Monday, July 13, 2015

Becoming a Book Whisperer

Recently, I hosted a group of teachers from Eagle Mountain ISD at my home for a Books and Brunch. We gathered together, enjoyed a few delicious treats, and talked informally about The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. This group was made up of teachers, literacy specialists, librarians, and graduate students. With no formal agenda, we shared our personal connections, insights, and questions. We pondered how to share our learning we others and how to apply new ideas into our classrooms. Our discussion naturally evolved into this blog post, which contains our thoughts, ideas, and reactions to the book. We all encourage you to pick up your own copy and read for yourself. The book reads as if Donalyn is just telling a story of her classroom teaching. It's both entertaining and informative. Willow Creek has ten copies waiting for you to check out in the Literacy Library. If you prefer your own copy, you can purchase on Amazon here. Read more about Donalyn Miller on her website,

Becoming a Book Whisperer


After reading this book, we all thought, "YES! That is the teacher I want to be!" In fact, one teacher admitted to being the worksheet-driven, story-a-week kind of teacher until reading this book. Others nodded in agreement because before this book, reading workshop didn't make quite so much sense. Reading workshop isn't so much about the perfect mini-lesson or unit-of-study, it's an entire framework for instruction that the teacher feels in her bones. It's the way students take responsibility for the own learning and use their classroom as a tool for learning. You know reading workshop by the feeling you get when walking into the classroom. No mini-lesson or unit-of-study can do that-- it starts with the teacher. So here's how you can be come the next book whisperer:

Understand Conditions for Learning

What I really love about Donalyn Miller is that she doesn't bog down her story with citation after citation, but she does credit those whose theories guide her practice. Brian Cambourne, an Australian researcher, identified the factors that contribute to successful learning based on years and years of observations in classrooms. These factors are vital for a motivational environment where students embrace reading. Donalyn Miller explained that without that motivational environment, her "instruction was doomed to fail" (p. 34). Cambourne's Conditions for Learning are the components that I look for as Literacy Coach in every classroom I visit. It is the basic foundation of a successful and engaging classroom. 

Cambourne's Conditions for Learning: 
1. Immersion: Children need to be surrounded by meaningful literature of all types. Classroom libraries should be flooded with various titles, levels, topics, and genres. 
2. Demonstration: Children need models and demonstrations using authentic texts to help them develop reading proficiency. 
3. Expectations: Children will rise to meet our expectations. Expect your students to read every day and they will. 
4. Responsibility: Children need the opportunity to make their own choices and take responsibility for their own learning. 
5. Employment: Children need the opportunity to apply their learning in a real and meaningful context. Each reading lesson should circle back to the child's own reading so they have time to practice those skills in an authentic context with support from the teacher.
6. Approximations: Children need the opportunity to be praised for the skills they do have and allowed time to make mistakes as they learn new skills and strive towards mastery. 
7. Response: Children need positive and immediate feedback on their reading progress.
8. Engagement: Reading must be enjoyable for students. They must be personally invested, feel successful, and comfortable taking risks. 

These Conditions for Learning lead to a successful reading classroom, however, Donalyn Miller explains that most of her efforts in planning go to #8 Engagement. We can spend all of our time crafting beautiful reading lessons, but without engagement, our lessons will usually fall short. 

Which of these Conditions for Learning guide your reading lessons? Do you spend hours, like Donalyn Miller once did, planning intricate novel units or reading plans, rather than time devoted to ensuring students are engaged in authentic texts? With a shift to focus on these Conditions for Learning, you can become a book whisperer for your students. 


Set up Reading Workshop


EMS-ISD has fully embraced the workshop model for literacy instruction but several of you have asked, what IS reading workshop? Donalyn Miller explained the key components of a reading workshop in being:
  • Time for students to read lots of books
  • Choice in reading material
  • Response to literature (through conferences, journals, discussions, or projects)
  • Community of readers where all members meaningfully contribute 
  • Established structure of specific routines and procedures for reading
Reading workshop begins with a mini-lesson focused on reading procedures, skills, or strategies, transitions to independent reading time where students read books of their choice and the teacher conferences with individual or small groups of readers, and ends with a share time where students reflect on their reading that day. Reading workshop allows the teacher to:
  • Meet with every student every week to talk about their reading
  • Pay close attention to student reading choices
  • Facilitate learning in a non-threatening way
  • Model good reading behaviors and strategies
  • Adapt lessons to individual readers and their needs
  • Create a reading community
  • Connect reading to writing and other content areas
Reading workshop is the structure that supports the ideas behind Donalyn Miller and will help you flourish as a book whisperer, too. Yes, it requires letting go of some of the control, but also requires a large amount of organization. The structure supports students in making their own choices in reading and facilitates the learning. Reading workshop allows a teacher to teach readers, not just reading curriculum. 

Donalyn Miller also suggested creating a Reading Rights with your class to hold everyone accountable for reading.  We all loved this idea and plan to incorporate it in our classrooms.


Live a Readerly Life

Donalyn Miller, along with other expects, agree that a teacher of reading must also be a reader. In order to be a book whisperer, you must enjoy reading books yourself. When you live a readerly life, you are able to pull from an abundance of experiences as a reader to share with your children. You help inspire readers because you, too, have been in their shoes (and sometimes still are!). If we ask our students to identify as readers, then we must also identify as readers. 

Donalyn Miller included this Self-Reflection Activity for Teachers. I encourage you to look closely at yourself and reflect on your own reading experiences.

  • What were your reading experiences as a child?
  • Were these positive or negative experiences for you?
  • Do you see yourself as a reader now?
  • How do you share your reading experiences-- both current experiences and those form the past-- with your students? 
  • With which group of readers in your classroom do you most identify-- the underground readers, the developing readers, or the dormant readers?
  • Who have been your role models for reading?
  • List the last five books you have read.
  • How long did it take for you to read these books?
  • Which books were read for a job or for a school-related purpose?
  • Which books were read for pleasure?
After you have reflected on these questions, I challenge you to Donalyn Miller's Reading Improvement Plan: 

  1. Commit to a certain amount of reading per day.
  2. Choose books to read that are personally interesting to you.
  3. Read more books for children. 
  4. Take recommendations from your students.
  5. Investigate recommendations from industry sources (Goodreads, Library Awards, etc.)
  6. Create your own reader's notebook.
  7. Reflect on what you are reading.

A book whisperer is a reader alongside her children. She models a readerly life and immerses herself in books along with her students. If we do not show that we are readers, how can we expect students to value reading? 

We decided to place these either outside our door or somewhere inside so the students can hold us accountable for our own reading lives. 

Provide Ample Time for Reading


If we want our students to value reading, we must provide time for them to READ! Our group spent the most time talking about this because it was the most dear to our hearts. Teachers seem to feel that when kids "just read", there is no learning going on. But the beauty of reading workshop is that you show the kids how to be deeply engaged with texts and that's exactly where the magic happens. Kids can't apply the reading strategies we teach without time to read. Reading needs to be a daily habit. This isn't a "bell ringer", "warm up", or "when you're done" habit. It's purposeful and meaningful. It's a time a day where kids hold you accountable for their time spent in their books. Without time spent reading, reading workshop will fail. Children learn to read by reading. To be a book whisperer, you must also provide time every single day for independent reading. 

Personally, I completely identify with Donalyn Miller when she says her Amazon bill is way too high and her wish list is way too full of books because she loves to read so much. This is the example we need to be for our students. If we want them to value reading, we must show them we also value reading. 


Cambourne's Conditions for Learning help us think about our classroom in a different way and re-evaluate the time spent planning. The structure of Reading Workshop helps us organize and manage our classroom in a way that supports authentic reading experiences. Living a Readerly Life models good reading behaviors for our students. Providing time in our day for reading allows our students to become proficient readers. Together, these components help you become a book whisperer just like Donalyn Miller. The beautiful story of her classroom is obtainable. It may change from year to year based on the group of students, but it is possible. Like a teacher said, "this just makes so much more sense!" Reading should be engaging and it's up to you to make it that way!

We encourage all of you to grab a copy of Donalyn Miller's book and discover ways you can create a classroom that supports readers.

Join me in two more Books & Brunch Events:
July 16: Notice and Note
July 30: Reading with Meaning

If you have any tips, questions, or just want to share how reading workshop has gone in your classroom, comment below. 

~Macie Kerbs

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