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  • Writer's pictureJenna Miller

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller was the fall Mama Book Club read for the Read Aloud Revival website. Miller teaches 6th grade language arts and social studies at a public school in Keller, Texas. This book showcases her unusual teaching methods that go against the commonly held tactics teachers use in regards to her subjects. After struggling through a few years of whole-class novels, book reports, and worksheets, etc., Miller realized that none of her students left her class loving to read. Reading continued to be a chore, rather than a desire. A travesty! So she took a different approach.

"We shouldn't teach great books, we should teach a love of reading." --B.F. Skinner

No matter where a child stands entering her classroom, each is required to read 40 books during the school year. She provides in-class reading time to facilitate this goal. Kids get to pick their own books to read instead of being assigned a one-size-does-not-fit-all novel. For history, kids choose from books relating to the topics they are studying, which brings the events to life. Miller takes her kids to the school library and teaches them how to use it and behave in it. She has her kids fill out questionnaires at the beginning of the year to discover their interests and help them find books they will love.

The results: her kids always pass their state exams, even those who has previously failed. None of her kids have ever stopped reading once they reach their requirement. Even if some kids do not read a total of 40 books in one year, they have read more than they ever have before. As they move on to new grades and new teachers, many kids continue to nurture their newfound love of reading, but many also find this desire squashed by teachers who not see the value, or are not allowed, to implement a free-reading classroom. Miller also has her kids fill out end-of-year questionnaires where they consistently leave feedback that the best resource for a student to fall in love with reading, is a teacher who loves to read and shares honestly with her students about the reading life.

I learned so much from this book. I had never thought critically regarding the whole class novel simply because that was all I ever knew in school. I attended public, military Department of Defense, and private schools all implementing the same style of teaching. However, I can clearly recall how many kids in my English and social studies classes did not read their assigned books, or bought the CliffsNotes versions instead. I rarely enjoyed an assigned book in school, and became completely turned off toward poetry in general. I would be surprised if the majority of us who were taught in the same vein did not feel the same.

I appreciated that Miller gives more positive names to the different types of student readers:

  • Struggling readers become developing readers--those who struggle with reading in all areas of life, either from a lack of reading experience or a learning disability.

  • Reluctant readers become dormant readers--those who read to pass their classes, but never do so outside of schoolwork.

  • Gifted readers become underground readers--those who see school reading as completely disconnected from pleasure reading. Usually their needs are unaddressed by teachers as they are seen as needing less attention than other students.

I see this book as being incredibly influential for any teacher of a subject that requires reading, or any parent who wants to encourage reading in their own home. For teachers who want to implement something new in their classwork, Miller includes some great suggestions on how to do so. She also has samples of her surveys at the end of the book, along with a list of tried-and-true favorite books chosen year after year by her students. I recognized many of the titles and authors from my own time in middle school, but there are also so many new ones as well. I added several to my To Be Read list.

Does anyone else have thoughts on how their joy, or lack thereof, for reading was affected by the way literature and language arts was taught in their schools?

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