A Reading Revolution: Students choose their books

MANILA, Philippines - Seventh-grader Bella is reading John Green’s The Fault in our Stars

Beside her, Gabbie is reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. Isabelle’s book is The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. In another side of the room, there are boys with various Rick Riordan books from his action-packed Percy Jackson series. Two other kids are reading The Hunger Games

This is not some random gathering of precocious bookworms. I am in Joe Sibayan’s (also known as Teacher Joe) classroom, where the Readers Workshop approach is used in teaching literacy. 

I observe his class during independent reading time, when students bury themselves in their chosen books for 20 minutes. Later, they break up into groups to discuss what they have been reading, book club style.  

Literature circles were formed today according to themes. As it turns out, Bella, Gabbie and Isabelle’s theme is Man vs. Self.

In another circle, Miguel is enjoying Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Nikos likes Gaiman too, but his choice is Odd and the Frost Giants. Circle mate Mikko is reading Michael Scott’s The Alchemist. Miguel tells me their theme is Man vs. Society.

If the 21 students in Sibayan's class choose 21 different books to read for a current theme, that would be fine with him.

That would, in fact, be the point: giving students the choice. 

He explains: “Part of the education of any reader is developing the ability to browse through books, determine if a book matches your reading abilities and purpose for reading and to decide on whether or not a book is worth pursuing.”

For many of us who went to schools with a strict list of assigned books, this may seem revolutionary — and very new.

But Readers Workshop was actually developed in the 1980s at Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP). This reading revolution was started back then by Lucy Calkins, an educator who believed schools shouldn’t be dull and learning shouldn’t be rote. 

Literacy Specialist Maggie Moon had worked with Calkins as a Senior Staff Developer at TCRWP. She explains: “Many [education] scholars decided it was time to teach reading and writing the way people learn best — by becoming like apprentices to 'master' readers and writers.

"They wanted to help children develop a lifelong love of reading, instead of seeing it only as an academic subject to master.”

Their approach proved to be good for academics anyway. The State of New York eventually asked Calkins to roll out her program for their school system, that was then suffering from dismal test scores.

In time, the project turned things around for the city’s low performing schools. 

Since then, TCRWP has spread to other parts of the US and the world, including Keys Grade School in Mandaluyong, where Sibayan teaches and acts as a Curriculum Coordinator.

Maggie Moon flies to Manila regularly to conduct seminars with him, as they both mentor the rest of the Keys teaching staff on how to implement Readers Workshop. 

What if all a student wants to read is Twilight

According Moon, nurturing passionate, analytical readers entails some letting go.

Children should be exposed to many types of books, some of them we may not consider quality reading. Picking up Gossip Girl or Jekyll and Heidi is what teenagers tend to do, but that’s fine. They should find pleasure in reading.

They should be allowed to grow into their own idiosyncrasies as readers. 

Moon explains, “Strong readers have a specific sense of what they like and don't like. So I want to see kids acting like proficient readers as soon as they can. If that involves some Twilight reading, so be it.” 

Bad books can also be a good lesson on critical analysis.

“Ideally, those kids reading Twilight can form a book club to discuss whether the writing is good, whether the characters are believable, whether the books or movies are better, whether there are other vampire series that deserve more attention, why or why not,” says Moon.

At their age, it is also more crucial to cultivate the stamina for reading and the habit of it, rather than imposing your choice of literature.

This takes time and many books — all sorts and many levels of complexity — from R.L. Stine to Judy Blume and J.D. Salinger to Nick Joaquin. 

What Readers Workshop does is expand students’ reading diet so they are drawn to other genres and notable authors. This is why in Keys Grade School, there are Classroom Libraries apart from the School Library. 

There are no textbooks here.

Sibayan considers them as “artificial collections of text and questions.” In their classroom libraries, children are given access to authentic published material — carrying a mix of reference books as well as fiction books that can be read for pleasure.

“Steering children away from low-quality reading material starts with making sure that the books the children have access to in the classroom are all high-quality children's literature,” he explains. 


A reading nook in a 4th grade classroom library

Readers Workshop can be implemented in various ways. Some teachers can be more liberal with choice than others.

In Sibayan's classroom, students are still required to read certain books. He can pick a canon title for shared reading. Occasionally, he assigns titles or authors to be discussed for the book clubs. 

Letting children choose books they want to read is only one aspect of the approach. Sibayan says, “The emphasis is on putting books in children's hands and giving them a lot of time to actually read. Less time is spent on worksheets, written comprehension questions or art projects related to a text.”

Instead of constantly quizzing for dates and names, students are challenged to make connections and find relevance.

Sibayan, for instance, will ask them to examine a book’s physical versus its psychological settings. He asks questions like, “What is the relationship of the theme and the book’s setting?” 

Gianinna answers in her Reading Journal:  

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (pages 1-2)

The setting is in the bathroom with blood on the bath mat and razor sinking in a toilet bowl. Cecilia’s mother is screaming and the paramedics are standing, shocked. 

The rest of the book takes place in the neighborhood, a normal and ordinary neighborhood. This tells me that tragedy can happen to even a normal place or that beauty is ephemeral when tragedy strikes.

The normalcy of the neighborhood enhances the theme because nobody expects a normal and quiet neighborhood to be hit by tragedy or it shows that there is definitely more than meets the eye.

For today’s Read-Aloud, Sibayan is sharing passages from an assigned book — Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks. All eyes and ears are on Sibayan as he reads with feeling:

“The older you are, the younger you get when you move to the United States. They don’t teach you that equation in school. Big Brain, Mr. Smoltz, my eighth grade math teacher, hasn’t even heard of it. It’s not in Gateway to Algebra. It’s Garcia’s Equation. I‘m the Garcia. Two years after my father and I moved here from Guatemala I could speak English. I learned it on the playground and watching lots of TV. Don’t believe what people say — cartoons make you smart.” 

This elicits laughs. A student chimes, “Yeah… TV isn’t always dumb.” 

After Read-Aloud, Gabbie makes what they call in Readers Workshop a “text-to-self” connection: “When I was 10, a teacher asked me for a synonym for small. I said miniscule. And the teacher said, ‘Is that a word?’ I learned it from a cartoon.”

She’s no longer in that school. Gabbie likes it better in Keys where she can read Gaiman and Funke and Michael Scott for homework. 

“Schoolwork can be really hard, but I like the challenge… It’s the kind that makes me feel good about myself when I do well.” She likes her teachers, too. “Teacher Joe is funny. And there’s no boring grammar stuff. You have to get deeper into the books.

"It’s not about memorizing. It’s about understanding.” - Rappler.com