I sat down next to Sarah to listen in on her reading when she whispered, “Why do you always say ‘Happy reading!’ to us when we begin?” Her question caught me. The words held so much for me—my hope that each reader would fall into books with delight, that we would feel free to make joy the most important quality of our reading experiences together, and a reminder to myself to aspire to the listening, learning, and thoughtful gentle conferring of Debbie Miller. In that moment I wondered right along with her, What is happy reading? How does a six-year-old come to understand their role in creating joyful literacy experiences?
I told my students about Sarah’s question and asked them to draw a picture of what happy reading looked like. Laura drew herself smiling and surrounded by pillows and books stacked high. Then she drew a big bubble around herself. When I asked her to tell me more, she whispered, “That is my reading bubble. When I am happy reading, I go in there, into the world in my book.” I thought she had captured something powerful. I understood that my students needed to organize a space for themselves to dive into books and gain reading stamina. Laura knew she needed a cozy spot of her own, lots of books to choose from, and permission to ignore everything outside of her happy little reading bubble.
It was more than having the right space and the right tools. I wanted readers to understand how they could control what their reading experience felt like by building strong reading bubbles. How could I help readers believe they could create the conditions for happy reading by themselves for all of us to enjoy together?
I began with an image and said, “Choose a cozy spot away from your close friends and pour out a circle of imaginary glue. This helps you stay in one spot.” I drew items that belonged inside the bubble. “Bring your book box so you have lots of different reading choices, and build a stack of books to plan what you will read. Bring all of yourself into the bubble, your thoughts and your experiences, and your caring heart. As you wonder and think inside your books, you build a strong reading bubble to hold all of your happy reading. The more effort you put into your thinking, the stronger your bubble will become. ”
As the image gained momentum with the group, we considered other ways our reading bubbles help us gain stamina and focus as readers: “When you are in your bubble, all you can see or think about are the ideas you are growing in your mind. Protect your bubble, and don’t allow any discomforts or distractions to pop it.” I drew bathroom breaks, water fountain trips, and friendship conversations outside the bubble. We watched each other build strong bubbles and noticed that when you are really thinking in a book, having other students whispering or turning pages never bothers you.
We read Dog Loves Books and they noticed that Dog has a reading bubble too! When he feels disappointed that no one is coming to his bookstore to get books, he starts to read. As he reads, he builds a bubble and sinks into the world of his book, envisioning the characters and setting around him. Reading makes him feel happy, interested, and engaged in reading more. When a little girl arrives at his bookstore looking for a book, he finds just the right match and builds a reading bubble with her, combining the ideas they are interested in together. Lauren announced, “That’s just like partner reading—we are building reading partner bubbles too!”
Our stamina and engagement and joy were thriving. When I conferred with readers, I noticed my focus was interrupted by readers with a question, a worry, or a discomfort they wanted me to know about. I explained the difficulty I was having and how although I wanted to know what they were thinking and feeling about their reading, I did not want our important work to be interrupted. When they were getting up to talk with me, it was popping their reading bubble and mine. Everyone was losing important reading and thinking time.
I started another chart: “Sometimes I will join your reading bubble and read with you. When this happens, it becomes a conferring bubble. Each of you will read with me this year. Listening to you read and talking to you about your thinking is one of the most important things I do every day. It helps me understand what you need next as a learner. I love every moment I get to listen to you read. When our conferring bubble is popped, I lose some of our thinking together and it takes me longer to remember what we were thinking about. Then everyone has to wait even longer for a turn. So, if you want to tell me something important and you see me reading with another student, please don’t pop our conferring bubble. Instead, you can write down the message. Please tell yourself, ‘I will ask Ms. E later.’”
Over time the idea has expanded. Sam bounds into our reflection circle. “I really had happy reading today! I opened my book and it just sucked me in. I went right into the book world. In fact I was so deep in the world of the book, I didn’t even hear the music and Leo had to tap my shoulder and pop my reading bubble to let me know it was time to clean up!” A few hours later during our writing workshop Martina approaches me and whispers, “I really need to finish my story today, so I am going to build a writing bubble over at the little black table. Please don’t meet with me today.” Bubbles are becoming the space we create for private think time across our day.
I look across the workshop and see 24 first graders busy reading in their strong bubbles. They are invested in their own growth and expect investment from each other. They share respect for our thinking and learning together. The workshop feels calm and sounds peaceful, and we enjoy the luxury of time in our books together.