distributed materials and teams of students used their collaborative skills to think critically, and create and communicate with one another while discussing the principles of aerodynamics. Measuring flight distance, modifying their “aircrafts,” and retesting for improvements was great fun and made their new learning relevant and meaningful.

I knew, without a doubt, that this day would positively impact our students and staff. We gave a copy of Touch the Sky to every student in the middle school, to integrate a literacy component into our STEM event and continue the learning. In a culminating activity at Elkin Middle School a few days later, eighth grade ELA teacher Shannon Swaim facilitated a seminar with her students to reflect on the STEM event. She told me that she kept hearing the students discuss how encouraged and inspired they were by The Flying Classroom, Touch the Sky, and Barrington Irving himself. 

“It made me think of our mission in serving the students of Elkin City Schools, which is to Encourage, to Connect, and to inSpire. I consider myself a reflective practitioner, and I knew that there had to be one more extension activity to where the students had taken all they learned, coupled with the excitement Irving stirred within them, to encourage them to follow their dreams. His story certainly inspired them to do so, but I thought about those students who were looking through the lens and asking themselves, ‘How can that really be me?’ So, with thoughtful planning and preparation, I decided to invite a graduate of Elkin High School who had already attained his pilot’s license in the two years since graduating to speak to the entire middle school. I thought of him as a local example of someone who began as an average kid from a modest background but achieved above-average things because he believed in himself. I knew my students would relate well to a student who had sat in their classroom just a few years earlier, and now was a pilot and flight instructor at the young age of 21. He detailed his journey for the students, and suddenly, the connectivity to the encouragement and inspiration. The students saw the pathway, the passion, and the pictures of a hometown boy achieving his dreams.”

And I saw that by hosting an electrifying STEM event that was then paired with a literacy component and community engagement, we were able to provide Elkin City students with a multi-layered experience that would ultimately make a profound connection between what they were learning and their own futures.

Independent Reading: It’s for Everyone!

I love to read. I have a long textual lineage that begins with my father reading Goodnight Moon aloud to me each night, racing to the library every two weeks to retrieve the next Baby-sitters Club chapter book, falling in love with Atticus Finch, fearing Lady Macbeth, and being challenged by Ernest Hemmingway. I also cherish time with the latest and greatest mystery novels and People magazine on airplane rides.

However, when I was a middle and high school language arts teacher, admittedly, I left little or no time to foster the love of reading in my own classroom (outside of the whole-class novel). My ultimate goal as an ELA instructor was for my students to become independent readers, writers, and critical thinkers; yet, I felt pressure to cover all standards and curriculum, design rigorous assignments and assessments, and expose students to the ‘classics.' There wasn’t space for joyful, self-selected reading experiences. As I grew as a teacher and leader, I realized that being a reader was the greatest indicator of literacy achievement, and above all else, I wanted my students to know and love a good book, article, graphic novel, or play. I wanted them to leave my classroom with their own textual lineage.

It is jarring to know and understand the current research around the best practice of independent reading, yet it is still widely rejected in many classrooms, specifically in the secondary space as ELA blocks shorten and become more content focused. In 1977, Richard Allington first published his powerful paper, “If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good?” describing ineffective reading practices that hindered students, and factors to engage all children with reading. Since, many studies have identified independent reading as the single greatest factor in reading achievement (Krashen, 2004). The research and evidence is universal—literacy achievement is improved when reading volume increases. Just sixty minutes of independent reading every day gives students the opportunity to acquire over 4.3 million new vocabulary words every year (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987).

It is our duty as educators to stay current with research and evidence-based best practices and incorporate them into our literacy routines. As Nancie Atwell (2007) reminds us, “One way we show children that we love them is by looking after them as readers. Only when we invite them to find books that delight them it is likely that they will come to cherish literature and their own literacy.”

So how can we collectively create intentional, built- in, independent reading initiatives that strengthen and encourage independent reading among secondary students and their families while not undercutting rigor?

Provide Time and Space for Independent Reading

Even if you start small, dedicate a block of time for self-selected independent reading every day. For secondary teachers, it is important to consider the critical connections to current events, curriculum, and assessment objectives. Independent reading is a great space to extend learning from whole group instruction. Students are able to expand their lens on a subject, theme, or idea, and create cohesive and authentic responses to what they have learned.

Also, consider creating comfortable spaces for reading. Think about where and how you like to enjoy a good book, and try to recreate spaces that encourage curling up with a good book and reading.

Access and Engagement

Access to high quality, engaging texts of all types is vital to the success of any independent reading initiative. We must provide our students with books they want to read, can read, and see themselves in. Students and families report they want books that make them laugh, that showcase strong characters they relate to and aspire to be like, are diverse, and part of their favorite series (Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report™). Paying attention to independent reading levels and interests will support self-selection, volume, and comprehension. Students’ notice when we listen and pay attention to their individual interests and passions—providing access to a wide variety of texts that includes all genres, magazines, graphic novels, manuals, plays, series, etc. will show students that we support their pursuits and abilities.  

Choice and Voice

89% of students report that their favorite books are the ones they picked themselves (Kids and Family Reading Report). Students move through the bulk of the school day being told what to read with little choice and voice. Providing a time for students to invest in their own interests can support their lifelong love of reading. When students have a stake in their own learning, they are more invested and likely to engage with the material. Self-selected reading builds stamina, and stamina supports real-world tasks, skills, and strategies.

Use this space to encourage re-reading of favorite titles, too. Each time a student wants to read about their favorite character, or pick up the same book, encourage them to find something new, or look through a different lens. On average, we lose readers from ages 6-11. Student choice is directly correlated to engagement and we want all our students to experience being engaged with texts they love. 

Structure and Accountability 

In order to link independent reading to student literacy achievement, time spent reading must be purposeful. The notion of silent sustained reading (where teachers do not know if the books selected are at students' independent reading level, and if students are actually reading and comprehending a text) is not enough. Research shows that independent reading moves the needle if supplemented by intentional instruction and practices such as text talk and conferring. In secondary classrooms, creating meaningful activities aligned with independent reading like blogs, project-based learning, authentic writing in response to reading, and book clubs can support rigor and relevance while allowing room for student choice and expertise.

Be a Reading Role Model

Students shared that teachers and school librarians, and families are the top sources of encouragement to read books for fun. Although teachers are asked and tasked to do more with less time, it is imperative that we are reading role models in the classroom and community. Adolescents read more when they see adults such as teachers and parents reading, too. Role models are a key reference for adolescents; consider creative ways to share with your students what you love to read, and what texts have meant to you. In addition, enlist reading mentors from the community to support your initiative and inspire. Reading role models establish a strong reading culture in classrooms and schools.

Engage All Teachers, Leaders, Families, and Community Stakeholders

To accomplish the ultimate (and research-supported) goal of reading independently for sixty minutes a day, independent reading must happen in and outside of the ELA classroom. For an independent reading initiative to be successful, all stakeholders must be actively engaged. Content area teachers providing opportunities for independent reading beyond the textbook, families and community stakeholders supporting reading when students’ aren’t in school, and building capacity at every level will create a systemic reading initiative and culture of literacy that becomes the norm.

Independent reading helps you open a world of possible for all students. By providing access and time you help your students discover themselves as readers, establish positive reading habits in and out of school, and help them select texts that feed their interests, passions, and preferences. When we build a community of readers in classrooms, schools, districts, and communities we understand that engaging with a good book is the most effective way to learn, grow, and change the world around us. Independent reading is for everyone. 

This post is part of an ongoing series on independent reading. Read more:


Creating a Mobile Classroom Makerspace Library Program

Tamiko Brown of Ed White E-STEM Magnet School in El Lago, TX was named School Librarian of the Year by School Library Journal and Scholastic in the 2017 School Librarian of the Year Awards. Below, she shares reasons why school librarians should use social media. 

As a school librarian, I try to offer spaces where students can create, make, and innovate. Yet trying to offer a makerspace to 100% of the student population can quickly become limiting due to space constraints. Offering a mobile classroom makerspace solves this problem. A mobile classroom makerspace library program allows classroom teachers to check out 6 to 8 makerspace activities with the needed supplies packed together in one cart. Teachers can check-out a cart for their classroom for a week. During that week teachers can unpack the activities, and create a pop-up makerspace in their classroom when it fits into their schedule. 

Last year I tried this at Ed White E-STEM with kindergarten and first grade classes. The teachers and students loved the mobile classroom makerspace carts so much, we added a cart for 2nd grade this school year. The 2nd grade teachers want to take it a step farther: they want the library to supply a book with each activity, so they can use the cart as part of a Literacy Station. The students will explore, make, read, and then write about their experience.

The second year of this program has been a learning experience. This year we were able to fine-tune the offerings in each cart by teachers expressing what worked, and what didn’t work last year. We used teacher input as one measure to create this year’s inventory list for the mobile classroom makerspace carts.

5 things to think about when creating a mobile classroom makerspace.

1. Funding

Last year PTA funded the initial $2,000.00 cost of the carts. This year PTA increased the funding of the carts to 3,000.00. Our PTA sees the benefits of the program. The carts offer students a level playing field. Students can utilize makerspace resources without needing to rely on their parents to purchase the resources for use at home.

To gain access to funding, try asking PTA or write a grant. Donors Chose and Go Fund Me offer crowd-sourcing grants that would consider awarding a makerspace grant. Ask for donations. Currently each Ed White E-STEM cart is supplied with a donated cell phone which is needed to operate the Google Cardboard. Lots of school districts offer Education Foundations that offer grants.

2. Voice and Choice

Voice and choice are very important in a makerspace. The library is the place where students strengthen their STEM identity, which empowers their individual voice in STEM fields of study. This is partly because students seem less likely to fear failure in the library setting.

Makerspace activities give students a chance to strengthen their independent voice.  Choice is also an important part of strengthening student voice. Create a survey or informally ask students their thoughts on materials before they are purchased. Look at the popularity (or unpopularity) of makerspace resources before they are added to the inventory list of the mobile classroom carts. Be sure to ask teachers for their input as the mobile classroom makerspace carts are created. Ask teachers if they think they will really use the material. Each year my campus has invited J’amie Quick from Maker Maven to meet with the librarian and teachers as we build custom orders for the mobile classroom carts. Teachers are left feeling empowered, which is important. I want them to take ownership of carts, so they are used, and they feel comfortable using them in their classrooms.

3. Organization  

Organization is a key element of setting up a successful mobile classroom makerspace library program. Mobile makerspaces come in all shapes and sizes. But, portability is essential in all mobile makerspaces. There are pictures available online of old book carts being repurposed as a maker carts. Maker Maven resources come in a cardboard box so that will work for a while. I use a plastic cart with a lid to pack the mobile makerspace supplies and activities. The cart is labeled by grade level so it’s easy to distinguish as the carts are repacked and checked out from week to week. I make changes each time kits are checked out to prevent students becoming bored with the activities. Think about the packaging durability as organization is planned. Will you catalog each item or just the cart? How long will the carts circulate? Will they circulate by grade level? 

4. Scheduling

At my school, the cart is checked out for a week for each teacher on a grade level. We have 5 classes per grade level. One week the cart stays in the library, so I can repack it and check out several new items, and keep the popular items in there when the cart is check out again. It takes 6 weeks for a cart to complete one rotation. Teachers usually do not want to check out the carts during field trip weeks, special events, or holidays. Those weeks are not counted in the six week rotation, and we pick-up the schedule where we left off the following week.

My best advice is to keep the mobile makerspace carts circulating, send home pictures of the students working in the classroom makerspace, post pictures on social media following your district’s guidelines, and schedule time for administrators and PTA to see the mobile carts being used to increase support for the program.

5. Vendors/ Wishlist

After conferring with teachers, informally asking students, and assessing the popularity of current resources in the library makerspace, create a wish list of supplies and materials for the mobile classroom makerspace kits. Invite a vendor such as Maker Maven to meet with the librarian and teachers to build the kits. Then watch your mobile classroom makerspace grow.

Makerspaces are not limited to the confines of the library. Offering pop-up mobile makerspaces is a great way to collaborate with teachers to implement makerspace resources in their classrooms. The more time and experience students have with a resource the more likely they will use it to create and innovate. It is also cost effective to keep mobile makerspaces in the library as a resource for teachers to checkout since the equipment will be borrowed and shared. 

Read Tamiko's first post, 5 Reasons School Librarians Should Use Social Media, here.

7 Keys to Research for Writing Success: A Conversation with Mary Jo Fresch and David L. Harrison (and a giveaway!)

Mary Jo Fresch and David L. Harrison are co-authors of 7 Keys to Research for Writing Success. They join edu@scholastic to share a conversation about their process for conceiving of and writing the book, as well as why it's so important for educators to understand how to talk about research.


We are giving five readers the chance to win a copy of 7 Keys to Research for Writing Success. To enter for a chance to win, leave a comment below telling us about the most successful research project you've done with students in your class. One entry per person. All entries must be submitted by 5:59 p.m. ET on February 9, 2018. U.S. residents, 18 and over, please. See the complete legal rules here.

We would like to share our writing journey with you for our latest Scholastic book, 7 Keys to Research for Writing Success. As a literacy expert and educator (Mary Jo) and children’s book author (David), we have collaborated for several years, and knew that we could grow this work into a resource that will help educators teach students how to get ready to write. And as writers, both of us know from lots of trial and error that in order to craft something powerful, you have to be prepared. It was in this idea of preparation that we saw an important opportunity. 

We had conversations about writing (and teaching writing) with many writers, editors and teachers, and decided that our book didn’t need to be about the writing process. There are excellent titles about the process but there is not much information about what writers need to do before they are ready to write. Preparing to write—doing the presearch and research about a subject—shapes what we say and how we say it when the time comes to do the writing. Presearch is what writers do to prepare for the real digging for information (research). It’s the time when we think about the task ahead, decide what we’ll need to know, and map out how we’ll go about the process. In other words, presearch is planning for research. When young writers learn to organize their thoughts and questions, as well as the knowledge they bring to a subject, they have a solid foundation on which to tell a compelling story or craft an iron-clad argument. 

We also knew that “doing research” is a skill that needs to be taught in a practical way. It’s not enough to say, “look at books,” or “enlist the librarian.” Students need guidance on how to do these things with purpose: to select a topic, ask the right questions, consult reliable resources (as author Dan Brown says, “Google is not a synonym for research”), take good notes, and prepare to write. When students have these skills, they become independent researchers, which is an important part of the writing process. 

We wrote 7 Keys to Research for Writing Success with help from experienced teachers who provided samples of their students’ work, and David dug into his own research notes for examples to share with students. He shared stories (all in the book!) about how important good research is to his writing. 

David offered this example in particular:

“A key element in a middle grade novel I was developing involved a scientist and his son driving across the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to spend a summer researching. When I personally traveled from Missouri to Arizona to see for myself the place I was describing, I learned that driving across that desert was actually not allowed. With this knowledge, I had to adjust: my adventurers had to settle for staying at a campsite! (And I had to make sure that any further plot points reflected the change.)”

Sharing stories like this with students drives home the point that unless we prepare before we start, our writing may have holes or inconsistencies that we don’t even know about! Our writing won’t be true and our readers will be cheated.

The teachers we worked with appreciated the step-by-step, efficient way they could teach good research skills to their students. By presearching a proposed topic, students discover if their idea is too big or too narrow. This saves time later on and helps keep students from being overwhelmed (by too much information) or disappointed (by too little). By putting a laser focus on their topics, students could choose more specific key words, saving time in the search and yielding better results. From there students can get really engaged in their topic. Suddenly, they will realize that research is the same for them as it is for published authors. We believe that if you do the (pre)work, you will wow your reader with a piece full of interesting and relevant facts and details. 

We open the book with an anonymous quote that we will use to close this blog post: “The future belongs to the curious. The ones who are not afraid to try it, explore it, poke it, question it and turn it inside out.”

We wish happy research adventures to you and your students!

World Read Aloud Day 2018: Join Us for 24 Hours of Magical Belonging!

When we first meet Harry Potter, he lives in a small space under the Dursleys’ stairs, lonely and afraid that what his cousin says about him is true: he will never fit in. Yet destiny soon bursts into his life in the form of a half-giant named Hagrid to correct that assumption. Harry belongs to a whole new world; he’s a wizard, and in Diagon Alley, his infamous scar is no longer ugly, but miraculous. On the Hogwarts Express, his compartment is small, but it holds true friends. Harry escapes the Dursleys, and finds places and people with whom he belongs. These early moments in the Harry Potter series are so memorable and special for all of us because we too feel we are being invited into a world where all of us, with scars and all, can not only belong, but soar together. Books and stories are miraculous too, because they create worlds of invitation.

In 2010, my organization LitWorld created a holiday called World Read Aloud Day to give every single person in the world a way to feel a sense of belonging to stories, books and reading together. Since that first celebration, “WRAD” has grown to include millions of people, in countries across the world.

With all that magic, it is this year, 2018 that is perhaps the most magical time ever for World Read Aloud Day. On February 1st, we will become a worldwide 24-hour experience by teaming up with Harry Potter Book Night! Harry Potter Book Night is an annual celebration that is all about passing on the magic of J.K. Rowling’s books to the next generation of readers, as well as celebrating with devoted fans.

One of LitWorld’s powerful 7 Strengths for reading is “Belonging.” Our children hunger to belong to the world around them. We have seen how the power of the read-aloud—and the joy that it brings to every child—generates a powerful feeling of belonging for all who join with us on this special day. For all the children around the world, and for adults too, the read-aloud is a profound and often instant relationship between story, listener and reader. It is a way of showing we care about one another and that we are welcoming one another into the sense of belonging that stories bring to us.

There are three key ways the read-aloud helps us all to find a sense of belonging, and in these three ways we can celebrate 24 hours of the power of the read-aloud:

1. Understanding Ourselves

By reading aloud and together, we can talk together, brainstorm together, and ponder who we are in the reading experience. We can find our own self in courageous Harry, generous Hagrid, and fierce Ginny. We can find out how we can become more like Hermione, or a bit less like Snape! We ask each other what our sorting hats would tell us, and which House we’d be placed in if we were lucky enough to be enrolled at Hogwarts. We wonder what our own owl would look like and which wand would be selected for us. We find ourselves by reading, we find the selves we want to become by reading together, and we find new ways of thinking about ourselves by hearing a read-aloud and talking with someone else about that story. Reading is a self-discovery and the read-aloud makes that discovery visible.

2. Connecting to Others

Stories teach us about empathy and interactions with others. The characters in the Harry Potter series are not always perfect; they are as flawed as we are, and some, like the Dursleys, are far worse! But also what we learn—from Harry and Hermione’s relationship, from Harry and Ron, and from Dumbledore and his students—is that relationships transcend age, perspective and time and that relationships matter; in fact, friendship and kindness sustain us and make us live in a deeper and more joyful way.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that by identifying with Harry, participants’ attitudes towards real-world stigmatized groups improved, as they took on the perspective of someone who tried to understand and stand up for others. Harry's empathetic approach translated into their own. In the classroom and at home, we can use the metaphors offered by the stories we read to have conversations with our children and our students about equity, about justice, about power and also lack of power, about all the big ideas in the world today that both distance us from others and connect us more fully. By reading aloud, we share a text. And by sharing a text, we become closer to one another. The text gives us a way forward: a way to have a conversation. And taking steps towards each other, to find each other’s humanity, is key to building peace and to creating a world in which all children feel safe and a sense of belonging.

3. Creating a Worldwide Community

The voice of the reader draws children in close. It is an invitation to join in. At Hogwarts, all the wizards-in-training come together around long tables to share meals together. There is a strong sense of belonging in an invitation to gather and share a meal, a conversation, a read-aloud.

On World Read Aloud Day and Harry Potter Book Night on February 1st, from morning to night, in every time zone, as the day dawns on WRAD and ends on Harry Potter Book Night, we are putting forth an invitation to you: we invite people of all ages to join in a feast of words and stories together.

The art of reading aloud is one of the world’s most ancient tools we have to strengthen our community, and to build new ones. On this, a 24 hours to celebrate the profound magic of being called together by a read-aloud: World Read Aloud Day and Harry Potter Book Night ask us to belong. And they ask us to help others belong. With our voices raised together, and our stories fueling our connections to one another, we can create a worldwide community of acceptance, love and peace.

In the words of the wise Dumbledore, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.”

Choose to celebrate 24 hours of transcendent joy and hope with us. Be with us on February 1st.

Twitter Chat Recap: #FromStrivingToThriving with Stephanie Harvey & Annie Ward

Last night Scholastic Education hosted a Twitter chat with Stephanie Harvey & Annie Ward (From Striving to Thriving), giving educators the chance to spend an hour with the authors and learn all about how to support striving readers. 

Over the course of responding to the nine questions below, Harvey and Ward engaged in a rich discussion with educators from all over, sharing strategies, challenges and success stories.

  1. What do you mean by “striving readers?” Why is it so important to “table the labels” that are often used to describe them?

  2. What’s the difference between “reading behaviors” and “reading abilities?”

  3. You write, “The more we learn, the more we wonder.” What can teachers do to keep striving readers curious?

  4. Why are access and choice so important? How can teachers ensure every child has access to irresistible reading material every day?

  5. Why is it vital for striving readers to get voluminous reading time?

  6. What are a few really good strategies for book-matching?

  7. Why do striving readers need to understand and use comprehension strategies?

  8. What are some key advocacy strategies to ensure striving readers thrive?

  9. What is your favorite striving reader story?

Check out #FromStrivingToThriving on Twitter, or see the highlights in the recap, below! To learn more about working with striving readers, don’t miss the authors' new book From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Confident, Capable Readersavailable here:

How Principals Can Foster Independent Reading

To foster an environment of independent reading in a school, you have to love reading. I do. But it was not always that way.

As a child, I was an expert at avoiding reading. Every trick—from pretending to read a book to finding summaries of books—I was versed in them all. I was fortunate to have parents who supported and encouraged me to grow as a reader, and the encouragement worked. But the question to ask is, what about students who do not have families or teachers supporting their growth as readers? Many never develop a personal reading life. I have learned that in my school I can foster and create an environment to support independent reading. Knowing the avoidance tricks has guided my collaborations with staff, and helped me communicate what needs to be in place in a school to get everyone on board with independent reading.

As an adult, my personal and professional reading lives have sustained my desire to continually learn and to read for pleasure. I value the fact that I can choose what to read, reread passages that speak to me, and talk about books and articles to friends and colleagues. To foster an independent reading culture, the principal must help teachers feel comfortable setting aside time for independent reading at school. Also, the principal must model how much he or she values reading by enlarging classroom libraries and making the school library an inviting place with comfortable spaces for students to read.

Research supports the benefit of independent reading, and it remains important for educators to make decisions consistent with research and best practice. Through reading, students enlarge background knowledge and vocabulary. But more important, students derive pleasure from their reading—pleasure in entering and living life in different worlds and cultures, as well as in stepping into a character’s life. The pleasure students experience is obvious when I visit a class and observe independent reading. However, I often wonder if schools are embracing independent reading and making it an integral part of their school’s culture.

Along with my belief in research, I also believe in good old-fashioned common sense. To develop skill and expertise at anything in life, you need to practice. Any sport from golf to basketball requires purposeful practice, and purposeful practice improves performance. If students want to become better readers, it makes sense for purposeful practice to be part of the improvement equation. A combination of independent reading and well-planned, differentiated instructional reading can improve reading skills. Being an excellent reader and writer are necessary for college and career readiness. Also, it’s important to remember students reading below grade level need to read more than their peers who are proficient and advanced readers.  

I am a champion of independent reading. Are you? I believe the principal sets the tone through clearly communicated expectations and words of inspiration. Below are six ways a principal can encourage, promote, and foster independent reading for all, staff included!

  1. Do a spot check, if you are new to a school. Are all staff encouraging independent reading? Is it being communicated to students? Are students reading independently in school?

  2. Communicate the value of reading independently. I have known staff feel they might get in trouble with administration if students are reading independently.

  3. Invest in classroom libraries and your school library. Where we put our money communicates what we value. If we value books and reading, money from the school budget needs to be spent on enlarging classroom libraries and adding books to schools’ central libraries.

  4. Have students self-select books for independent reading.  Do students have opportunities to “practice” the strategies and skills they’ve rehearsed during instructional reading and apply them to materials on their own?  Self-selecting books gives students control of what they read which in turn develops self-confidence, literary taste, and a desire to repeat the enjoyable experience.

  5. Make sure independent reading is enjoyable! I have known staff new to my school shy away from promoting independent reading because they don’t know how to hold kids accountable. Some think I might view independent reading as a poor use of class time. Neither is correct.

  6. Model independent reading! Teachers who read in front of students send this powerful message to their students: as an adult, I place such a high value on reading that I read aloud to you every day.

Is your school making a concerted effort to promote independent reading?  I challenge you to work with your team to create a culture where all the students in your school are always carrying an independent reading book! By encouraging kids to read accessible books on topics they love and want to know more about, you develop their motivation to read.

Independent reading should take place in school and out of school. I suggest thirty minutes of independent reading a night, and that should be their main language arts homework assignment. During the school week, try to set aside two days a week for students to complete independent reading at school. Reading in a classroom is valuable because it builds students’ stamina, ability to concentrate and get lost in a book. The principal needs to communicate this!

Please remember: if staff focuses on how to hold students accountable for reading or how to punish students who do not read, your efforts will fail. Find different, creative, and motivating ways to increase reading. You can have students present a brief, monthly book talk and enter completed books on a reading log. If your staff is stuck in fixed mindsets of accountability for independent reading, work with them to find more positive solutions such vlogs, blogs, book trailers, or book talks.

I am asking for a commitment to reading. As a school leader, department chair, or classroom teacher, what you value, communicate, and prioritize is like a cold: catching. My challenge and the challenge facing all principals is to make sure students experience independent reading of self-selected books at school and home!

This post is part of an ongoing series on independent reading. Read more:

Libraries as Learning Centers: Changing the Culture of Your Library

Alisha Wilson of Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, Florida was named Maker Hero by School Library Journal and Scholastic in the 2017 School Librarian of the Year Awards. Below, she shares how she changed the culture of her library.

“But I thought you loved teaching,” whined Macy.

“I do,” I said.

“Then why are you not going to do it anymore? I wanted to be a teacher because of you.”

“Librarians are lame, Mrs. Wilson,” another student added.

The responses of my students on the day I announced that next year I would take over our school library really stung! They stung because as someone who spent her entire life wanting to be a teacher—an English teacher at that— I was conflicted. But the truth is that teaching isn’t what I really love. It’s learning. I love watching learning occur, seeing my students be creative and discover something new. I love watching students devour information, ask questions, come up with new ideas, think about the tough questions, and fall in love with a character in a book.

It was this realization of the importance of establishing a love for learning that prompted me to strive for a culture of creative inquiry in my library, and to use my students’ comments as catalysts for change when I became the school librarian in 2015. The changes we made increased our student visits from 9,000 to almost 24,000 in the first year. We started a Spark Lab, Creation Station, and a Writing Lab. We also began offering regular activities and events throughout the year. It definitely did not happen overnight, and required not only my own hard work, but also that of my army of students who agreed to help me make our library less “lame.” 

Gaining teacher and student buy-in

Having your student body and teachers on board with the changes to your library is crucial to running a successful program and changing the dynamic of your space. Below are a few things I did that helped me get started in meeting the needs of my students and teachers. 

Assess your school's needs

Take a poll. Ask your students and teachers what they would change, or what services would be helpful to have available. For me, this assessment was easy because I had been a teacher in my school for four years before becoming the librarian, so I simply had to brainstorm what resources would have helped me as a classroom teacher and what resources would help my students.

For example, I once had a student ask to borrow scissors and paper to take home after I assigned a creative Greek mythology project. This experience was eye-opening because I discovered that many of the students in my school do not have the resources they need at home. This realization prompted me to start a Spark Lab in my library, a resource room full of supplies donated from the community that students could use for projects. This initiative has since expanded to include circuity, robotics, 3D printing, and more, but it began as a room full of yarn, glue, googly eyes, stamps, paper, a sewing machine, and so forth. 

Libraries as learning centers

A great way to get your students and teachers excited about your space is to host learning events that correspond with what students are learning in their classrooms. For example, if all of your English teachers teach Shakespeare the last nine weeks, recruit your library assistants to help you host a Shakespeare Festival with a plethora of crafts, games, activities, and demos for students to participate in, and invite the English classes to come. Even better, have a few English classes come up with stations and run them for students in lower grade levels. My assistants and I collaborated most recently with our AP English teachers to host an event for the national #whyiwrite day with this exact format, and quickly decided it will be an annual event in our library because of the enthusiasm for learning it generated.

If students are studying roller coaster physics in science, have students build roller coasters using foam and marbles on your book shelves, or set out a K’Nex roller coaster kit, or host an hour of code event and invite teachers to bring their classes. You will never see more engagement in your library than when you make learning opportunities available that are engaging and exciting for students and teachers.

Even though hosting an event may sound like a daunting task and a lot of work, remember a few things:

  1. Start with your strengths. There is a reason I first hosted a Shakespeare Festival instead of a Pi Day event because English is my background and definitely my comfort zone. I was also most comfortable talking to the English teachers, so it made it a great first event to try. 

  2. Form connections with teachers in other departments. Send out slips or a survey and ask them to list upcoming units. 

  3. Give students ownership of the event. Have them brainstorm the activities and run the stations.

My students’ negative attitude toward our school library let me know a culture shift was a necessity for our school. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if this next generation views a place full of resources, books, and incredible stories as “lame” then we have to make some changes that get students to take charge of their learning. What better place to start this change than the library! 

The Five Most-Read Posts of 2017

Below are the five most-read posts of 2017:

5. Empower Students through Independent Reading Nicole Bosworth

4. Riveting Read-Alouds (How and Why to Read Aloud with Older Students)  Janet Allen

3. Independent reading: nurturing students’ personal reading lives Laura Robb

2. Three Reasons School Librarians Should Use Twitter Todd Burleson

...and the top post of the last year:

1. What is guided reading? James Cannon


Roundup: Four Big Education Stories in 2017

2017 is nearly a wrap—below are four big topics in education from the past twelve months, and stories about each that caught our eye.

Media Literacy and Civics Education

Media literacy has been a huge news story in 2017, including in education reporting. In many schools, educators are working to ensure that students have the critical thinking skills necessary to discern fake news from real news. There has also been a renewed focus on civics education, focusing on not only the mechanics of our  government, but what it means to be a citizen and member of a community. 

Alia Wong wrote an incisive take on these issues for EWA; On Education Dive, Shalina Chatlani explored the urgency around civics ed, including the fact that to be effective, it must be engaging; Ed Dive also named media literacy their "obsession of the year."

Poverty in Schools

The Hechinger Report looked at poverty in schools through the lens of early childhood education. First, Jill Barshay looked at research exploring the "multi-generational effect" of Head Start, meaning whether "the offspring of preschooled children are living significantly better young-adult lives than the offspring of non-preschooled children." 

And Jackie Mader shared strategies from a Mississippi elementary school that is one of the highest-performing schools in the state. They attribute their success to supporting early literacy

Students Experiencing Trauma

Every day, students experience significant barriers to learning such as poverty and other trauma. This year the US experienced severe natural and other disasters, and schools were compelled to adapt and respond, and continue to support students. 

In The New York Times, Elizabeth Harris looked at the longterm impact  of homelessness on children's achievement in school, even after they are no longer homeless. 

Some schools were forced to grapple with whether and when to open in the aftermath of violence in the community. In The Atlantic, Alia Wong wrote about Clark County's decision to open schools after the Las Vegas shooting.

The New York Times also reported on how in Puerto Rico, schools opened after Hurricane Maria, making do without power. Lizette Alvarez writes, "The resumption of classes at the school on Tuesday was a joyous, achingly needed milestone on the plodding path back to normality in Puerto Rico’s newest era: After Maria."

And of course, the two hurricanes that tore through Florida and Texas had a detrimental impact on attendance, according to USA Today. One in six children in the US missed school due to the storms. 

NPR looked at attendance in terms of mental health: "Doctors say it should be treated with flexibility and therapy - not punishment."

ESSA Implementation & Measuring School Success

Speaking of attendance, states have been submitting their ESSA plans to the DOE this year, and addressing absenteeism has become an important measure for school success. Ed Week's Politics K-12 blog looks at the place of chronic absenteeism in how states are "looking beyond test scores."

Finally, this fascinating New York Times article explores ways of measuring school success based on metrics other than test scores (based on the important research by Sean Reardon of Stanford): "Educators have long debated whether it’s better to evaluate students and schools on proficiency levels or growth rates. Mr. Reardon’s data makes possible a national database of both." 





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