Why I Heart Donalyn Miller

Over winter break, I read Donalyn Miller’s second book Reading in the Wild and I was struck again by how she articulates what I and many of my fellow teachers feel but have never said.  Those thoughts at the edge of your brain that you just can’t quite grasp?  She not only grasps them, she figures out how to do them with real kids and then she writes books that tell you how to do them with your real kids, too.  How cool is that?

The Book Whisperer changed my teaching life, as it has millions of other teachers as well.  Suddenly, what we had always thought might work, that kids should be able to pick their own books, like real readers do, was in a BOOK!  Not only that but people, important decision making people were taking notice. Now, we hear self selected books and say, ‘Of course – duh!’ but when the book first came out self-selected reading was NOT what was happening at any school I taught nor in any of the schools my own children attended.

I read The Book Whisperer  over the summer in 2009 while helping with the National Writing Project Summer Institute.  It went through that group of teachers like a whirlwind. Each day we’d come in saying, “Did you read about the____?” and “I LOVED when she said _____________”. That summer resounded with ‘Amen, Sister!’ directed at Donalyn Miller, this wonderful teacher and author who was giving us permission to do what we really wanted – fill our students with the joy and magic of reading.  We were all inspired to head back to our classrooms in the fall, ready to rock the literacy world. We could not wait for school to start!

In the years since, my respect for Donalyn (I can call her that because I introduced her at a conference and she told me I could.:) has grown in direct proportion to the results I have seen with my students.   She gave me permission to do what I knew was the right thing for kids.  If someone questioned me, I could point to her book on my shelf and say, ‘Read that and you will understand that this is the way we should have been teaching reading all along.’ Many of my administrators did read it and became champions of it, too.

Through the years, most of my kids became real readers because of what I learned from her book.  My kids knew what it meant to be in the ‘Zone” (lost in a book and the world falls away).  They rejoiced at the end of every quarter when we had days where we celebrated by reading – only reading – for the language arts block.  Their totals for books read climbed ever higher, far surpassing any totals PBW (pre Book Whisperer). They knew how to intelligently discuss their favorite books as well as why they liked them. They became experts at recommending books to each other and even started a ‘Leave a book, take a book’ swap in our classroom to increase circulation.

Now comes Reading in the Wild, just when I needed it.  This nagging thought had occurred to me sporadically over the years when I’d see my former students in the hallway.

 “What are you reading?” (to the student who read 84 books the previous year)

“Oh, nothing really, not for fun, we have Literature Circles and we get assigned our books.”

 “Well what about outside of school? What are you reading at home?”

“I don’t really read at home that much.”  

My heart sinking, I would wonder what happened – how could you be a real reader one year and let that passion go?  It didn’t make sense to me but I told myself that I couldn’t control what happened after my kids moved on.  I could only do what I could do…yadda, yadda, yadda.

Guess who already thought about this problem?  Guess who wrestled and studied and worked to find an answer?  Guess who wrote a book (with contributor Susan Kelley) to help all of us?  That’s right – our very own Donalyn Miller.  She tried to codify what it means to be a real lifetime reader.  How do they act?  What do they do?  What are their habits?  And most importantly, what can we, as their teachers, do to instill these habits for a lifetime, not just a school year?

Here are three of my favorites:

1. If you suspect one of your students is ‘fake reading’ (and come one, we all have at least one of those in every class) there is a form in Reading in the Wild that you can use to observe said student for 10 minutes.  When all the boxes show ‘staring off into space’ instead of ‘in the zone’ you have real data to use when conferring. ( The first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem…) My co-teacher and I have these forms copied and ready for Block 5 tomorrow. 🙂

2.  Like most teachers, I teach a mix of Honors, Academic, and Team Taught classes.  Most of my true Honors kids would read even if I told them not to.  They are already addicted.  Many of them are perfectionists, however. (It takes one to know one, I know…) When I assign reading 30 minutes for homework, they find half an hour (or more) of time, sit down, and read.  Donalyn tells them (and me) that ,’Hey – we lead busy lives – it doesn’t have to be 30 minutes all at once!  If you always have a book with you, you can read while waiting for your little brother to get done with soccer practice, or while your Dad runs into the drugstore, or your bus is stopped in traffic’.  She created a nifty little form, The Reading Itinerary, where the kids track, for a week, where and how long they read.  This seems to me to have double benefits – my Honors perfectionists can relax a little and give themselves permission to read in smaller increments and my reluctant readers can have a multitude of places where reading can actually take place.  My B Day kids get theirs tomorrow.  They will keep track for a week and we’ll regroup.  I fully expect some revelations when we do.

3. I struggle with meeting with all of my kids during reading time.  I try, I really do.  I make charts and create new conferring sheets, and schedule it out so I get to talk to everyone in two weeks.  It never, ever, ever, works.  Most of it is my fault because they’ll tell me something interesting about their book and then I think of a book it reminds me of and then we’re off and chatting away like I only have one kiddo to talk to…but I don’t.  Well, Donalyn does table conferences.  She sits down with a team of kids and talks to all of them at once.  (Yes, she has a nifty form for this, too.)They get to hear each other (you know they listen in to the one on one conferences anyway) and make recommendations, and discuss genres, and write books on their ‘Someday’ lists and you can do 4 people at once! I’m telling you, this woman is a genius.

Well, I could go on and on about why I heart Donalyn Miller.  I just hope she knows how much she has meant to the teaching profession.  I hope she knows that she has really made a difference in the lives of children.  I hope she knows I am a better teacher for having read and embraced her books and that I am not alone.

I hope she sells billions and billions of books:




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