Christine Poser is the school librarian at I.S. 24 on Staten Island, but she jokes that she’s just as suited for a career as a used car salesman.
“I always tell the kids, ‘I work for you,’” she said. “If you’re not walking out of the library with a book you love, I didn’t do my job.” To get her students excited about the books she has to offer, she “markets” them, creating carefully arranged displays of books she thinks the kids will love, like in a bookstore. She also selects a new “Book of the Month” to receive special promotion. Those picks end up flying off the shelves faster than she can stock them.
Ms. Poser is able to “sell” so many books because of how well she gets to know her students. “I have books on Minecraft, soccer, puppies, the Yankees, zombies, anything I see our kids are interested in,” she said. “I call these ‘gateway’ books. Every kid has things they like. If you can tap into that and get them excited about reading a book, any book, they’ll develop that reading muscle that is truly a life skill.”
Norene Johnson, a seventh grade ELA teacher at Success Academy Bed-Stuy Middle School, employs a similar strategy — listening for any little clue as to what will get catch her middle schoolers’ attention. “I take time, especially at the beginning of the year, to just observe kids and talk to them and figure out what they’re interested in,” she said. “I notice what books they pick out for independent reading, and how they react when their classmates describe the books they’re into.”
Now and then, she meets a particular reluctant reader — at which point no strategy is off the table. “I had one scholar in my class for three years — none of the typical stuff worked for him. It was like he was determined not to fall for reading.” So Ms. Johnson stacked the deck. “I knew I needed a book he’d find irresistible, as hard as he might try.”
So she scoured her shelves for a book with characters and plotlines she suspected might resonate with her scholar, and landed on Jason Reynolds’ novel in verse Long Way Down. She then announced that book as the next whole class novel.
“I honestly saw his body language change before I’d even finished introducing it. It felt so good. He loved that book. He’s a reader now. He always will be.”
This year, Ms. Johnson told her new batch of seventh graders the story of the once-reluctant reader. They nearly revolted to move Long Way Down to the top of the syllabus. And when her formerly reluctant reader came back to visit Ms. Johnson and saw the class reading his favorite novel, he asked if he could borrow a copy for a re-read.
Across boroughs and roles, both Ms. Johnson and Ms. Poser share a determination to carve out “love of reading” as a stand-alone educational priority — one that is just as important as things like phonetic understanding, main idea, and vocabulary.
“Kids need to be introduced to high-quality books with beautiful illustrations, eloquent writing, and complex and resonant ideas and themes,” said Stacey Gershkovich, Master Principal at the Robertson Center. She explained that when kids get exposed to new ideas that make them think and allow them to see connections to their own lives, their excitement for learning skyrockets. “We can’t skip this part,” she said.
For Ms. Poser, that means ensuring that the library is a place where — along with finding great books — students can come as they are.
“Reading is this tremendous equalizer for kids,” said Ms. Poser. “So much of their daily lives puts them in boxes — social groupings, after school activities, academic tracks. But when they’re just sitting, talking about a book, they’re all equally qualified. You basically watch them start to realize how much their voices and perspectives matter. We now offer book clubs at lunch time. Twenty kids at a time coming in to talk about books — no assignments, no credit — just to pull out what resonates with them and share it with their classmates, and hear their classmates’ perspectives.”
“The library really is the heartbeat of the school,” she said. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
For more information on building a culture of reading, check out the “Falling in Love with Reading” resources on the Ed Institute. And join us for a discussion on 11/19 on The Radical Power of Books: How to Use Diverse, Engaging Stories to Set Students Free.