We’re only 5 months in, and 2016 has already been a doozie. We lost Prince, despise our police force, and are considering the election of a misogynist tycoon turned reality-TV star. Americans have an undeniable xenophobia crisis, and the whole world is undergoing a digital information overload. Just a few years after Donalyn Miller proposed her 40 Book Challenge, America has undergone significant cultural shifts. Our campus has fully embraced the 40 Book Challenge, and, while I disagree with it being a curricular requirement, it is my job as our campus reading interventionist to figure out how to make it work for my students that are required to do it.
1. Make it relevant.
Ask any librarian, scholar, or teacher why reading is crucial. Vocabulary development, comprehension, and improving ability to pass standardized tests will inevitably come up a bit, but the core of their response will relate to learning about our world. We value reading because it takes us on journeys. It gives us a lens to sympathize with people and cultures and situations we’d never find ourselves in. Yet, when we ask students to read 40 books from different genres, this isn’t addressed. What social and emotional learning outcomes do we want students to gather from reading? What cross-curricular amplification can we give in our reading classes? For my 40 book challenge, I’ve adjusted my required reading categories. While some are genre-specific, many of them are thematic (Books About Another Culture; Books About Teen Leaders). Through this, they’re learning the content they need to support their other classes and support themselves in “the real world.” Additionally, I am a huge advocate for adjusting curriculum to promote reading in the digital age. My students are all required to maintain a blog, as well as read and comment on others’. Therefore, one of my challenge categories is Blog Subscriptions. They “follow,” respond to, and critique a minimum of two blogs. Sure, their standardized tests are on paper, but c’mon. Aren’t we past teaching to the test by now? Additionally, as more and more tests are administered online, students need to learn to effectively transfer offline reading strategies to an online environment. Highlighters and numbered paragraphs don’t exist in the binary realm.
2. Increase student ownership.
What baffles me about the way may schools use the 40 Book Challenge is its inflexibility. Of course there is value in reading across genres, but forcing a student to read a certain amount in every single genre seems to take the wonder out of reading. Additionally, it doesn’t address why reading different genres is important. For us in the educational hellhole of Texas, one reason is to make sure they can nail the following for the STAAR test: drama, poetry, short fiction, informational texts, and visuals. Unfortunately, because of the situation, it is very important they can read these with relative ease. what about the rest of the genre requirements, though? If my student is passionate about non-fiction texts, why make her sludge through a graphic novel? Sure, she might learn she enjoys them, but she has more than likely she already knows she doesn’t like them. We use the 40 Book Challenge like we’re in the Dead Poet’s Society; we use it like we’re going to magically reveal the majesty of hardcore sci-fi to our Bluford High loving teens (and vice-versa). Reality: we’re not. They like what they like, and educators should embrace this. Many of our learning objectives can be mastered within the same genre, and that’s okay! If we want our students to read and enjoy reading, we cannot subject them to strict form boundaries. Addressing my earlier point, keep your categories open and focused on theme and social/emotional student needs helps to accomplish this as well. If my student is learning how to be mindful, intelligent, compassionate, and worldy, I am a-okay with them doing so only reading verse novels.
3. Make it safe.
Teachers who give a page minimum requirement for students doing this challenge are total losers. If you’re differentiating instruction on a daily basis (uh, you should be), this should be differentiated as well. Many of my struggling readers are proud to finish a 23 page book. I am too! The point of this challenge is exposure. It doesn’t need to be long to be effective, especially if they’re enduring a category they really don’t care for. The challenge shouldn’t be about shame. Return to what makes reading important and magical, and base your challenge requirements on this.
4. Who the hell reads 40 books in 9-months?
Hey teacher friend, tell me a point in your life when you have ever accomplished this. I can tell you I never have, even in my most avid reading years. I love that the bar is set high. Many students are able to accomplish this. However, so many look at the list and automatically accept defeat. Do not assume your student can or will read at home. Do not assume their parents know about the challenge. Do not assume that outside of your classroom, they have a positive and calm enough learning environment to do this. Throughout the entire post, I’ve been referring to this as the 40-book challenge. However, not all of my categories are books and guess what? I don’t even have 40 books required on their log! I have blogs, newspapers, and (gasp!) magazines thrown in there too. My total number adds up to 32, not 40. Set a bar that works for your class. Don’t give in to trend. What works best for you and your school?? If you’re in a supportive position like mine, then do that: support. You don’t have to require 40 books a year. Please, please, please use your close reading skills and consume Miller’s follow up post about this. Advocate for your students. If your department is still clinging on to the 40 books, speak up. Show them the revisited post and do what you can to adjust the challenge to fit your needs.
In short, do what you do with the rest of your lessons: be inspired and unafraid to adjust. Piggy back, don’t copy. The 40 Book Challenge is loosely defined and will never fit every classroom. And, much like the Dewey Decimal System, it just isn’t fit for 2016. Move on, improve, inspire, and have your students do the same.