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.