Building a Reading Community with Staff Meeting Book Talks

It is well documented that community is a critical component in raising student achievement. In an age where many educators have been seduced by test prep in all its shiny forms and thus teaching to standards, community is given little regard as valuable.

At its heart, my role is one of instructional leadership and with that comes a fair amount of responsibility to data and student achievement. Rest assured this is not a post about test scores. But I am going to talk about them a bit. You may even be wondering how this discussion has a place on a blog about classroom communities. Quite simply, if we have any hope of raising reading achievement, we have to get kids to actually like reading. And if we want kids to be engaged in reading, we need adults willing to do the same.

My story is simple and, sadly, not uncommon. I work in a large high-poverty, high-mobility elementary school. Only a few short years ago, we were in danger of losing state accreditation. We needed to make some changes and we needed to make them fast. We implemented new reading curriculum that had a heavy focus on independent daily reading, conferencing and facilitative talk. We also stocked classroom libraries and gave teachers complete ownership in title selection. Essentially we were asking kids to build relationships around the work. But were teachers doing the same? The answer was no. If we wanted to get kids engaged, the adults needed to be doing more talking. A great way to accomplish this was through book talks. The best access to a large group of teachers was a staff meeting.

In the fall of 2015 the inaugural Staff Meeting Book Talks were launched. Within a few months something powerful happened. Teachers were talking about books…everywhere! This provided a cocoon of trust that led to deeper discussions about such brave topics as reading levels, student choice, facilitative talk in conferences and books that were genre-bending. This was all a catalyst that grew a community that forever transformed our school.

It all sounds very romantic. But what about those test scores? In one year, we gained more than 40 percentage points of growth and were no longer in danger of losing state accreditation. We didn’t need fancy test prep. We just needed each other.  

Start your own Staff Meeting Book Talks in 4 easy steps:

  1. Take a chance. Ask your administrator(s) for 10 minutes at every staff meeting.
  2. Pave the way. Be the first brave soul to do a book talk.
  3. Recruit volunteers. But don’t get discouraged if you are the only one book talking for the first few months.
  4. Read aloud a picture book at every meeting. There’s something so magical about coming together over the shared experience of a read aloud.

We’ve shared some great books that focus on community, some books that have strengthened our community and some that were just plain fascinating. Below are some staff favorites:

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, Illustrated by Christian Robinson-This was the book that started it all. It had such a profound impact on our teachers and opened the door to great conversations about community, identity and bias. Our principal bought a copy for every teacher.

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Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon-The child-like illustrations coupled with the very realistic problem Ralph faces with his writer’s block made this a crowd favorite and the book traveled around our school for months. So many writing conversations and coaching moments with students stemmed from this read aloud.

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Whoosh! by Chris Barton, Illustrated by Don Tate-This little known story about Lonnie Johnson and the invention of the Super Soaker was so popular….it disappeared from my bookshelf after sharing at a staff meeting.

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The Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlow Miller, Illustrated by Frank Morrison-This was the first book I loaned out after book talking that was returned with an artifact. A pink sticky note scrawled with a beloved quote about friendship. I taped it to the endpapers as a reminder of the connections we can make with one simple story.

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Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm, Illustrated by Matthew Holm-A poignant, sensitive book talk given by our assistant principal put the graphic novel format into the limelight while simultaneously weaving in familial relationships and the effects of substance abuse. This talk launched some courageous discussion about graphic novels.

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Who Would Win? series by Jerry Pallotta, Illustrated by Rob Bolster-Fascinating format! Epic battle scenes! Zany facts! This series can sell itself. Why even include in a favorites list? These are the first books our principal was brave enough to book talk and hold a special place in our hearts.

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Explorers of the Wild by Cale Atkinson-If ever there was a book celebrating community and tackling new territory….this is it. Exquisite illustrations accompany this story with the heartfelt message that nothing is too big to conquer when you have someone by your side. I had the fortunate opportunity to talk with Cale Atkinson at an author dinner and had him personalize a copy of this book for our teachers. I dedicated it to them last year during a staff meeting and sent them this image.
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