Making Reading Viral

“When we read a good book, the first thing we do is talk about it to our friends, and then we end up giving it to them and they read it, and so on and so forth. I mean, look at Twilight.”

This is a loose paraphrasing of a line from a conversation that occurred last Monday among the middle school teachers in my district. The purpose of the meeting? An all-hands on deck chat about summer reading.

It’s almost Sisyphean. Every year I spend a good deal of time hemming and hawing over whether or not it’s worth doing and whether or not we are doing it right. I’ve come to realize that whether you assign it or not, you will always anger 50% of the school community.

With that realization comes some clarity. If we know that no one will be completely happy, we can focus on doing what we think is right.

The first step in that process is always to ask the staff. Yvette McNeal, our middle school principal, and I got everyone together in the media center during their lunch last Monday to gauge their feeling on summer reading. What should it look like? Should we be assessing? What was the point of it anyway?

The feedback was fantastic from all directions. Teachers discussing their issues with the summer reading from their own children’s school; their concern with the students who read too early in the summer as well as those who read the night before; their feeling that reading, reading anything, was extremely important for kids to do over the two months they are gone.

That last statement is where we began. Let’s ask them to read something. Anything.

And then let’s go back to the beginning of this post and look at the meaning behind that quote: reading is, and always be, a social endeavor. It’s driven by what we share, and a book’s life is determined by how many people buzz about it.

So this is what we decided to do:

  • Require reading, but give complete freedom in choosing what it consists of.
  • Show the community that we are passionate advocates of reading by doing it ourselves.
  • Making the act of reading and sharing publicly visible.
  • Making any “work” the students do in regards to the book an act that will promote what they read to the community.

The first premise we started with is that of course we care about the reading students will do for us and with us, but we really care about the reading they will do in twenty or thirty years. We need to start them thinking about reading as a lifelong endeavor (thanks to Maria Clayton for that one). We will require them to read something over the summer in grades 5-8, but that something is up to them. Our media specialist is fast at work right now building suggested book and magazine lists for each grade level, but students have complete freedom to read anything else they want to.

We then began thinking about how we can show the community that this matters to us in visible ways. Taking a page from the work Ryan Bretag has been doing with his I.D.E.A., we began thinking about how books are shared. That’s where the quote came in. If we read something we love, the first thing we do is run and tell someone “Oh my god, you have to read this book–when I’m finished.” That’s what we want. We want viral reading. We saw it with Hunger Games. We saw it with Twilight, and before that with Harry Potter.

We built a school-wide reading site (sorry for not linking yet–we’re not ready for prime time) where teachers, students, and administrators are going to be featuring one title from each grade level list as the “buzz book,” a title that we will all read as a grade level. That “buzz book” will become the centerpiece of weekly blog posts by teachers, students, and administrators throughout the summer. Alongside that, we’ll also be featuring “staff picks” and “student picks” in the sidebars of the blog so that the community can lean on one another for recommendations. There was also talk of a rating system for the titles as they are read.

Lastly, the dreaded summer reading assignment that awaits each student when they return to school. Rather than have them slog through an essay on a book they may or may not have liked, we decided to use their assignment as another recommendation engine. Students will create book advertisements, book trailers, and flyers for the books or magazines they read over the summer. Each of these will be placed strategically throughout the school, space permitting, and used as part of regular book displays by our media specialists. Additionally, we’ll be collecting data from the students in September to see what the hottest 5th/6th/7th/8th grade title was, and then promoting that as well.

It’s the First Big Plan, and I am excited to see where it takes us.

My Reflections on Tech Forum Northeast-Bretag’s Push

In several of the informal conversations I had with Ryan and David last Friday, they laid out their plan for a  learning space whereby all of student work from moment they enter the high school will travel with them through the four years of high school.  Let me clarify a little from what I gleaned from them.

A problem, as Ryan pointed out in our panel discussion, occurred at several points in their experience with student blogging:

  • What happened if you were blogging in science class, in English class, and in social studies?  Did you as a student have the responsibility for maintaining three distinct blogs?
  • What happened when you finished the year with that teacher?  Did your blog die?  Were you able to take it with you and continue to write on your own?

These points came up as we were trying to get at what lies beyond the tools.  Having students keep isolated, individual blogs goes against most of what we strive for: transfer of understanding from seemingly unrelated areas to others.  We want students relating semi-permeable cell membranes to porous and non-defined border policies.  Having isolated learning spaces goes a long way toward furthering that view of education that our learning is isolated into small, un-meshed parts, when in actuality we learn through our connections to already processed material.

What this calls for is a systemic change within a school whereby students are asked to create their own learning space and tie it into the appropriate places within their subject areas.  For example, if a student sat down to write a piece for social studies on their blog, but found connections within the topic to a novel or short story they read in English, they could tag it with both socialstudies and english and the learning space would feed it to both of those courses’ Moodle site.  The teachers could then review the writing and help the student make deeper connections between the two.

Having some platform for blogging that is external, but able to be configured to be private is key here.  Google Apps may work, and I am sure you could configure WPMU to do this as well (both of which are beyond my realm).  This way, the students, as they graduate in four years, are able to take a body of writing over time with them to the college level, thus it becomes their portfolio.

I am truly just beginning to think beyond the glitz and glam of this tool or that one and delve into the deep possibilities we now have.  It’s empowering to know that we are capable of giving students this ability and that it really is very close to happening in certain places.  However, the biggest hurdle is getting more of my staff on board with the architecture of it.  Not every teacher understands blogging, tagging, or even what RSS is, nevertheless the connective and transformative nature of the tools.

That, however, was my second takeaway from last Friday.

Beyond the Web 2.0 Hype: Focusing on What Really Matters

A few months back, I got an email from the organizers of Tech Forum Northeast asking me if I wanted to participate in a panel discussion at their upcoming conference.  The panel, they said, would include Ryan Bretag, David Jakes, and David Warlick.  I emailed back a quick “are you sure this is the right email you wanted to send that too?” message, and found out it was me indeed they wanted on that panel.

Whoa.  What a great opportunity for some serious thinking and dialogue.  And again, whoa.  Who am I?  So before they could reconsider, I accepted.  Our panel called Beyond the Web 2.0 Hype: Focusing on What Really Matters, went on at 9:30 and I wanted to thank Lisa Thumann for recording it.

I wanted to thank Judy Salpeter for inviting me and making the arrangements, and to the other panelists, David, David, and Ryan, for pushing my thinking.  It was a blast, and I was thankful that David gave us some of the questions beforehand. The audience asked some great questions and made some salient points, but I think it was Ryan’s point about asking us what we really define an educated person as that will drive my thinking for a while.

What do we expect our students to be when they leave us?  What is our goal as educators?  I heard Zac Chase in my afternoon session on School Leadership state it in a way that I immediately gravitate towards: ethical, responsible, citizens.  The elements that define those three descriptors still need to be determined, but I think it’s an excellent place to start building backwards from.

The video is below.

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