Falling in love with books!


A problem:

Schools sometimes teach the skill of reading without creating the hunger for reading.

Not enough students fall in love with reading.

Our basic plan:

We'll pull out all the stops to cultivate a community in which all kids regularly fall in love with a multitude of books. (See the list below for how we might do that.)

Our goals:

Every student — not just almost every student — enjoys reading, and wants to do it more!

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

  1. A small collection of books that constantly grows larger. A huge collection of unknown books can feel alien and imposing to people, so at a year's beginning you might only see a small number of books in a room. The teacher will give students a pitch for each of these books — to arouse students' interest. Then, each day, the teacher will publicly add another book to the collection, giving a very brief pitch about why students might find it interesting. (This uses a psychological trick: feelings of scarcity can create feelings of values. It also relies on students having more interest in a collection of books that they know something about, and that someone they know — their teacher — already values.)
  2. A daily period of silent, sustained reading (SSR). In this period, students can read whatever they want. Ideally, it would be wonderful to synchronize this team throughout the school, so everyone — all students, all teachers, all administrators and custodians — could have the experience of reading simultaneously.
  3. Comfortable reading spaces: bean bags, soft carpet, reclining chairs, fancy arm chairs, and the like. Our classrooms should be full of reading nooks.
  4. Book tastings! It's hard to get excited about a book you know little about, so during we might kick off our SSRs with a 3-minute book tasting: students find a book they've never read, and dip into it for 3 minutes. If it's fiction, that probably means reading the beginning; if it's nonfiction, that means looking at the inside cover, the table of contents, and then just leafing through the book to see if anything catches your interest. (Tasting large numbers of books in libraries and bookstores is, by the way, one of my personal secrets as an avid reader.)
  5. Students treating books with respect — and perhaps even reverence. We might have rules, for example, that books can't touch the ground. Like all rules of this sort, this would be silly on one level, but could lead to change attitudes.
  6. Photos of authors on the wall. Books are not just things — they're fragments of real people. It can be good to help kids remember that.
  7. A regular practice of kids giving short, public book recommendations. This is similar to the book reports we all did in grade school — except with the specific goal of actually getting other students excited to read the book!
  8. An index of questions. As students read, they can write down what questions they think the book answers. For nonfiction, this might include questions like "What's the bottom of the ocean like?" and "Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?" For fiction, this might include questions like "How could you survive if you were abandoned in the forest?" and "If your parents were divorcing, and were both emotionally distant from you, how might you cope?" Students looking for a new book could flip through this index of questions.

Some specific questions:

  • Should we go so far as to help kids make a reading nook at home?
  • In general, I'd like to guarantee families zero homework (or a very limited amount) each night. But I'm thinking about making an exception for personal reading — maybe requiring 30 minutes each day. What are the advantages and disadvantages to that?



A problem:

Our minds have minds of their own.

Think of our minds are dumb, sometimes-raging elephants, barely under control of the puny riders ("us") sitting on top of them. Most of the time, in our school, we whisper to the elephants — giving them curriculum that will interest them. (In fact, we consider "School for Elephants" as the name of this blog.)

But sometimes, we just have to take control. Meditation is a way to do that — to calm the elephant.

Our basic plan:

Kids meditate throughout the day, in short bursts. Over time, they get good at it.

The goals:

In the short-term, meditation helps kids segue from more-active pursuits (e.g. recess) into less-active ones (e.g. reading). In the long-term, kids become able to control their elephants more easily.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Kids, sitting at desks and on the floor, meditating, while a teacher leads them.

Some specific questions:

  • What curriculum already exists for this? Is there a "best practices" curriculum for meditation?
  • What specific religious objections should we be prepared to work around?
  • What specific types of meditation should we engage? (Mindfulness meditation? Lovingkindness meditation?)
  • Is it possible to link meditation to any of the other subjects? (Art? Literature? Science? Math?)
  • Is there an app for this? Are there ways to help kids do this individually, or in small groups?
  • When should this be done in the school day? (Before/after what sort of activities?)

CONTENT is KING. Or maybe not? (part 2)

On Monday, I tried to explain why I found Kieran Egan’s model of Imaginative Education (and Corbett Charter School’s living out of Egan’s model) so danged exciting. I attempted to explain it in terms of the depth of content that their teachers and students regularly swim in. Instead of skating the surface of a topic, covering what’s most important, they dive into topics, constantly uncovering fascinating details.

As I pointed out, that explanation fails. Depth of content can’t, all by itself, be what strikes me so powerfully about IE, because diving deeply into content can still be boring. (Horribly boring, in fact.)

If content-focused education is to be wonderful, I suggested, it would have to be nested inside something larger.

So let me try this again:

What strikes me so powerfully about IE is that it engages emotions, not just cognition. Furthermore, it sees all academic content as potentially rich in emotional substance.

There are two pieces of this, which I’ll explore for the rest of the week. First, IE is making a statement about human psychology: our emotions are more fundamental than our rationality. Second, IE is making a statement about the external world: virtually everything already has emotional resonance; we don’t have to try to “make” things interesting, as much as “bring out” how they’re already interesting.

Again, I’ll sketch out these two pieces this week, but in the end this discussion boils down to this:

How can we create a school that puts human interests, emotions, hopes, and fears at the center of the curriculum? How can we create a school that sees “academic content” (gods, that term is so dry, isn’t it?) as full of rich complexity that can feed many aspects of our students? How can we conceive of a school that sees itself as a portal to the wonder of the world?