Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Book Whisperer

Title: The Book Whisperer
Author: Donalyn Miller
Genre: Non-fiction, Education
Price: $22.95
ISBN: 9780470372272

I've been asked to read a lot of books for my education courses, and some have been fairly traditional, perhaps to a fault (my classroom management text is abhorrent) while others have been a bit radical. But this book, one that was lent to me by my mentor teacher this semester, introduces a concept that completely turns the world of English education upside.

Donalyn Miller suggests that English teachers let their students choose their own books. Having come from the school of class-wide novels, starting in the 9th grade, I, at first, could not quite picture what that sort of classroom would look like. Chaos, perhaps? The depths of Hell stretching open and sucking the classroom downward because students weren't having Dandelion Wine shoved down their throats (this was the dumbest book I've ever been assigned to read in high school). Miller spends a bulk of her book explaining what does happen in her classroom, and it's far from horrifying.

Miller teachers a 6th grade English and Social Studies class and she does not assign class novels. Her students are instead required to read a hefty 40 books a school year. And they do it. Well, they do it for the most part. Miller does confess that not all students meet the criteria, but those who don't are still reading considerably more than they ever have in their lives, and plenty of students also exceed the required number of books.

There are multiple examples of how successful reading and expanded literacy throughout the book, painting a convincing portrait of Miller's classroom. Her students improve their reading skills, write better, and perform just as well if not above students who are placed in more traditional English classes on state exams.  She also provides numerous testimonials from students, as well as sample questionnaires and surveys from her students regarding how they feel about reading. Much of what Miller shares could leave even the most staunch advocate of the class-wide novel questioning her methods.

What's more, Miller is a solid writer. She leaves the dry, lecture-y style behind, which is often adopted in this sort of book, and speaks to you as a colleague, friend, and fellow bibliophile. I found myself engaged with her for all these reasons, but most especially because we seem to share an affinity for fantasy novels. That said, I could see how those who do not share similar tastes in books could become annoyed with her constant references to Harry Potter or Cornelia Funke's Inkheart series.

Another negative I found within the book does not contribute so much to the enjoyment or effectiveness of delivering a message, but with personal philosophy on teaching, or the teaching positions one is in or foresees oneself in. Much of what Miller promotes may not apply to anyone who teaches beyond middle school. I completely agree that before the 9th grade, students should be read, read, reading everything and anything they get their hands on and should be encouraged to LOVE it. I was very rarely ever assigned a book to read before the 9th grade (The Devil's Arithmetic in the 6th grade, and I loved it), and I credit that for helping to perpetuate my love for reading (it also helped that my mom and dad read to us every night before bed up until I was in high school). I found that once I hit the 9th grade and was started to be assigned novels, I read considerably less than I had before, if only because I had not time outside the reading I had to do for school.

However. In high school, you have the expectation that you're going to be graduating at some point and either moving out into the "real world" or entering some sort of post-graduate program (tech school, trade school, university and the like). You're going to have to learn how to delegate your time and energy. You're going to have to learn how to get through doing things you may not be completely emotionally engaged with. And, if you're planning on attending a four-year university, you're going to take freshman English, and this course will have required reading of texts that if you're only reading books you like, you may have never, ever experienced before. Miller never mentions this. In fact, she basically says don't worry about it, but I was not sure if she was saying that specifically to other middle grade teachers, or to all teachers. If it's just to middle grade teachers, right on, I agree, but if it's also directed to high school teachers--eh, wrong!!

I diverge from Miller's beliefs when I say students need to have experiences with different kinds of texts in order to be completely fluent readers. If I was allowed to read whatever I wanted with no check, then it would be YA Fic all the way! But because my education concentration in in English, I have been required to take a multitude of literature courses that have required me to read everything from Percy Shelley to John Donne to Virginia Woolf. Some of it I've liked, some of it I could have done without, but ALL of it has left me a stronger reader, because I've had to work at it.

That said, you probably can't get to that point without a strong foundation in reading to begin with, so elementary and middle school teachers need to get on that. I was lucky, others not so much, and I suppose that's what Miller was trying to say.

I apologize, this "review" has become more of a short treatise on what I think about the teaching of reading. Let's finish this thing up.

Comparable Reads: I haven't had the opportunity to read anything quite like this before, so I don't know that I have anything comparable. I'm more than open to suggestions of similar texts.

Who this book is for: Well, teachers. And I am disregarding content. I think teachers from almost any content area would benefit from hearing about how important it is for students to be constantly reading and engaged in reading. Even if I don't completely buy into everything Miller has to say (though she makes tons of excellent points), she is absolutely correct that actual reading needs to emphasized more in the classroom.

I also feel that parents should read this. Granted, I think parents should read almost any education book, because it's helpful to know how the people who spend six hours a day with your kid feel on certain subjects. I think this book gives excellent insight on how a classroom can be run and what should be expected of children as they take on new skills--and this is important for parents to know.

Happy Reading!!

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