Last year, one of my students told me about ‟open reading” at her previous school. ‟It’s called that,” she said, ‟but there isn’t really any open.” The students all read different books, but the teacher chose the book for each child.
I didn’t know whether to cry or throw things. On the whole, people who love reading have had a chance to choose what they read.
On the other hand, it can be difficult for kids to choose books for themselves.
- Some kids don’t yet know what it feels like to read comfortably at their actual reading level. For these kids, reading is laborious—possibly a labor of love, but inherently so challenging that they choose books for content alone, and often wind up reading, very slowly, books that are too hard. Reading that slowly, a student has trouble carrying the plot, or feeling any momentum in the story–or looking forward to reading.
- Sometimes kids have been caught in a strange trap in which their reading choices have to prove things to adults, or to other kids, or even to themselves: how brilliant they are; how sophisticated they are; how cute or tough they are.
- Sometimes kids become genre addicts, overly dependent on what works for them about a particular genre or author: low memory demand, or a relatively predictable plot pattern, or constant nail-biting suspense.
How could I give kids the opportunity and responsibility to choose, and at the same time help them choose from what was likely to work? How could I help them expand the world of what could work for them? Enter the book stack.
The procedure was very simple. If a student asked me for it, I would choose not one book, but a stack of five books. (Yes, this is another routine involving choosing from five possibilities. I wrote about one for writing in the post Think of Five.)
I liked to have the student stand with me in front of the shelves of the type of book we were after, most typically novels, sometimes picture books or non-fiction. Especially at the beginning of the year, as I was getting to know a student, I’d ask, ‟What have you been reading lately?” Or, ‟Can you point to some books that have worked for you?” Or just ‟Have you already read this?” as I began to pull books from the shelf and hand them to the student.
Affirming the value of a range of reading levels, I tended to include one or two lower-level classics that the student had not yet read and was in danger of never reading. ‟Ah,” I would say, as I handed over Dear Mr. Henshaw or Number the Stars. “One of those books that nobody should grow up without reading.” (‟Oh,” the student might say, if he or she knew me well enough, ‟you say that about everything.”)
Usually, the stack included at least one book that might have special meaning for that student. In the stack above, I’m offering some books in which characters discover new possibilities of self-reliance and courage. For an Asian-American student, for example, I might include at least one book with Asian or Asian-American characters. For a student struggling through a parent divorce or a friend’s parents’ divorce, I might include a book or two in which the hero or heroine faces a similar challenge. So long as the stack included other books, I could be led by my own agenda for the child, usually unspoken, gently offered–but often pursued. Most kids do tend to reach for the books that can help them grow, if the reach is voluntary.
Sometimes a student would ask for a particular category. ‟I want books about World War II and the Holocaust.” ‟I want books about time travel.” Or a student might ask for an exclusion: no talking animals; no books told in the first person; no books with anyone dying.
Sometimes I was very open about a theme for a stack. ‟This stack is all realistic fiction, because we’re doing research to figure out what sorts of realistic fiction will appeal to you as much as fantasy.” ‟These are books that I’m pretty sure you can read easily and quickly, any of them, to help you build fluency.” ‟This is a whole stack of funny books, because we both agree that you’ve been reading really serious stuff lately, and could use a change.”
When we had five (or sometimes six—enough and not too much), the student would go back to his or her table place and examine the books.
In a mini-lesson early in the year we would have helped each other list ways to select a book.
Of course, kids went beyond these strategies, finding their own. In fact, as I watched out of the corner of my eye from across the room, I saw and savored tremendous variation, child to child, that reminded me of watching adult friends play poker.
Student A spread the books out on the table, face down, and then turned them over one by one as she spent time with each book. Student B used a numerical rating system. Student C would start with a pile on the left, and sort into three piles on the right: yes, no, and maybe–and then go back and reconsider. (Frequently, Student C hadn’t made a choice by the end of reading time, and kept the whole stack in his crate overnight.)
Student D knew all along which one he really wanted, and came back 20 seconds after I sent him away. For him, I’d say, ‟Please spend a little more time and really look at all of them, for the sake of next time.”
Student E, after agonizing cheerfully, would copy all the unchosen titles and authors into her reading journal for future reference.
The only way to do it wrong was not to do it at all.
Now and then, a student who hated choosing would propose a variation: the student would make the book stack, and I would choose. That was hard for me.
Some kids asked for book stacks every time they finished books, collaborating with me on almost every choice. Others asked for a book stack less often. Once in a while, if a student seemed stuck in a rut, I’d be the one to initiate the process, saying, ‟When you’ve finished this book, ask me to help you make a stack.”
Once in a very great while, the chosen book turned out not to work, after a fair trial, and I encouraged the student to figure out why, but then start over with another book. There’s no better way to dull the love of reading than to finish books dutifully, no matter who chose them.
All this took time, of course. It helped that I knew the very substantial collection in the room fairly well; that as the year went by I knew students increasingly well; that in my mixed-age classroom I was almost always working with some students for a second year. (To watch and nurture two years of reading growth! Incredibly delicious.) Often I recruited more experienced or faster readers to suggest new titles, or help me assess books I had ordered but not yet read.
In any case, this was time I enjoyed spending, for so many reasons. It satisfied my inner librarian. More importantly, though, it gave me a way to facilitate rather than dictate. I didn’t want, ever, to say, “Here–read this.” No matter how long it took, I’d rather hand over five books, and let the reader take it from there.
This makes such sense, even though it sounds seriously time-consuming. It’s kind of a classroom version of what I experienced as the daughter of a children’s librarian — the new books coming home from work with her every day, the ability to choose from among whatever she had brought (don’t know if she ever had me specifically in mind), and to peruse. I’m sure my lifelong love of reading is partly thanks to that ability to choose, always, but often from among a small group of books rather than a vast, overwheming assortment on shelves… and to stop if and when I had lost interest.
Even today I love getting book picks from others. The stack idea is wonderful, particularly the way it combines the teacher’s desire to make conscious choices with the kid’s own agency.
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