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Building a culture of reading at a school in Oakland

2013-12-12 08.00.09favicon Today I was at the Oakland school, which always brings me tons of joy, and I got to read with the Kindlers during the 25-minute Sustained Silent Reading period.

(Spending good time with the Kindlers will be an entirely separate post!)

I have a lot of respect for high schools that dedicate a significant part of their schedule to SSR. After all, SSR is controversial. Some say that it doesn’t work, and others say that even if it works, it’s not appropriate for schools to devote so much time to independent reading, particularly in this time of the Common Core State Standards.

Blah blah blah.

OK, sure, it’s possible to do SSR poorly. Here are a few ways: (1) Don’t have enough good books, (2) Let kids fake read or do homework, (3) Pretend you care about reading when really you don’t.

I’m pleased to report that I get to work at a school where SSR is going brilliantly. The depth of silence across the school is profound. The students are all reading, and they’re curling up when they’re reading, and it’s eminently clear that they’re enjoying their books. When the 25 minutes is up, students don’t want to stop.

As a reading advocate, I believe, of course, that voluminous reading is the most important outcome of SSR. But a close second is the calm that SSR generates. Whereas other schools focus on mindfulness or meditation, this school gets the same result through reading. The students are still, and they dive into a different world.

There are benefits for the adults, too. They’re also reading. They’re not taking attendance or shushing students or getting ready for their lessons. Staff members who are not classroom teachers are reading as well. In fact, the main door to the school is locked, and there’s a sign that says that visitors should return after SSR is over. The school shuts down so that everyone can read. The only room with non-reading activity is, ironically, the library, which students visit to return finished books and check out (from student librarians) new ones.

It’s clear that this is all super impressive. I’m particularly happy because this is the school’s first year building a culture of reading. Much is possible in four months. The staff is absolutely committed. I also give the Principal a lot of credit. Not only did she find $10,000 to found the library (we’ve spent $4,000 so far on books), but she also has done a good job observing and reporting the data about how SSR is going. Money is important, but so is leadership and a high-functioning and passionate staff.

Here are a couple more photos of book door displays! (Note: Many schools have door displays of what teachers are reading. It’s much more powerful to have door signs of what students are reading.)

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The school has big plans for second semester. After last week’s successful Book Fair, students requested three books they might like. Today I ordered each student a book! Librarians will organize and deliver the books to students either next week or right after break, depending on how quickly they can get through the project. Here’s my favorite part: After a lot of debate, it was decided that students will not get to keep their book after reading it. Instead, they’ll donate their book — complete with a sticker with their name on it — to build the school library. (Yes, it’s forced donation!)

I’ll keep you posted, but in the meantime, please let me know what thoughts and questions you have! favicon


  1. Laura Hawkins

    This is so inspiring! Can I share something I heard one of our Library Leaders (a junior boy) tell our librarian? “I have a cute idea. You know how clubs sell candy grams? How about we do book grams? People can say what book they want to give to a friend and we can wrap it up and give it to them.” I say – GENIUS!!!

    • Mark Isero

      I like Library Leaders! His book gram idea is a great one. Very very cool. It gets me thinking about what can be done to give students good books over the summer (when many students stop reading).

Please share your brilliant insights!