Tagged: independent reading

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #9

“It’s been a good year. And we’re ready for what’s next.”

Michele Godwinfavicon Friday, 4/1 3:35 pm
It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to work on library stuff. I’ve run out of fundraising steam, for the time being. My friends are tired of me asking them for money!

So we sit at the $20,000 mark. Students still request titles. I just bought some science-related books, thanks to a recommendation from one of our regular substitute teachers: Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, and The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, by Nathan Wolfe. There’s money in the bank, and the requests are slowing down. I should be happy with what we’ve got, right?


The library is just over half full. And many of the books are left over from the crusty donated books that have been with us for so many years. We have at least three copies of all of Shakespeare’s popular plays, and seemingly thousands of copies of Winter’s Tale. Great! But our kids aren’t reading those books.

I have to decide: Leave the shelves half-filled, but with high-interest books? Or put the old, crusty books in there so the shelves don’t look quite so empty and forlorn?

I leave them empty. Because too many bad books is way worse than barely-enough good books.

Bad books are a turn-off. In my experience, it is only book lovers who get excited to comb through shelves and shelves of titles, excited to find the next good story. Reticent readers look at those shelves and see more books about boring people they can’t relate to. They see lots of big words and meaningless characters, and they confirm what they’ve always known: books have nothing to offer them.

I’ve got to get off my butt and get back to work. Those shelves aren’t going to fill themselves!

Friday, 5/1 2:30 pm
C. tells me, “That thing happened yesterday!”

I don’t know what she means.

She looks at me meaningfully and says, “That thing. Remember? I told you about it? I told you I was nervous. Remember?” She waits for me.

I think and think. When did we talk last? She’s not one to share much with me, so I struggle.

And then it comes to me.

“Yes! How did it go? Everything ok?” I ask.

She looks relieved.

“I had to stand up and talk to the judge. I was so nervous!”

“How brave! That must have been so scary,” I tell her.

“I cried,” she says. “I wasn’t strong. But I’m glad I did it.”

“I am too. And so is your dad, I’m sure. What was the verdict?” I ask, afraid of the answer.

“Five years. But I thought it would be 15, so I’m happy!”

I smile at her. How could I forget her dad’s hearing? She mentioned it when I met with her and her mother, in passing, like she wanted me to know, but not really.

“Five years, and then he’s deported back to Mexico,” she says, and puts her earbuds in. The bell has rung, and she’s done sharing.

Monday, 5/4 3:35 pm
A. has stopped coming to school. When I met with him and his mother a few weeks ago, it was clear that he wouldn’t be able to graduate with his classmates next spring. He’s failed too many classes, and he’s currently failing Algebra.

He translated the news to his mother. The counselor then told A. about a college to career program at City, where students can finish up their high school classes and get college credit. He got excited and translated for his mother, who asked some questions and looked doubtful.

Ever since, he has been to school only a couple times.

I miss him.

Wednesday, 5/13 – 10:15 am
Independent reading time. Every student in the room is silent, reading something he or she is interested in. Time and National Geographic cover stories about weed are a big draw. One student is reading Beloved, and I must resist the urge to try to make her love that book as much as I do. Someone’s reading The Oral History of Hip Hop, someone else The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I only had to ask them to be quiet a few times before they settled in and started reading. I don’t know what’s going on with them, but it sure does make me happy. And it reminds me: must get more books.

Thursday, 5/28 – 2:20 pm
They’re gone. We’ve had our last Advisory of the year, and now they’re gone. They’ve left their cookie crumbs and empty soda cups, as well as an entire, unopened bag of carrots (the Funyons and Doritos got eaten, though), and now they’re gone for the summer.

We said goodbye to A., who will go to City next year. I had to beg him to come today, and had to contain my excitement when he walked in the room. He promised to keep me posted about his life. I hope he does.

The others I’ll see in just a few short months, and we’ll do it all over again. But it’ll be different next year, as graduation becomes more and more real, and they have to make hard decisions about their life. All of us are looking forward to the summer break, but I think we all agree: It’s been a good year. And we’re ready for what’s next. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 14th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 11th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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Why kids lose interest in reading as they get older

favicon Daniel Willingham is a leader in secondary literacy and independent reading, and his recent article, “Why kids lose interest in reading as they get older,” does a good job summarizing a few of the basic reasons that young people’s interest in reading declines as they move into middle and high school.

As students get older, Willingham suggests, reading becomes more of a chore. Teachers require greater comprehension, offer less choice, and demand that students read various genres for various purposes.

None of these reasons is particularly earth-shattering, of course. But they remind me that schools, by themselves, are not in the business of promoting independent reading past mid-elementary school.

If students are going to read widely, they have three choices:
1. Already love to read,
2. Live with a family that loves to read and promotes independent reading,
3. Have a teacher or be part of a program that encourages independent reading.

In other words, if we want our young people to read, it won’t happen automatically. There are too many other fun things to do. But it’s not rocket science. If we care about reading, and if we put good books in front of students, and if we foster a love of reading, then young people will read.

“Attitudes toward reading peak in early elementary years. With each passing year, students’ attitudes towards reading drop.”

Source: http://j.mp/1cm9dNs (via Pocket). favicon

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On teachers and classroom libraries

favicon Today I visited with Nancy Jo Turner, a good friend and former colleague, at Realm Charter School in Berkeley.

We chatted and talked about life and about teaching, and I was reminded of her beautiful classroom library and her commitment to independent reading.

Beautiful: Clean design, covers facing outward!
Beautiful: Clean design, covers facing outward!

Hanging out with Nancy Jo also reminded me how hard it is for teachers to maintain robust classroom libraries. (She’s doing it, though, very well.)

It’s (at least) a part-time job:

– Encouraging students to read,
– Checking books out to students,
– Conferencing with students,
– Finding money to purchase new books,
– Checking in returned books,
– Re-shelving returned books,
– Keeping track of completed books,
– And more, of course.

I honor the work that Nancy Jo and other teachers are doing across the San Francisco Bay Area to ensure that students have immediate and ongoing access to high-interest books.

It is also praiseworthy that teachers celebrate the reading of their students. Here’s just one of the ways that Nancy Jo does this:


When I visit teachers in their classrooms, it gets me inspired to continue thinking about the best ways to build reading cultures in schools. It’s not easy work, but it’s worthwhile work.

After all, when students make reading a habit, and when they start liking it again, and when they’ve completed several books, there’s something big that happens. Conversations improve. There are more hopes and what-ifs. And students start building a bigger life that is their own. favicon

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TEACHER VOICES: Marni Spitz, #3

Numbers, Reading, the Jackson 5, and Awesomeness

ms. spitz 4Ed. note: Marni Spitz teaches U.S. History and Reading Lab at City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco. This is her third post for TEACHER VOICES. Donate to Marni’s classroom!

favicon Numbers. I love numbers. They mean so much. They can mean good luck, dates of birthdays, years of anniversaries, and how many spoonfuls of sugar you need in order to make the best chocolate chip cookies ever. So to all those number-loving educators, I, a Humanities teacher, salute you!

Numbers come up a lot in my U.S. History and Reading Lab classes. They teach us so much! Question: When was the Declaration of Independence signed? Answer: 1776! (a number!) Question:  What resolved the debate over the representation of slaves in the House of Representatives? Answer: 3/5th Compromise (another number! a fraction at that!)

In Reading Lab, a new class we’re piloting with our ninth graders this year, numbers are coming up all the time. Some insight: I use numbers to track my students’ pages on their independent reading books each day. My students use numbers to find quotes for their metacognition journals. We use numbers to set goals for reading and to chunk our reading.

But perhaps the best number of all so far has been the number of books students are finishing. That’s right. My Reading Lab-ers are voraciously reading and FINISHING their books. It’s honestly incredible!


After FIVE days of class (five, another great number: high fives! Five Guys Burgers! Five Spice Girls!), THREE of my students had already finished their books! THREE out of FIFTEEN in ONE week! The next week, there were another THREE, and the following week, FOUR more! By week six, ELEVEN out of FIFTEEN (that’s 11/15 for all you fraction lovers!) had finished a book. Some students have even finished more than ONE book!

I know that you’re thinking: But we’re only in week SEVEN! And your students are in a reading intervention class! I thought they don’t even like reading! How the heck is this happening?!?  Well guys, I don’t have a scientific explanation just yet, but I have spent some time pondering this incredible phenomenon. Here’s what I’ve come up with as to why my Reading Lab-ers are finishing books with Usain Bolt speed:

(FYI, these are in no particular order as I am not here to make numbers feel above/below each other. Hahahahaha — get it? I crack myself up.)

1. Our kids have access to AWESOME BOOKS!!! SO SO SO MANY AWESOME BOOKS!

If I do say so myself, my classroom library is amazing! We’re talking Beyonce dance moves amazing. This has everything to do with the books on the shelves and very little to do with me (although I love to take credit). With the help of my literacy coach (I’m talking about you, Mark!), DonorsChoose.com, and our charter network’s commitment to books, my classroom library is rich in variety of genre and level. And…the books are so new and so so pretty! Sure, we know that in most instances, looks don’t matter, but whoever said not to judge a book by it’s cover hasn’t worked with a group of struggling teenage readers.

2. I KNOW my classroom library like Indiana Jones knows how to rock cargo.

My first year with a classroom library was wonderful, but I had never read most of the books in it, nor had I beared witness to the effects each book had on its readership. As my library continues to grow, the more familiar I am with the heavy hitters. (For example: Perfect Chemistry will win every time! The Bluford series is a gem for confidence-boosting! You liked Dope Sick? I think you’d love Tyrell!). My librarian skills have really picked up and I am developing a niche for being a book-student matchmaker. My Grandma would be so proud!

perfect chemistry

I also spent a lot of time reorganizing my library this summer so that I can navigate my shelves with the grace and stamina of Michael Jordan. Just call me #23. (There I go with the numbers again).  Something as simple as knowing where the books are has made the book-student matching process far more effective! I can quickly direct a student to the “Fight The Man!” bins on the left, the “Back in the Day” bins in the middle, and the “Ulysses” bins on the top shelf. (Okay fine, we’re not quite there yet, but we’ll get there!)

3. The students are reading their books in a lot of their classes. A LOT.

They’re reading in English. They’re reading in Advisory. They’re reading in Math. They’re reading in Biology. My reading Lab-ers are getting so much time to read their books at school, thanks to the incredible commitment of the ninth grade team!!  When asked about reading at home, most of my students said that no, they didn’t read at home and never really had. At this point in the school year, whether or not my kiddos are reading their books at home is still unclear, but what is clear is that structured and routinized reading is happening in multiple classes.

Having their independent book with them is as essential as their pens, binders, and enthusiasm. Words cannot express what a joy it is to walk in the hallways during my prep, eat my snack (that’s what preps are for right?), and peek into ninth grade classrooms and see them reading. You can just FEEL the pages turning!

4. Reading is part of ninth grade culture!

It’s alive! It’s alive! (And, unlike Frankenstein, it’s far from terrifying. In fact, it’s arguably the most beautiful thing ever.) It’s alive in the hallways (student book reviews!), in signs on teachers’ front doors (Ms. Y is currently reading…), in passing conversation (“Have you read A Child Called It yet?”), when work is done early (“Done with your quiz? Open up yo’ book!”), in a grade-wide competition (Which advisory can read the most books?), and of course, on the ‘ole faithful bulletin boards. Finishing books is a thing! It’s a real thing that lives and breathes alongside the ninth grade experience. INCREDIBLE!

dope sick

5. We spend time previewing the books!

Call me crazy (not maybe), but I love previews! They get me pumped! Similarly, this year we spent two full days surveying and previewing the books. I may or may not have done some pretty fantastic book pitches, and I made sure to play the “EVERYONE-who’s-ever-read-this book-has-LOVED-it” card to really hone in on that peer pressure. A gallery walk of the books gave our growing readers a chance to familiarize themselves with the steps and value of the selection process. Every student but one selected a book they liked on their first go around. How’s that for numbers?

6. We celebrate finishing a book like we just won tickets to a Prince concert!

Never underestimate the power of a round of applause accompanied by a photo. Just last week, a student finished a book, and the class’s applause was super weak. He demanded we do it again. Heck yeah, Sergio: Get yours!  Quantifying reading can be tricky, but I think that the number of finished books can provide some priceless insight on so many factors:

– Are students actually reading during SSR? (You bet!)
– Do you have enjoyable books in your library? (No doubt!)
– Are students reading outside of your class allotted SSR? (For real!)
– Do you need more copies of a certain book? (YES! ALWAYS!)
– Do student book requests work? (Why yes! They most certainly do!!)
– How are your students feeling about reading in general? (They get it. And if they don’t, they want to and are on their way.)

I guess what I’ve been trying to say in so many words  is that: Numbers are awesome. Finishing books is awesome. My Reading Lab-ers are awesome. Beyonce’s dance moves are awesome. Classroom libraries are awesome. When it comes to numbers and letters, the Jackson Five (there’s five again!) is awesome. They were really onto something when they sang: “A,B,C, easy as 1,2,3.”

See what I did there? favicon

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Loyal Iserotope readers flood my inbox with great articles about reading. Thanks!

favicon One great thing about my life right now is that more and more people know that I have this blog. This means that there are more and more loyal Iserotope readers, which increases the likelihood that I get inundated, as has happened the past few days, with great articles about reading.

“Have you seen this?” one person wrote.

“You’ve probably read this already, but I wanted to send it to you,” another person wrote.

It makes me really happy. Thank you! It also makes my reading flow a little easier. If loyal Iserotope readers are sending me something to read, that means it goes to the top of my list. And it means that I’m likely going to write a post about it — like I’m doing now!

Here are three articles that people have sent me:

Bruni_new-thumbLarge-v2Read, Kids, Read
By Frank Bruni, The New York Times

This column is a bit all over the place, but I appreciate Mr. Bruni’s central point: Books are “personal” and “passionate,” and they offer focus, similar to meditation. If you haven’t been following the research over the past year about the benefits of reading fiction (e.g., increased focus, more empathy, greater intelligence), this piece offers a good summary. Mr. Bruni, however, is extremely concerned about a recent report by Common Sense Media that concludes that recreational reading among teenagers has plummeted over the past decade. I am dispirited, too, but it’s not like didn’t know that reading is on the decline.

1378999648543022_10150820373479467_661357797_aCommon Sense Media: Children, Teens, and Reading
A Report on the State of Reading, May 2014

This is the doom-and-gloom report that Mr. Bruni was talking about. To be sure, the conclusions are a bit scary. High school students are reading less often for pleasure, and the percentage of students who rarely or never read for fun has gone up drastically.

The report blames this trend on the following reason: “The technology revolution of the past decade has led our society to a major transition point in the history of reading.” In other words, traditional reading is boring, while surfing the Internet or checking your Instagram is fun. I don’t know if totally buy this argument.

One table I found interesting compared households of “frequent readers” with households of “infrequent readers.” Take a look.Screenshot 2014-05-13 23.11.36

The most jarring statistic to me was that mean household income was virtually the same (and quite high, I might add!). The table seems to suggest that the keys to promote reading are to put lots of books in your home and to set aside structured time to read. (This advice is corroborated by many research studies. For example, one study I read last month indicated that it is perhaps more important for parents themselves to read a lot than for parents to read to their children.)

Overall, I’m not sure what to think of this report. It tried to bring together the findings of seven studies, each of which had different definitions of reading — does reading your phone constitute reading? — and relied on widely divergent methods. Despite the big press it got, I’m not so sure the report succeeded.

As a side note, the report did mention Kindles and other e-readers. A few recent articles are very negative toward e-readers. That’s because they don’t know what they’re talking about. 🙂

By Dale Russakoff, The New Yorker

This one’s a must-read. It tells the story of school reform in Newark, New Jersey. Yes, that’s where Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million. And that’s where U.S. Senator Cory Booker promised to revolutionize and revitalize public education. This is a well-written article that incisively describes all that is wrong about the American education system today.

I mean, it’s a really tough read. You’ve got the old-school Newark school district, which was not working. (The student-to-administrator ratio was 6:1. Ridiculous.) And then you’ve got the Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey and Cory Booker (whom I want to like) and Chris Christie. Then there’s union-busting and union-slamming. And plenty and plenty of for-profit consultants.

Ms. Russakoff doesn’t say this directly, but it’s pretty clear that he thinks that Newark’s school system can’t be fixed, that Mr. Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation was spent wastefully, with little or none of it going to help students, and that neither the status-quo nor reform efforts can address the challenges of urban schools.

Yes, it’s depressing, but you have to read it. You can also find it at Iserotope Extras.

Again, thank you, loyal Iserotope readers, for sending me articles. It shows that you care. If you have an article for me to read, please send it to mark AT iserotope DOT com. Thank  you! favicon

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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.)

2013-12-12 07.59.54

2013-12-12 08.02.01

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

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This is true, but not motivating, for students

Reading Improves Test Scoresfavicon I’ve seen different versions of this poster many, many times over the past few years.

The numbers seem about right: that if you read about 1/2 an hour a day, you’ll be fine.

But I wish the title of this poster were different. Something like, “Reading a lot makes you a better reader,” would be much better than what’s there now.

The current title asks students to spend their time reading not for joy or knowledge but rather just to raise their test scores.

Yeah, the title needs to go. But I like many things about this poster, including: (1) Double the time doesn’t mean double the words, (2) Double the time doesn’t mean double the test gains. In other words, teachers and students have to find their sweet spot.

Mine was always 3 hours of reading a week, in-class and out-of-class combined. So I fought for 30 minutes a night, five days a week. Students who could make that time commitment often saw huge gains.

Despite my mixed feelings about test scores being the goal of all this additional reading, I’m hopeful that the students at the Hayward school — who read 30 minutes a night and who will read at least 17 books this year — do well on next week’s interim assessment.

It would send a strong message to the ninth graders. Something like this, I hope: If you read a lot, yes, you’ll do better on the reading test. But at the same time, you’ll be proud of all the books you’ve read — more books than you’ve ever read before — and you’ll be happy that the books have brought you joy and wonder. favicon

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Iserotope Extra: “Why Reading Sucks and It’s OK”

favicon Pernille Ripp is an elementary school teacher who believes in independent reading and is not afraid to tell the truth to her students. That’s also partly why her blog is so popular among educators.

In a recent post, “Why Reading Sucks and It’s Ok to Talk About It,” Ms. Ripp talks about what she did recently when a student shared that reading sucked. Instead of disagreeing with the student, she affirmed the student’s (current) feelings and even opened up a brainstorming session about all the possible reasons that reading might indeed suck. Here’s her chart:

It’s a pretty good list, don’t you think? (It’s particularly interesting to me how many reasons are connected to feelings of inferiority or stigma related to reading.)

It makes me happy that Ms. Ripp didn’t cower or get too teachery. Sometimes, I’ve felt like I have to offer a counter-narrative, something like, “Oh no! You can’t mean that! Reading is great! What you just said is a big fat lie!” That’s not quite right because it doesn’t validate the student’s opinion, what the student just said.

On the other hand, I’ve also been prone to affirm the student’s response almost too energetically, as if it’s really really OK to say that reading sucks. “Yes, I am so happy that you said that! You are right on the mark, Johnny. In fact, boys and girls, if you liked reading before Johnny just spoke, you should listen to Johnny because he’s cool and you want to be, too!” This approach doesn’t work, either.

Ms. Ripp’s response — which I think was to consider the student’s feelings matter of factly (but not too excitedly), to be honest that sometimes reading does suck (especially when there’s no choice involved), and to use the remark an opportunity to move through a common reaction to reading — seems perfect.

What do you think? Please go ahead and read her post (see below) and then let me know your thoughts.

Source: http://pernillesripp.com/2013/09/14/why-reading-sucks-and-its-ok-to-talk-about-it/ favicon

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Classroom library love in Berkeley!

favicon This is big news!

My good friend and former colleague Nancy Jo Turner, who teaches ninth graders in Berkeley, has launched a new and very impressive classroom library.

Want to check out the awesomeness? It’s right here waiting for you.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m very excited and can’t wait to share more pictures once the students see what their teacher has built for them. (Yes, teachers do work over the summer!)

What’s also great is the story behind this beautiful classroom library. When Nancy Jo and I were colleagues in San Francisco, we shared a classroom and often talked about one of our core beliefs: the importance of reading. She introduced an additional novel to an introductory leadership course and also had her students read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Nancy Jo understands the power of reading not only to educate but also to transform.

Fast forward more than a year later. Nancy Jo had moved to a school in Berkeley and I had become an instructional coach in Oakland. We kept in touch, and Nancy Jo grew more and more interested in building an independent reading program. She already had many excellent titles. But why not supplement her books with the books stored in my garage?

And so it was done. In June, I stuffed all my books into my Honda Civic and headed over to Berkeley. We unloaded all the boxes and stacked them into her immaculate classroom. My part was finished, but Nancy Jo had just begun. Since that day, she has organized all the books, cataloged them, built beautiful bookshelves, and completed two DonorsChoose projects for additional resources. And now she’s on Facebook and Twitter promoting the cause. (Check her out and please donate!) Nancy Jo is focused and knows what’s best for kids. I can’t wait to see what she does this year!

All told, her classroom library stands at 600+ titles right now.

Independent reading is spreading in high schools. We need to re-introduce students to the fun and power of stories. I’m so happy that Nancy Jo is leading this work for ninth graders in Berkeley.

Please share your thoughts in the comments! Or share this post with friends so they find out about this greatness! favicon