Donalyn Miller, author of the acclaimed bestseller The Book Whisperer, chats with Franki Sibberson about the importance of teachers modeling their literate lives for students. You can visit Donalyn’s blog at:
A full transcript of the podcast is available below the player.
Franki Sibberson: Donalyn, you mentioned that you’re interested in modeling literate lives for kids. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Donalyn Miller: Well, I think that many children do not have reading role models. We would hope that they do but sometimes they don’t. So if they don’t have reading role models at home, I think it’s even more vital that they have reading role models at school, and that means teachers, librarians, administrators modeling for kids what a literate life looks like. And for even those children that have parents at home that read, and siblings that read, they still need that support at school. I think that they need to get it everywhere.
Franki: So what do you see as your role, as the teacher’s role in doing that in the classroom?
Donalyn: Well, I think we have to live our lives open for the kids, and talk to them about what we are reading, what we are writing, what we are getting out of our reading and writing ourselves, not just in an academic context but how reading and writing enrich our lives personally, and what we find interesting about it.
Franki: Do you think that it’s different the way we model for students who do have literate role models outside of school versus those who don’t?
Donalyn: Well, I think we need to have awareness first off, do they have reading role models at schools? That’s not always easy to get. We may not always know if parents are readers or not. At my school we have a lot of parents that are bilingual and they’re immigrant parents, so they may be literate in their native language but not as much in English. So I think the first key is for us to find out what we can about the literacy support and role modeling that they have at home. But as far as how that looks for me on the teaching end, I don’t see much difference other than being aware. I think we just need to be that literate person for all the kids.
Franki: Right. And are there certain things that you do to model for your students? Are there certain things that you do to – I guess, two parts. Are there certain things you do to find out about their literate lives outside of school, and then are there certain kinds of things that you do to model?
Donalyn: Well, when I confer with kids during reading conferences sometimes that information comes out. Sometimes people tell me that they’ve shared a book that they’ve read in class with a parent or with a sibling. I get e-mails from parents that ask me questions, because they seem to think that I might know books for them to read, so I get a little bit of insight from the kids and the parents that way. But I also think it’s important just to have a lot of conversations with parents, so I send out e-mails with literacy news and tips for parents. I just sent one about the importance of reading aloud, even to older children, because what I’ve found, Franki, is many parents want to help; they just don’t really know what to do.
Especially as children get older, they depend more and more on teachers in schools to take over that role of role modeling literacy for kids, because they’re not really sure how to go about it. You know, when children are little and you put them on your knee and you read to them, parents understand that. But when their child is 11 it doesn’t look the same to them. Sometimes they just want guidance and support.
Franki: Right. It feels different. So how do you balance this goal with the more skills? How do you fit it all into your 90-minute block of making sure you’re teaching kids what they need to be readers but you’re also finding time to model your literate lives in the classroom?
Donalyn: Well, to me it’s about a third and two-thirds. I think it’s two-thirds academic reading and focusing on skills, literary elements, comprehension, and the things that we are required to teach them, and that students need to know. But I think about a third of the class time, overall, I would spend on life-long literacy, on reading habits, on role modeling, on conversations with kids about why they need to read, showing them how to find out about books, and learn more about authors, and the things that they need to have some capacity as readers, for reading as a lifestyle, not just as something that they do at school.
Franki: I love that you gave that a one-third, two-third. How did you come up with that? Have you just been observing?
Donalyn: Well, I am thinking quite a bit these days about how do we transition children from school reading to life reading, and asking my questions, “Okay, so what is a good balance for them?” and I think that’s about what I’ve hit on. I might change it tomorrow but I don’t think I will.
Franki: No, that is so smart. I really never expected you to give me such a firm number and I love it because that makes sense, and if you think about it like that it’s easier to think through your year. Do you have anything else that you want to add about modeling literate lives?
Donalyn: Well, we talked a bit about the importance of it, but what does that look like? What does role modeling a literate life look like? You know, it’s telling the kids that I’ve stay up until 2:30 in the morning reading Mockingjay, and how much I loved it, and then us holding a drawing to see who gets my copy that I just finished. It’s letting them know that reading is something that I find is worth losing sleep over. I come in with a box of books almost every Monday, of books that I’ve found in various places on the weekends. We open up the books and look at them and talk about them. It’s just building that excitement because I’m excited about it, and showing them that reading is something that I really love and enjoy, at a personal level. It’s not just me, the teacher, standing off to the side and saying, “Hey kids, you need to read because it’s good for school.” It’s about telling them, “Hey kids, I want you to read because it’ll add so much to your life.”