Reading for Minutes


Last night I started Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer – Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child.  While I am only a few chapters into the book, I can tell that Donalyn and I have more in common than just being National Writing Project teaching consultants.  (Yea, she’s a homie – we’re everywhere.)  We have a shared belief that reading and writing are more than just instructional goals – they’re transformative, lifelong skills.  I still remember the first chapter book I read entirely by myself – James and the Giant Peach…and I even remember where I was the moment I read the last page.

While skimming around the blogosphere this afternoon I stumbled across this post, Can Free Cell Phones Motivate Kids to Read? Take a moment to watch the video.  Really, do it – its only 1 minute and 8 seconds.

I have to admit, at first I was sold by the look of excitement on the kids faces.  Wow!  A free cell phone!  Talk about a powerful and culturally relevant incentive. Just look at them.  Every student starts with 300 minutes of talk and text, but two-thirds of the students can earn more time by reading books.  But then I started thinking about it.  Is motivating students to read with additional cell phone minutes a smart idea?  Do we only want kids to read for cell phone minutes or for something more?  Would the incentive ever wear off?  I imagine many would use the argument that we pay adults to do jobs, so it would make logical sense that a student incentive program would convince them to read more books.  While I do appreciate the paycheck I get each month, especially on the day all of the bills are due, I know that the quality of my work, my passion, and my professionalism are motivated by something more personal and internal than an annual salary.

Early in her book Donalyn talks about the importance of helping students become strong, capable readers who love books and reading.

“Building lifelong readers has to start here.  Anyone who calls herself or himself a reader can tell you that it starts with encountering great books, heartfelt recommendations, and a community of readers who share this passion.  A trail of worksheets from a teacher to their students does not build a connection with readers; only books do.”

I imagine additional cell phone minutes doesn’t help to make that connection either and that’s what bothers me about paying students to build transformative, lifelong skills.  Have we given up?  Can we no longer help students become readers by sharing our own love of reading and the value of being an educated citizen?  Do we need cell phones, money, or Accelerated Reader points to do the job?  Cell phones and other technology tools can be powerful instructional devices, but I am worried that we’re sending the wrong message, both about the value of reading and the importance of technology.

Using a workshop methodology Donalyn has redefined her own reading instruction to create an environment where students not only love to read (as demonstrated through student quotes at the beginning of each chapter), but read more than 40 books per year and all pass the state-wide reading exam (85% in the 90th percentile).  Like many of us, Donalyn started out her career teaching reading the way she thought it was “supposed to be done,” but toward the end of the first chapter Donalyn describes an epiphany that guides her current instructional practices.

“These days, I share with my students what no literacy expert could ever teach me.  Reading changes your life.  Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time.  Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education.  Through characters – the saints and sinners, real or imagined – reading shows you how to be a better human being.”

I look forward to finishing the remainder of The Book Whisperer, but I can already sense its a book I need to be reading right now – a reminder of why we’re here in the first place.


Photo: 89/365 by Jer Kunz


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