“Talk is the sea upon which all else floats.” James Britton, Language and Learning, 1970.
Most of the time, the act of reading is solitary and quiet. I crave days in which I can carve uninterrupted chunks of time with a book. Sadly, this doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. My reading life, especially during the school year is short bursts of intensely focused time mixed in with longer stretches of time with multiple things getting in the way.
However, I have come to understand that even if every day of my life had a few hours built in for me to read the way I want to read, I might not be involved in a community of readers. So, my typical 20-30 minutes of quiet reading time before school each day is enough for me, because several times each day I live within a community of readers. As Britton suggests, my life as a reader is enriched because of the sea of talk that opens and closes my reading workshop time, the sea of ‘talk’ that invades my social media feeds and the sea of talk about books that occurs in my home several times a week.
Over the past 20 years, I have dedicated most of my professional development time to learning how to help my students become better readers and writers. My mentors from afar and near include some of the smartest literacy people on the planet. My professional bookshelf looks like the who’s who of NCTE and the ILA. I have learned how to assess, plan, instruct, design classroom libraries, give book talks, be an advocate for choice, and so much more.
But, about 5 years ago I shifted from an over-planned reading instructor to one who decided the biggest impact I might be able to make is commit to using the power of talk to build a reading community. My over-planning was getting in the way of kids becoming a vibrant member of a community that reads for itself, not what others think we should read. By the end of the year, my goal is to help my readers not only feel confident in their personal reading identity, but have a sense for how to help each other become more confident.
This shift to a more authentic reading community happened about the time I was catching myself bending the truth about my own reading. I would share things like, “I read for 40 minutes last night,” when maybe I only read for 30. I would say, “I loved _______________,” when maybe I only tolerated it. I would say, “I haven’t got to book three in the _______________ series because I have too many other books to read,” when it was probably because after book two I thought there was no way I could live with these characters in my brain for any more time.
The most valuable part of our readers’ workshop may be the time the students get to read. Each day, the only sounds you hear in my room for 20-30 minutes is the turning of a page, a pencil scraping against a notebook, and the very hushed whispers of a reading conference. However, I know the most valuable part of our reading community is the 5 minutes of talk on either side of the independent reading block.
During the five minutes prior to independent reading, we share our reading lives in the past 24 hours, we honestly talk about the books we read and we set goals for reading in the next 24 hours. When this talk is happening a much more honest version of my reading life has emerged. My students know a great deal about me as a reader. My modeling helps them learn about a readerly life and it gives them permission to be honest.
If had a terrible night/week of reading they know it. They know I am frustrated about lack of time or I am stuck finding a book that speaks to me. When I have an excellent night of reading with a book that I can’t put down, they know that as well. They know I am partial to lots of books, but still have difficulty with historical fiction. They know I have friends outside of my school that inspire me to read more and try books I wouldn’t normally try. They also know I recommend books to adults as well as them. I work hard to make sure I am fully transparent during this ‘status of the reading community’ talk.
It may take some time for the kids to become fully transparent. Some will ‘stalk’ for a while and say what they think I want to hear. Some will choose to pass if I ask them to share. But almost inevitably they all end up joining, because they learn that a reading community, like any community accepts and wants to take care of each of its members.
Once everyone is fully invested, our communal knowledge of each other makes it nearly impossible to feel like an outsider. I am only 13 days into helping new reading communities develop, but I have already seen signs with this year’s group of students that are so promising. During our ‘status of the reading community’ meetings I have heard personal book recommendations because a student has already learned that another might like the book she is reading. I have seen kids give each other tips like, “read in study hall if you don’t have time to read at home tonight’ and ‘I read in the morning while I eat breakfast because it helps me want to read more once I get to reading workshop.’
During our conversation at the end of our independent reading time, the kids in pairs or small groups check in on each others’ goals, try to persuade others to read a book, ask each other questions, and share joyfully about what they read in class. During this time I join a group and model some more. I wholeheartedly take book recommendations and jot down a note or log the book into my Goodreads account. I share what I thought when I read a book being discussed. I share my plans for reading later in the day.
Without all of the low-stress conversations centered on reading, I know my goal to help build a community of readers would be much more difficult. The kids would be missing something that is really great. And selfishly I have learned I would be missing out on being a member, not director of a reading community. So while I know that giving my students time to read books of their choice in school is vital, I have learned that without the sea of talk that ebbs and flows in our room, our community would suffer and our reading lives would be less connected and joyful.