“Mrs. Palmer has changed my life.”

I received an email from a parent about a week ago.  This was an email that literally brought tears to my eyes, because it was one of those moments of elation where you know you’ve helped to create a lasting impact on a child.  The title of this post, “Mrs. Palmer has changed my life” was a statement one of my students told his mother in reference to reading this year.  I am a big believer in giving credit to those who help me, help my students. So, thank you to Donalyn Miller, a sixth-grade teacher in Texas and author of The Book Whisperer.  I also have to give a shout out to two of my colleagues who read this book before I did and encouraged others to read it as well.

Back to the email from a parent.  The parent told her child she had noticed that he had taken a much bigger interest in reading this year.  The parent said she was taken aback when he said “Mrs. Palmer has changed my life.”  He went on to explain that he loves reading because of the new approach we have taken in our classroom.

So, what is this approach?  It is the one suggested in the book The Book Whisperer.  The basic premise of this book is that we are killing the love of reading in our kids with so much skill and drill.  Because of this, we are not creating life-long readers.  Miller also discusses how our job needs to focus more on facilitating the love of reading.  If we can create an exciting, encouraging and supportive community of readers, our students will be much more likely to become life-long readers and those pesky standardized test scores will take care of themselves!

I have to admit, after reading this book last summer, I asked myself  this: “Really?  Does this approach make that much of a difference?”  I have never been a fan of book reports and had already decided to stop assigning them.  But, I also knew something was lacking in my classroom.  What was lacking was an exciting community of readers.   So, I decided to give Miller’s approach a shot. (I’m aways willing to try anything that may benefit kids).  I declared an official end to any and all types of book reports in my classroom, which was met with LOTS of elation from students and parents!  In place of this, I am requiring my fifth graders to read 18 books this year, 14 of which are chapter books.  There are specific genres they have to read, but there is still room for lots of choice in what they read.  I started off the year spending lots of time talking about books, sharing my excitement about books and teaching the kids how to be independent readers.  The excitement was balanced with a little nervousness from the students as they were used to being told what to read and to do reports after reading.  One student even exclaimed “Wow, I have to do 18 book reports!?”  I said “No, you just have to read.”  The students were amazed at this and got right to work on their 18 books they have to read.

I am not going to explain all the ins and outs of this new approach. I will say that on 90% of our days, the students have independent reading time in class (15-30min. per class period).  They have learned to be self-sufficient readers, they are in the habit of responding to their reading via reading responses and they absolutely love to share what they’re reading.  (And, I love hearing about it!)

I used Survey Monkey to get feedback from my parents mid-year.  I received an immense amount of support for this approach.  About 75% of my parents said their child is reading more than they did last year.  (Some of the 25% said their child had always read a lot).  They had a place to leave comments and thanked me repeatedly for no book reports and for letting their kids “just read” this year!

So, I am happy to say, I was proven wrong. I really did not think Donalyn Miller’s approach would make that much of a difference.  But, it has.  I see a consistent excitement in the eyes of my students as they daily share about the books they’re reading, I receive emails and comments of support from parents, and I witness a motivation to read like I have never seen before.

If you are an educator or parent, I highly suggest you read The Book Whisperer, and help re-ignite a passion for reading!

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13 thoughts on ““Mrs. Palmer has changed my life.”

  1. Congratulations, first for getting that awesome email and secondly for having the courage to move out of the traditional method and introduce this program which obviously had the desired effect. As a former MO elementary school teacher, part of our district curriculum for reading was book reports. And you are right, the parents hated them as much as the kids. Your students are fortunate to have you and no doubt you will have a lasting effect on the lives of these children. MSTA alum as well.

  2. That’s awesome. I too feel that “skill and drill” is rather adept at killing a student’s love for reading.

    When I taught in Kansas City, the district mandated an hour and a half each day of a reading program called Success For All. Basically, it was a “teacher proof”, scripted system that was highly structured and supposedly proven to increase test scores. When other teachers and I met with my principal and the SFA consultant, the two of them encouraged us to use SFA to specifically target the grade level expectations that students scored poorly on during the past year’s state test.

    It was a disaster. The kids generally hated it, and so did most teachers. Not really caring what my principal thought, I opted to do away with the SFA structure (something I was constantly criticized for) and try to address my students’ needs.

    Even when I was an elementary student, I hated it when our school started incorporating Accelerated Reader and requiring us to score a certain number of points on the exams. I didn’t understand the point of it. I read roughly two or more books every week, and I felt like it cheapened the reading process.

    I’ll have to check out that book. Although it runs contrary to many “best practices” and the current obsession with testing/accountability, I feel like schools do a fantastic job at destroying a love of reading by making it always tested, questioned, and turned into something that it wasn’t meant to be.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story Frank. It is an unfortunate experience you and your students were forced to deal with. Kudos to you for doing what you knew was right, despite the criticism you received. That is courage and that is what we need to change education. This current push for high-stakes testing and pseudo-accountability is harming our children. It was an amazing experience I had this past year to step away from intense skill and drill all the time to a more balanced approach with teaching comprehension and the love of reading. It was by far my most successful year in teaching reading, and most importantly, my students benefited immensely.

  3. Congrats, Annie! I think it is amazing what happens when we encourage children to read instead of doing skill and drill. There is certainly much research to show that the skill and drill does not work. If we want children to read, they need to spend time reading. I taught first grade and Reading Recovery, but even children at that age can learn to love their SSR (self-sustained reading) time! I went back to visit my children this fall as they are in second grade. One of my RR students ran up to me and said, “You know I’m still a great reader! I read every chance I get!” Well, you can imagine that I was left in tears to see the transformation in that little girl. I will look for the book–sounds wonderful! Thank you for what you do!

    1. Thanks for commenting on my blog Lynne. What an amazing story you shared! Congrats to you as well! THAT is why we teach, isn’t it?! 🙂 Have you checked out The Book Whisperer yet? The author is Donalyn Miller. She’s on Facebook and Twitter if you’re into social media. It would be a great book study for your building!

  4. Annie – for me, it was reading Nancy Atwell’s The Reading Zone. I sometimes feel as though I’m in a bubble allowing my students to simply enjoy reading – so glad to hear that I’m not alone! That reading time is coveted in our class and isn’t it great when the students ask for more? It warms my heart when the students sigh when I put the music on to signal our transition to sharing each day.

  5. Sean

    Hello Mrs. Palmer my name is Sean Whatley and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am currently pursuing a degree in Secondary Education in Social Science. I really enjoyed reading your blog, it was inspiring. I know growing up I use to hate doing book reports, my main reason for disliking them was due to the fact that I had no choice when it came to the book I had to read. The idea of allowing students to read just to enjoy themselves is like a breath of fresh air. Keeping students excited and interested in learning is the key to success. Thank you for sharing your success story with us and I will be sure to get my hands on a copy of “The Book Whisperer”.

    1. Hi Sean,

      It’s good to hear you are pursuing a degree in the social science. You and I have some commonality there. I have a great love of history, government and politics. We need more high-quality teachers in that field. Thanks for reading my blog. I need to start writing and responding to comments more. I’ve got away a bit this summer as I gave myself a break from work! 🙂 I’m glad you found my blog useful. That is the point of my writing it! Nobody wants to read useless stuff! Yes, the whole book report debate is interesting. What you experienced growing up is unfortunate and still continues in many classrooms. It’s a hard transition for many teachers to make (going from book reports to choice in reading), especially ones who have taught more than five years. It, unfortunately, is still tradition. But, we’re making progress in my district. I was absolutely amazed this past year as my students’ interest in reading took off like I’ve never seen it. They talked about books, were excited and became great independent readers! I was so happy for them! The Book Whisperer was written by Donalyn Miller. She is on Facebook and Twitter if you’re into social media. Don’t hesitate to let me know if you have questions or thoughts to share. Collaboration is key in education! Good luck in pursuing your degree and thanks for teaching in the social sciences!

  6. Mary

    I did not say it in my later post, but I am also a student at the University of South Alabama pursuing a degree in Elementary Education. The education classes I have taken so far have really boosted my enthusiasm for becoming a teacher. Reading your blog and others’ have also inspired me to influence my future classes to be lifelong learners and to actually enjoy it!
    I will definitely have to read The Book Whisperer. Growing up, I remember doing book reports and some of my classmates having trouble keeping up with reading assignments. Accelerated Reader discouraged many of my classmates from continuing to read even though our school rewarded us for completing our goals. A few years ago, the schools implemented something terribly evil called DEBILS. My siblings underwent this program and never gained anything from it. It is based on speed reading and students are tested on how fast they can read, NOT how well they comprehend the material. My brothers had a great deal of trouble with this and my parents were extremely frustrated with the objective of this program. They would ask my brothers to read something and they would zoom through what was written. My parents could not understand what my brothers said and my brothers could not remember a word they had just read. I am not sure if this program is still in effect, but I really hope it is not for the sake of students everywhere.
    Thanks for a refreshing technique to influence children to read and a new book on my personal “Must Read” list!

    Sincerely,
    Mary Bishop

  7. I am a former teacher renewing my teaching certificate at the University of South Alabama. Your post is an excellent reflection on an experiment gone right. I have to agree that we are drilling the love of reading right out of our students. We definitely can do more to facilitate the love of reading to create life-long readers. All we need to do is try! Your implementation of the approach you read about in “The Book Whisperer” is very encouraging. I wish every teacher would try this. It makes me think of the AR program that my children participate in. They are literally forced to read and achieve a certain number of points per quarter. It can be very stressful. The approach you used is so much more laid back and gets the same results. I know that some children do not like reading, but forcing them to read does not help the situation. Sparking the interest and enjoyment is definitely more important than points and book reports. Thank you for the post.
    It is an excellent reflection and it has given me valuable incite.

    Tricia Spafford
    tweet me @momspafford

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