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Just Pick Anything

By Julie Scullen
 | Oct 11, 2018
Just Pick Anything

“Just pick anything, it doesn't matter.”

I was standing in the stacks of the middle school library, filling a cart with books I would share with students throughout the day during book talks. I had been granted the tremendous honor of sharing the books I love with students. As always, it felt as though I was pulling my friends from these shelves. I pulled some old favorites, some graphic novels, some adventures, some classics, some mysteries, some books with great opening lines, and some with surprise endings. I even singled out books representing the first in a series in order to provide students with an opportunity to continue adventures with familiar characters and settings.

As I stood, I heard a conversation between two students in the next aisle.

“Hey, are there any good books in here?”

“Where, here? I don’t know. I guess.”

“We’ve already been here too long, she’s going to be mad when we go back.”

“Yeah, right. Just pick anything, it doesn’t matter.”

I stood there, frozen, books in hand, disappointed at being powerless to make things different. I wanted to run after these two boys and haul them back to the stacks. Instead, I considered what I could learn from their conversation.

These dormant readers were standing in front of shelves at least six feet high and 15 feet long, full of books carefully chosen for them, but they were staring blankly at book spines. Lost. They didn’t think it mattered.

I wondered to myself: What if? What if something simple could prevent this scenario from happening tomorrow or in the next hour? What could we do to stop students from declaring in frustration, “Just pick anything, it doesn’t matter”?

As teachers, we all want our students to have engaging reading material. We all want our students to have a book in their hand and “next book” on their mind. Unfortunately, we also know our ability to inspire readers can become lost in the push for coverage and the constant battle for instructional time.

This was still on my mind when I heard the amazing Cornelius Minor speak to a group of literacy leaders at a Leadership in Reading Network event. He challenged every educator in the room to find small ways to experiment within classrooms and find evidence to grow an idea. His call to action was reasonable: Make a small change and try it for five days. Just five days. Five days is brief enough to be manageable, but long enough to see incremental results.

Here is a potential five-day challenge. Each class day, for one week, do one of these two things:

  • Pull a book off the classroom or school library shelf (a lack of classroom libraries is a column for another day) and read aloud the back cover and, time permitting, the first few pages to your students. Don’t worry if you haven’t read it beforehand. Don’t turn this into a lesson or make it a teachable moment. Don’t oversell it. Don’t spend a great deal of time contemplating who might like this book. Just share it. Then leave that book on the ledge in the front of the room and begin class. If it disappears or is checked out, pat yourself on the back and offer up another book the next hour.
  • Set a timer for three minutes. Student may use that three minutes to talk to their peers about a text they are currently reading, or one they have read and enjoyed in the past. Don’t grade these discussions. Don’t critique their choices. Don’t insist on a particular format. Just let them talk. Start or end class this way, or perhaps use this time as a brain break in the middle of a long lesson.

That’s it.

If those five days go well, have students start a list on a sheet of paper, a designated place in their notebook, or even an index card. Ask them to write down books and authors they might like to read, because what they want to read matters. Then invite students to add what has been shared with them to their list. Remind them to bring the list on their next visit to the library.

As a teacher, you don’t have to be a voracious reader of children’s literature to make it work. You don’t need to give up a great deal of class time. I’m speculating even three minutes a day will make a difference.

As teachers, we have incredible power to inspire. We have the power to show students their reading choices matter. Five days may be the beginning of a new classroom habit. In any case, in those five days, someone in each classroom will be inspired to read something new. And that matters.

Julie Scullen, an ILA member since 2005, is a teaching and learning specialist for secondary reading in Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.

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