What makes the pages turn?

To anyone who’s ever escaped into a book, it shouldn’t be surprising. Give kids the choice, and they’ll escape, too–into whatever worlds hold most appeal.

And if that means vampires or romance, sports or spies, there’s a book to satisfy that hunger piled in some brightly colored bin here in this NYC school where virtually every student is now an avid, and critical, reader.

The four in this video didn’t come into middle school as good readers. That’s pretty typical of the 550 very diverse students in grades 6 through 12 at East Side Community School, a completely unscreened public school in lower Manhattan.

But just listen to what these kids say about how their school changed all that. Mark Federman, its principal, decided early on that this school would be all about reading. And starting with the Principal’s Book Club (it’s packed with kids), every single adult in the school has found ways to make that happen.

Now students here are reading all the time–it’s just not cool if you don’t. And as they grow into young adults, they are poring over authors from Art Spiegelman and Louise Erdrich to James Baldwin and August Wilson.

It’s really too bad you can only hear a few minutes of what they say here, because they would talk about books into the night with you. But leave a comment after you listen . . . I promise, they’ll read what you say!

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7 thoughts on “What makes the pages turn?

  1. Giving a kid the lifelong desire to read is the best gift you could ever give. I was lucky–I started crawling into books when I was in elementary school, and I haven’t stopped yet. So, I understand fully the way these students describe their reading experiences.

    One reason I was an English teacher for 32 years was that I wanted to get my student excited about books and talking about books. It was a good career–I never wished I was somewhere else. Every time I taught a book, I read it again. I hoped The Great Gatsby would end differently at least 35 times. Now, I teach teachers how to change their practice–and we talk about how to get kids into reading.

    What a great principal the students in the video have. I know he has changed their lives forever.

  2. The passion of these young people is so inspiring!

    I was particularly struck by what one of the students said at the beginning of the clip about how he (and presumably other students) felt about reading: that it was just something that adults made them do to keep them busy. That reminded me of something you say in the book, Kathleen, about the fact that, “deliberate practice is not the same as rote repetition” and that “unless [students] cared about what they were repeating and why, students said, they were ‘doing it just to do it’–not to learn.”

    This is something I’m concerned about in my own teaching. On the one hand, I expect my students to come to class engaged and ready to work. On the other hand, as your book makes so clear, I can’t do that if the work I’m asking students to do is not meaningful and engaging. I’m constantly trying to think of ways to hook kids and get them interested in my content area (Spanish).

    One thing one of the students said in this video that really resonated with me was that she started reading books that she loved and from there developed the confidence that she could read other, perhaps more challenging things as well.

    In that vein, I have started asking my students to write about their families, childhoods–about their lives, which has really seemed to engage them. I hope that by doing this, they will begin to trust that they can express other ideas in Spanish, too, and will accept the challenge to write about other topics and read other things. Fires in the Mind–and the students in this video–have given me ways to think about how to lead and inspire my students to master Spanish.

  3. Hi Kathleen,

    I had similar reactions to the students in the video while reading your book — a very interesting and relevant read! As a student-teacher, I’ve been striving to develop a culture of motivation and mastery within my (borrowed) classroom, with mixed results.

    This post was especially germane because as a history teacher, my students’ ability to read primary and secondary sources is necessary to more deeply engage in the subject. I come from a teaching philosophy that encourages students to be more active agents in their own learning, but a low reading proficiency really deprives them of that opportunity. Hearing about students that have grown from struggling readers into fervent readers gives me hope.

    While considering how I can reproduce the same results in my classroom, I’m caught negotiating two particular and valid points:

    1. Students’ ability to choose their reading increased their interest and made them more likely to stick with their reading. However, it seems like students also don’t like to be forced to read, or else they write it off as busywork.

    2. Reading, especially in the context of a history class, is deliberate practice. Students read not only to learn about the content, but also to develop their ability to look at history — and the world, by extension — with a critical mind.

    The dilemma is, the deliberateness of reading history often does not allow for choice. For example, if we need to read “The Prince” by Machiavelli or Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” there are no other options. Also, if students do not have an appropriate reading level for the text, the number of choices decreases still.

    Thankfully, your book offers several approaches that will help me scaffold students while motivating them toward skill and content mastery. “Fires in the Mind” will always be within easy reach!

  4. Hi Kathleen,

    Great site! Your book is very inspiring. When I first picked up Fires in the Mind, I must admit I was skeptical of the authenticity of the articulate, thoughtful quotes from the students included in the book.

    Having finally gotten to the meat and potatoes of my student teaching, I see that the introspective, clear way that students expressed their opinions in your book is very much like what I hear from my sixth-grade science students.

    One thing I definitely notice is the passion that the students have for books- though mostly fiction. I am a very avid reader myself and so it is almost disheartening when I have to ask my students to put their personal books away. No Twilight sagas. No Diary of a Wimpy Kid adventures. No Bluford High novels. It’s time for science. It feels like I am punishing them by teaching them science every time. After all, shouldn’t I be grateful they are reading?

    The challenge I am running into is the need to give my students the time to read relevant science content that also engages their imaginations. A lot of science literature is very dry and ambiguous. I want them to get excited about science. I want them to see the connection to- and how deeply that science is embedded in- their lives. It’s funny that in the clip you provided there is the Toni Morrison quote, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I think I am seriously contemplating writing science content in a fictional setting. I want to clarify that I do not want to write what is known as science fiction. I want it to be as realistic as possible, simultaneously providing relevant scientific content wrapped in a plausible, but imaginative story. I wonder if that kind of fiction exists and if I have just not discovered yet.

    In the meantime, I will be firm in my efforts to stop the students reading during my class. While it is counter-intuitive for me, it is necessary for them to process science concepts.

    Again, great, thought-provoking book!

    -GJ

  5. Hmmm. I’m thinking of books that stimulated my own scientific imagination as a 6th grader–I think they were not so much didactic in their intent, but books that evoked “why is that?” questions–like the Madeleine L’Engle books, or “Flatland” . . . I wonder if you could actually ask them to write some stories themselves — maybe in small groups — where the story centers on the “why” of whatever it is you’re studying in your unit. Maybe even let them do it in comic-book style? Then they could critique each other’s work based on the background knowledge that you’re teaching them in class–along the lines of “is this book plausible from a scientist’s point of view?”

    I guess you’d have to think about the “essential questions” to pose that get to the heart of the concepts . . . along the lines of “why do the seasons change?” perhaps. What do you think? Meanwhile, I will ask some other middle school teachers what books they might recommend.

  6. Hi Kathleen!

    Thanks for your reply! You just took me back when I looked up L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle In Time.” And now I am interested in reading Flatland. It sounds good.

    I think having them write a book- comic or narrative- is a great idea. I will be taking over teaching full time in April and I’ll be teaching the Life Science Unit. This would be a great time to get them writing and illustrating.

    Anticipating your recommendations!

    GJ

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