Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The bookshelf

Within my classroom is an 8 foot tall bookshelf that once belonged to a former colleague.  When he retired he asked if I wanted to keep the bookshelf for Sustained Silent Reading period, otherwise known as SSR.  I was thrilled!  The tall shelf is also a good 3 1/2 to 4 feet wide and can hold a whole lot of books.  The problem was filling it with the variety necessary to peak the interest of all my students, who ranged in reading levels from 4th through college.  What’s more, the books needed to be cheap. 

The answer ended up costing me less than $100 for hundreds of books.  The local hospice shop was the starting point.  The front of the store had a small book section that was occasionally restocked, but nothing very substantial.  My wife and I then asked one of the volunteers if we could go to a back shed where they stored the stuff that hadn’t been sorted yet.  We found a goldmine.  Dozens of boxes with books of all kinds were waiting for our inspection, which we preceded to do for hours.  We left with boxes full of fantasy, sci-fi, chick lit, non-fiction, and a massive collection of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes comic books.  All for dirt cheap.  Then you throw in years of “Friends of the Mendocino Library” book sales.  Every October, the Mendocino County library has an insane book sale that brings out some beautiful gems for next to nothing.  This year it was Sophie Kinsella, some Economics in Action books, and the entire Ken Burns’ Civil War series on VHS, all for about $13.  Score!

Classroom libraries, even a small one, are essential.  They are always busy during SSR, but students will buzz around it on occasion between classes or before school.  My policy on checking out books is honor system; go ahead and take the book, just make sure and bring it back when you are done. 

Believe me, students are reading.  I just notice that teachers like to go around and around with students over content.  Apparently Twilight isn’t good enough for some teachers, kids have to be “exposed” to the great classics.  Let me tell you, from the standpoint of a voracious reader, a whole lot of classics suck.  I was exposed to plenty of books in school that made me shudder with horror at the thought of reading them.  The shelf is varied in content and students are never pressured into reading anything.  Only three rules apply in SSR; no textbook, no homework, no sleeping.  That means that if an AP level students wants to relax the brain on Garfield, go right on ahead.  I also have magazines for students that I get at home and quickly bring to the classroom; Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, The Economist, and Wired.  I think the idea of “a novel must be read during SSR” is bullshit.  We are supposed to be promoting love of reading, not forcing content.  Don’t college students remember not having time for a good read?  S.I. was great because I could sit down at the breakfast table and read an article about Mickey Mantle in five minutes.  The reading wasn’t super high level, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.

Hopefully districts are starting to latch on to the idea that reading promotes literacy and that test scores can go up when you engage kids in the love of literature.  SSR is one of the best times of the days for kids.  Let’em read!                

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