I’ve begun to realize that the blessings of being raised in Buffalo, Wyoming are manifold. Not only do I live mere minutes from the beautiful Big Horn mountains in a small community with incredible resources for its size, but I also benefited from the school district and a quality of instruction that previously I was unaware of. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of imperfect teachers and silly assignments in my 13 years of school. I encountered a sufficient amount of pointless quizzes and endured many mind numbing busy work activities. But, overall, many of the points raised in Donalyn Miller’s “The Book Whisperer” weren’t entirely new or unimaginable to me because they were used by many of my middle school and high school English teachers.
The vast majority of my English teachers gave us daily reading and writing time and the bulk of those teachers participated in the reading and writing time alongside us. From the perspective of a student, I can attest to the power that this truly had on me. As a future teacher, I understand the magnitude that daily reading and writing time has on a student’s overall learning and academic improvement and have long ago decided to make the incorporation of the two a daily classroom ritual. I recognized this sentiment as the overarching theme in “The Book Whisperer.” This theme, which I’ve witnessed as a former k-12 student and heard testimony to in at least a half dozen of my education-related classes, was accompanied by advice. I understand the importance of reading and writing, but I’ve also seen the pushback students can give to it. So, it’s pure relief to read about strategies used by teachers who have successfully gotten once hesitant readers and writers (or perhaps even non-readers/writers) to become enraptured by reading and writing.
Perhaps my favorite technique that Miller wrote about was using letters in her classroom. When a student is finished with a book, Miller expects the student to write her a letter about it. She responds with her own letter asking the student more questions about the book, suggests other books that the student may enjoy, and gives her own feedback about the book. I absolutely love this idea because it serves so many purposes and also sounds like a lot of fun. Not only does Miller have her students writing – and about books, no less! – but she also is performing a formative assessment, gauging what kind of reader the student is, and making a personal connection with each of her students. Incorporating all of these elements into a quick assignment shows Miller’s ingenuity, to say the least.
Another way that Miller assesses student reading and covertly entices students to read is through the book review. She writes, “While I might choose a book because Publishers Weekly has starred it, my students are more likely to pick a book that Riley or Eric recommended.” If you think back to your adolescent days, I’m sure this will ring a bell. I can list at least three books right off of the top of my head that I read in middle school solely because people I socially admired in my 7th or 8th grade classes read them. *Side note: Interestingly, Miller dissuades from Book Talks. She claims that students view them as book reports and give too much detail to try to prove that they read the book and that the talks take too much class time. (However, she gives an alternative of Book Commercials which I thought of as very similar to our book talks.)
One last technique that Miller constantly used was building and maintaining positive relationships with her students. In the book, she gave many examples of times when a student wasn’t a fan of reading, but the fact that she showed interest in them helped them become one. Because Miller has read so many YA books, she easily can have a short conversation with a student and then give them book suggestions based on what they have said. She wrote that she often will put a stack of books on her students’ desks with a note that says something like, ‘I think you will like these.’ As a student, I know what a powerful message this would give to me. She also gave an example of a time when students in the back of her class were chatting during reading time and she hushed them, barking an order to get back to reading. But after she did this, she realized that it would be far better to go back to the students and see what they were talking about. Sure enough, the next time this happened, the students were actually talking about literature and she joined in on the conversation. The result was beautiful. Students around the room were joining in and suggesting new books to one another. Just a small literary spark lit the whole class on fire.
Throughout the book I learned so much, and a lot of ideas that have been presented to me in education classes were reinforced with actual student success stories. I would highly recommend this book to anyone hoping to enter or already in the field of education and especially those teaching English and reading. Reading “The Book Whisperer” made me even more excited about having my own classroom someday. It’s an excellent read with wonderful insight.