12 tips for building a beautiful classroom library

“How do you get all of these beautiful books?”

AA Lit Library

Before answering that question, I wanted to share a quick story that will give you a better idea of how my classroom philosophy and library has grown over time…

In 2015-16, I decided to make the “loop” from a middle school to a high school in the same cluster, which meant that I had the honor of teaching many of my eighth graders again as ninth graders.

There was only one problem: time, or the lack thereof. Our high school runs on a block schedule, which means that I see my students for 80ish minutes every other day. When you factor in two weeks for semester exams, another two weeks for end-of-year state exams, and another day or two each quarter for mandated district assessments, we’re down to like 150 days. Cut that in half and we’re talking 75 days. (Not to mention teacher and student absences, field trips, assemblies, fire drills, snow days, etc.) 75 days. That’s it!

Early on that year, I tried planning a Lord of the Flies unit. It went about as well as you’d expect. I quickly realized that the traditional (and generally accepted) way of doing the high school English block wasn’t going to work, and began to develop a different approach (you can read more about that here).

I knew that I had 75 days to help my students fall in love with reading, again or for the first time. Therefore, every minute, every text, every assignment had to be intentional, especially if I wanted students to consider reading during the other 290 days of the year (and the following year, and for the rest of their lives).

And so, as I started to prioritize choice and time and access and relevance and volume…it worked! Not right away. Not perfectly. Not for all students at the same time. But, it worked.

And guess what else happened as I gave students consistent time to read? I started to read more, too. It became easier to make recommendations and to build relationships. My students and I began to bond over books. (It’s amazing how many students become “behavior problems” when you make them read crappy texts).

“Wait, how is class over already?”

“Before this year, I hated to read.”

“Can you teach us again next year?”

By May, I wasn’t ready to say good bye to my ninth graders. We were just getting started. And so, with the support of our school’s administrative team, I was able to “loop” again.

The next fall, the start of the 2016-17 school year, Project LIT Community was born. At the time, we did not have any of the beautiful books that you see on our shelves today.

“So, how do you get all of these beautiful books?”

Here’s my advice…

1. Work with your students to develop a list of recommend reads. You know, the books that fly off your shelves and tend to make their way into backpacks and homes (that’s a good thing, by the way!). Then, create a visual like this one that you can share with friends and family.

2017 Reads Amato

I know we want to fill our libraries immediately, but focus on quality more than quantity.  If the book’s not going to be read, why bother? There’s a reason it only costs a quarter. (With that said, if you know how to find great books on the cheap, let me know!

2. Make it easy for people to donate! There are two options I’d suggest:

A. Encourage people to “drop off books at your school Monday-Friday between ____ and ____” (especially if you’re hosting a larger book drive)

B. Create an Amazon Wishlist. Be sure to follow my friend and Project LIT chapter leader Mrs. G (@mrsg_mchs) on Twitter to see how this looks in action!

3. Empower your students in this process! Have them design graphics. Write persuasive letters to community members. Star in videos. Pose for pictures. Run social media accounts. Create commercials. You name it! The goal is to make sure that…

4. Supporters see and hear from our students! Remember that the kind folks out there are not buying these books for us (the boring adults). They’re buying them for our amazing young people! It’s important to show our community that our students WANT to read these books, NEED to read these books, LOVE to read these books.


5. Remember to say thank you! It takes 30 seconds to snap a picture of your students and share it with your crazy aunt on Facebook who just purchased 10 books from your Amazon Wishlist. It takes five minutes to grab a bunch of notecards and have your students write thank you notes to everyone who contributed to your Donors Choose project. It matters.

6. Be passionate! Be persistent! I know that in a perfect world, teachers would not have to spend their time hustling for books on social media. Believe me, I get that. And it breaks my heart that there always seems to be money for test-prep programs and scripted curriculum and central office staff members and turnaround specialists and the latest technology. Books, though? Nah, you’re on your own there, teach.

However, in order to change that, on both an individual and systemic level, we’ve got to be passionate. We’ve got to be persistent. We’ve got to keep on posting, and preaching, and persuading. We’ve got to keep on sharing, and shouting, and celebrating the small successes.

Does it take time? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

7. Tell everybody. When you’re passionate, people notice. Students will say, “Mr. Amato, that dude’s a reader. He loves books.” My friends and family know it, too. Reading has a way of coming up in conversations. And every once in a while, someone will even ask, “How can I help?” I’m always ready with my answer!

8. Be sure to keep your principal in the loop, too. Share the great things that are happening in your classroom. Share your vision for literacy instruction. Share how your students are growing as readers and writers. Need data? Share student work and student reflections and student surveys. Share parent feedback.

All parents (and I assume all administrators) love seeing students who are engaged and excited to come to English class. They love hearing that their students are reading more than they have in years. They love knowing that their students’ identities and cultures are affirmed through the texts they’re reading. They love watching their students gain confidence and a sense of belonging.

Once parents and principals are on board, they’ll become some of your biggest advocates and supporters.

9. Apply for grants. Look, I hear you. I can picture the meme. “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” And it’s true. We barely have enough time to eat our lunch most days.

But, keep your eyes open. I usually discover grants while scrolling through my Twitter feed, and not all of the applications require you to write a thesis.

Oh yeah, I get rejection letters all the time. And they all sting. I spend three or four hours (at least) pouring my heart out, trying to explain to a stranger why my amazing students deserve access to Long Way Down and Dear Martin and The Hate U Give,  out only to get back some scripted “Thanks for…Unfortunately…maybe next year…” email?! It hurts.

But, as Michael Jordan likes to say (at least I think it’s MJ), “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” (Never mind, I just Googled it — shout out to Wayne Gretzky!)

Besides, it only takes one or two to say yes, and then you can take that grant money and…

10. Order from First Book! I cannot speak more highly of First Book, its team and its mission. The marketplace is a game-changer for teachers and schools who care about getting great books into the hands of kids!

11. Join Project LIT Community. We’re a growing group of passionate teachers and students who are committed to flooding our schools and communities with diverse books. While we come from elementary and high schools, urban and rural districts, we’re unified in our belief that this is THE work that matters.

As soon as you complete our chapter leader application, we’ll send you a bunch of checklists and resources to help you get started. From there, we have an amazing community of educators across the country ready to offer support and inspiration, whether it’s sharing/swapping books, boosting your Donors Choose Project, or providing words of encouragement in our Facebook group and Twitter chats (#ProjectLITchat).

Over the past year, teachers and students have launched Project LIT chapters in more than 150 schools in 35 states, and we’re just getting started! Don’t hesitate to reach out if you’d like to learn more about our grassroots movement.

12. Start small, but start somewhere. Change happens one book at a time, and in a couple of years, you and your students will be able to look back at the journey and be proud of what you have accomplished together!

That’s all I’ve got for now. Thanks so much for reading! Please reach out via email (jarred.amato@gmail.com) or Twitter (@jarredamato) with any questions or comments!

Sunday 7: Project LIT Summit, Kwame’s “Rebound,” Black History Month & more

This week’s edition of the “Sunday 7” includes several book recommendations and an exciting Project LIT announcement. Before we begin, however, be sure read this beautiful blog post by my friend, Julia Torres.

Julia touches on the impact of Nic Stone’s (#BookBeyonce) recent life-changing visit to Montbello and what it takes to help students develop reading identities, especially those who grow up in book deserts, before addressing the most recent school shooting:

Love is also a verb.  It’s not just what you think, feel, or say.  It is not the expression of now-becoming-defunct “Thoughts and prayers”.  It’s what you do.  If we truly want change, we have to show that with our actions.  The future is now.  We cannot afford to wait for “someday”. Change has to begin today.

Unsurprisingly, it’s our students who are leading the way, demanding better, changing our world.

Angie Thomas Tweet

1. SAVE THE DATE: Project LIT Summit

I’m thrilled to announce that our inaugural Project LIT Summit will take place here in Nashville, TN on June 16, 2018. More details to come soon, but we’d love for you to join us as we spend the day celebrating our efforts to increase access to diverse books and promote a love of reading in schools and communities across our country!


Kwame does it again! Fans of The Crossover will not be disappointed with the prequel, which brings us back to the summer of 1988 as Chuck Bell struggles to cope with the loss of his father. Again, this book is about more than just basketball, and readers of all ages will find themselves rooting for Chuck from start to finish!

Rebound Bulletin

Good news for my Nashville friends who can’t wait for the April 3rd release: Kwame will be at Parnassus Bookstore this Wednesday (4 CT)! Hope to see you there!

3. Book store finds

A few of the gems I found during last week’s trip to McKay’s bookstore:

stack4. Next Project LIT Book Club: MARCH

One comment that stood out during our class discussion of the March series last week?

“The crazy part about this? It’s all real.”

I cannot recommend the trilogy enough — I’d argue it’s a must-read for MS & HS students. And Nashville friends, we’d love for you to join us in the Maplewood High School library on March 9 (7:30-8:30 AM) for our next Project LIT Book Club. We’ll be discussing books 1 and 2 of the trilogy.

march 1 and 2

5. Book and TV Recommendation

On a recent SI podcast with Richard Deitsch, writer Jonathan Abrams discussed his new book, All the Pieces: The Inside Story of The Wire, which I cannot wait to read. Abrams also recommended that fans of The Wire check out Showtime’s new series, The Chi. My wife and I binge watched all five episodes this weekend – it’s outstanding!

6. Celebrating Black History Month

Looking forward to Maplewood Read Inour school’s African American Read-In later this week!

7. Moment of the Week

One of my students was looking for a new book to read at home, so I handed her a copy of Long Way Down.

“Oh, it’s a Jason Reynolds book? I know it’s gonna be good.”

And with that, wishing everyone a wonderful week. Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or comments via email (jarred.amato@gmail.com) or Twitter (@jarredamato). Thanks, as always, for reading!

Sunday 7: ACT “secrets,” access to relevant books, Nic Stone thank-you letters & more

Let’s get right into this week’s Sunday 7…

1.  The “secret” to improving ACT scores

To prepare for the ACT this spring, my high school juniors recently completed an English practice test. We decided to chunk the test over three class periods, which meant that each day I set a timer for 15 minutes and joined the students as we worked to complete 25 questions.

Then, we spent another 10-15 minutes reviewing answers, discussing test-taking strategies, and providing mini-lessons around specific skills.

By the end of the week, students had their first unofficial ACT score. The results? The majority of my 50+ juniors were at or above 21, the benchmark for college readiness, while the others were close – in the 18-20 range.

ACT scores

Does this guarantee that students will receive the same score on the real thing? Of course not. Is their success still worth celebrating? Absolutely!

“Mr. Amato, you make this ACT thing look really easy,” TJ told me this week.

And that’s the thing – English assessments aren’t complicated!

The test is easier when you read all the time, when you see yourself as a reader, when you have confidence in your reading ability, when you have the stamina to read silently for 45 consecutive minutes, when you’re comfortable with the test format, when you see the joy and value of reading, when you’ve been told that you will perform well…I could go on!

So, what’s the secret?! How can teachers and schools help students improve ACT scores?

There’s no magic formula or program, no set of texts or mandated curriculum that will do the trick. Instead, it’s a commitment to doing the little things, day in and day out, to build passionate and proficient readers.

And I believe this list is a good place to start:

top 10 tips

2. Article of the Week

If there’s one thing you read this week, make it this Ed Week interview with Jacqueline Woodson.

As Jacqueline states, “First and foremost, young people should be passionate about reading.”

So, how do we do that? How do we get young people passionate about reading?

Let’s start by making that the goal! Let’s start with all educators, schools, and communities working together to ensure that ALL of our students love to read. If we do that, the results (however you want to define them) will come.

If we want students to love reading, we need to give them access to relevant, engaging texts. As Jacqueline says, “If they don’t have access to books that speak to them, then we are already failing them.”

AA Lit Library

We need to help teachers develop diverse classroom libraries through both funding (good books aren’t cheap) and knowledge (many teachers don’t know what books to buy).

We need to make sure that all educators know about organizations like First Book and We Need Diverse Books and amazing authors Jason Reynolds. (Like Jacqueline, I’m shocked by the number of folks who still haven’t heard of Jason, but that’s a blog post for another day…)

We also need to make sure that that once teachers develop awesome libraries, they’re able to give students the time and space during the school day to read and celebrate the books they’ve worked so hard to get on their shelves. (There’s nothing worse than watching great books collect dust as students and teachers trudge through a scripted curriculum.)

3. Tweet of the Week

The good news is that there thousands of educators across the country who, like Jacqueline, believe that students deserve access to great books. My friend, Jessica Lingenfelter (@jessicatiara7), is one of them. And here’s what she tweeted this week:

Overheard at #ProjectLITBookClub: I haven’t read a book since 5th grade, then I got into Mrs. Lingenfelter’s class & she had cool books so I started reading again.

Sometimes it’s that simple…

4. Book store reflections

At the same time, as my wife and I spent a rainy Saturday morning at McKay’s Used Bookstore, I was reminded of two things: used books (especially the “cool” ones) aren’t cheap or easy to find.

Therefore, given the cost and scarcity of “cool” books, it’s no wonder many educators end up stocking their shelves with “blah” books (which is why I’m so excited to work alongside dozens of passionate Project LIT chapter leaders who are determined to change that).


5. Thank you, Nic

I touched on Nic Stone’s school visit in last week’s post, but I wanted to share a couple thank-you letters that our students wrote recently (there are dozens just like these):

Jay Thank You

And here’s another thank-you from Angel.

Angel Letter

6. Book of the Week

Excited to dive into the March trilogy with my students this month! It’s our next Project LIT Book Club selection, and we welcome all of you to join us in the Maplewood HS library on March 9!

march 1 and 2

7. Reminder: Project LIT Chat tonight!

We’d love for you to join us tonight (2-11) for our #ProjectLITchat on Twitter! Here’s a preview:

Twitter Chat questionsDon’t hesitate to reach out with any questions via email (jarred.amato@gmail.com) or Twitter (@jarredamato). Have a wonderful week, and as always, happy reading!

Sunday 7: Reflections from our Project LIT Book Club, featuring best-selling author Nic Stone

There’s a lot I will eventually write about Friday’s Project LIT Book Club.

Eventually, I’ll share the full journey, which in many ways begins in 2014, when my current juniors were in eighth grade, so that you can better understand how and why best-selling author and amazing human Nic Stone ended up at Maplewood High School on February 2, 2018, spending hours in our library snapping selfies, singing songs, answering questions, autographing books (and T-shirts), cracking jokes, and just listening to and loving our young people.

group pic DM

Eventually, I will find the words to properly thank Nic and capture the magic of that day, a day that my students and I will never forget. Eventually.

In the meantime, however, I figured it’d be best for you to hear from two of my favorite people, two students who inspire me and their classmates daily.

Let’s start with Jakaylia, who opened up our book club with this speech. Seriously, go ahead and watch it if you haven’t yet. And here’s what the speech looked like from her phone (because I know some of you still haven’t watched the video):

“Over The Past Few Months I’ve Had The Pleasure Of Getting To Know One Of My Favorite Authors Ever: Nic Stone, Best Selling Author of Dear Martin. I’ve Never Had The Opportunity To Personally Know One Of My Favorite Authors So For Her To Reach Out To Me Meant The Entire World. We’ve developed A Bond And She’s Inspired Me To Think Deeper About My Goals In Life And Never Giving Up. I’ve Always Had A Passion To Write Short Stories And Eventually Even Try To Write A Book. I Doubted Myself Because I Could Never Get Any Ideas Or I Would Beat Myself Up Once I Started Because I Felt Like It Wasn’t Good Enough. When I Had This Conversation With Nic a couple of weeks ago, She Told Me She Felt The Same Way And She Didn’t Know Where To Start But She Kept Trying. She Found It Within Herself To Be Different And Face Her Fears, Inspire Those Like Me Who Felt Like Writing Wasn’t For Them Or Got Discouraged Because Their Ideas Weren’t Supported. I Am Beyond Grateful And So Proud To Let Everyone Here This Morning Have The Same Amazing Opportunity That I’ve Had To meet and Hear From The One And Only Nic Stone. Before We Begin, We Wanted To Present Nic With Our Own Book. This Book Includes All Of Our Poems, Letters And Stories That Were Inspired By Dear Martin. We Hope That You Enjoy Reading Them As Much As We Enjoyed Writing Them.”

Nic 4 pics

And here’s what Chelsea, another one of our Project LIT leaders, tweeted out Friday night as she reflected on the day:

“Today was one of the best days of my entire life. Today I was able to be a part of something I could only dream of. I used to think that my writing was terrible. Until @jarredamato put me up to the challenge of writing essays and poems. I could never thank him enough. I also want to thank Nic personally for actually taking the time to read my poems and hangout with the kids at Maplewood. You were such a down to earth person. We hope you can attend a future book club with us. Thank you for believing in me and Maplewood. –CJ your favorite poet.”

Chelsea J




What it’s all about right there!

And with that, let’s get into our Sunday 7…

1. All students deserve the opportunity to read books like Dear Martin

So, here’s the question I’ve been thinking a lot about this weekend: How did this happen? How did Jakaylia end up with a microphone, surrounded by more than a hundred kind, caring, committed classmates and community members, introducing Nic Stone? How did Chelsea end up sharing her amazing poetry and artwork with an award-winning author?

Let’s start with the obvious: Nic Stone does not end up at Maplewood High School if my students do not have the opportunity to read Dear Martin.

Over the past year, since starting Project LIT Book Club in January 2017, my students and I have read and discussed the following books – The Crossover, March, Booked, Ghost, All American Boys, The Hate U Give, A Long Walk to Water, Solo, and Dear Martin – in addition to all of our self-selected reading.

At a time where teens are reportedly reading less frequently than ever, Jakaylia, Chelsea and the rest of their classmates are flying through at least one book a month.

Would this happen with some of the “classic” texts that many students are unfairly forced to read (or at least fake read) in the traditional classroom, where everything is designed for the comfort and convenience of adults?

Would this happen if I taught the books to death, forcing students to read the book at my pace and answer comprehension questions at the end of each chapter?

Would this happen if I forced my students to do all of their reading at home, even though I know that many are playing sports, working part-time jobs, looking after siblings, completing homework for seven or eight classes, and waking up at 4:30 or 5:00 AM to be at school by 7:05?

Not a chance.

Instead, for the first 20 to 30 minutes of every class period, Jakaylia sits on the black futon in the back of the room and gets lost in a book that values her and her classmates. She gets to meet Starr and Rashad and Justyce, compelling, complex characters that she can relate to and identify with. And then she gets to talk and write about what she’s reading in a safe and welcoming environment, where’s she encouraged to share her words with not only her classmates, but with the world. (And because of the relationship Jakaylia and I have developed over the past three years, she trusts me to snap pictures of her poems and text and tweet them to Nic.)

Nic group

2. That sounds great, but…

I can hear the questions now.

“But, how did you get all of those books? My school doesn’t have the money.”

“But, what about the standards?”

“But, why are you are always reading those books?”

Let me answer them in order:

My school doesn’t have the money either. That’s one of the reasons my students and I started Project LIT Community: to increase book access, and access to high-quality, culturally relevant books in particular.

We began by asking friends on Facebook and Twitter to send us books from our recommended reads list. Then, we put together a Donors Choose project for The Crossover, our first community-wide book club. Then, we began to apply for every literacy grant we could find (and while we were rejected by many, it only took a couple of wins to fill our classroom library with great books).

Through it all, we’ve been passionate and persistent, doing a little bit day in and day out, sharing our story on social media, and connecting with others (fellow educators, authors, and community members) who share our passion for helping all students fall in love with reading.

3. “But, what about the standards?”

What do all successful readers have in common? They read a lot!

Whether we’re talking ACT or an end-of-year state assessment, the top performers are generally those who have had the most hours of reading under their belts. Volume matters.

And that’s what I prioritize – inspiring students to see the joy and value of reading and writing, so that they continue to do both more often, not just for a year, but for a lifetime.

To be clear, I still teach the standards (here’s an older post on what my English block looks like), just not in a traditional way with one daily objective written on the board.

Of course, I’m constantly tweaking and refining my classroom structure, but it’s freeing to know that every day, without exception, my students will engage in meaningful reading and writing.

Is it perfect or the only way? Of course not. But, my students are happy to come to class every day. They feel cared for and valued and connected. They’re becoming better readers and writers and human beings, and that’s good enough for me.

4. “But, why are you are always reading those books?”

Here’s who I have zero patience or respect for: the folks who question the “complexity” of YA literature, particularly books featuring black and brown characters. These folks are almost always non-readers. Additionally, most of these folks do not spend meaningful time around black and brown children.

And here’s how I know that: because if they did read books like The Hate U Give, Dear Martin and Long Way Down, and if they did spend time listening to our young readers talk about these books and how they’ve changed their lives, they wouldn’t continue to make it so difficult for teachers to add them to our classrooms and curriculum.

(Side note: shout out to all the authors and educators out there who are working to diversify the canon despite the obstacles.)

There’s more I can and will say on this topic, but I’ll stop there because I’m already approaching 1,500 words and I’ve got Super Bowl appetizers to prepare.

5. Important community perspective

I wanted to relay a few comments that Allison Buzard, the wonderful Equity & Diversity Coordinator for our district, shared following our book club on Friday.

On Twitter, she wrote:

“Some key takeaways for me are: 1. Students can love to read if they can see themselves in the literature, if they can find their story in the plot line, if they have choice in the literature, and if they are engaged in discussion around the text. 2. Adults can love to read, too, if they are challenged to do so, if they can see themselves in the book, and if they can find their story in the story. The adults at my table discussion were as eager to discuss the book as the students. 3. Students are brilliant. I observed students leading peers and adults in discussions about racism and civil rights this morning. 4. Teachers, school and district staff, and community partners can and want to be engaged in schools. And they will engage if given opportunities. 5. We have some amazingly passionate, creative teachers in our district. We need to value and listen to them. They get it!”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! Thank you, Allison.

6. Book of the Week

Dear Martin. Obviously.

7. Announcement – Black History Month Challenge

We’re encouraging teachers and students across the country to join NCTE’s effort to read and celebrate literature by African American writers throughout Black History Month. Learn more about the Project LIT Challenge here. AARI Challenge 2

Think that’s it for now. Thanks so much reading, and as always, do not hesitate to reach out with any questions via email (jarred.amato@gmail.com) or Twitter (@jarredamato)! Have a wonderful week.

Top 7 challenges students face as readers

As an English teacher, I believe there is tremendous power in having students reflect periodically on their own reading and writing habits.

For example, I recently asked students to answer the following questions after our 25 minutes of independent reading:

  • Do you think you have improved as a reader this year? Why, or why not?
  • Do you enjoy reading more now than you did in the past? Explain.
  • How often do you read?
  • What challenges do you face as a reader?
  • What will you do to overcome these challenges?
  • What can Mr. Amato do to help you succeed as a reader?
  • In your opinion, why is reading important?

Because of their honest feedback, I have already been able to develop mini-lessons and facilitate one-on-one and whole-class conversations around several of the themes that emerged.JS read

For example, it’s important that as teachers, we understand why many students aren’t reading as much as we (or they) would like, and then work with them to develop solutions.

Therefore, in this post, I am going to share the top 7 challenges students face as readers, according to a survey of approximately 100 ninth-graders at Maplewood High School in Nashville, TN.

#1. Cell phone addiction. This should come as no surprise, especially if you read my recent post. For the majority of today’s teenagers, cell phone addiction is a serious problem. One student said, “I stay on my phone 24/7,” while another added that “whenever I see a message on my phone, I have to answer it.” If students keep their phones in sight while reading, it’s virtually impossible for them to finish a page without feeling the urge to check for a text message, Instagram like, or Snapchat.

#2. Short attention span. Several students reported that they have trouble staying focused on one task for a long period time. For example, one student said, “I get off task easily and get into something else,” while another said simply, “My attention span is kind of low.” There is no question that cell phone addiction contributes to their lack of focus, and they certainly aren’t alone in becoming more distracted. A recent study found that the average attention span of a human is down to just eight seconds, or one second less than that of a goldfish.

#3. Responsibilities at home. I am constantly amazed by the strength and maturity of my students. One student said, “I have to help my little brother do his work, and help my mom around the house,” while several others also mentioned that they are on babysitting duty after school. I was really impressed with one student who managed to come up with a solution to her problem. “I have to babysit, so I’ve started to let my niece read while I read also,” she said. How awesome is that?!

#4. Extracurricular activities. From sports to band practice to work, a lot of our students are extremely busy after school, which affects their ability to read as often as they’d like. “When I come from practice, I usually eat dinner and go to bed,” said one student-athlete. “During track season, I can’t read as much,” said another. “I’ll catch up over the summer though.”

#5. Lack of interest. If students are going to put away their smartphone and take out a book, they certainly want to read something that they enjoy. Unfortunately, some students reported that they have a hard time finding books that interest them.

#6. Lack of motivation. I appreciated how honest a few students were about their lack of motivation to read. In fact, one student wrote, “The only obstacle I have is me wanting to read.” Another stated, “I don’t push myself to pick up a book and start reading.”

#7. No quiet places to read at home. Several students mentioned the fact that their home isn’t conducive for reading. One student said, “There’s not a lot of quiet places to read at home, so I can’t read as much as I’d like.” Another cited the “loudness at my house,” while a third said, “I never have time and when I do I never have a quiet place to read.”

One of my biggest takeaways from these reflections is that we, as English teachers, can help students overcome several of these challenges. In fact, I believe we have a responsibility to create a quiet and comfortable reading environment in our classrooms. We must also give our students consistent time to read in class without any distractions because our classroom may be the only place where they can.MP read

Once students get into a reading routine (where they know their cell phone must be put away and that nobody is talking), their attention span, reading stamina, and attitude toward reading all improve dramatically.

Finally, in order to address reasons #5 and #6, English teachers have to be motivators and encouragers. We also have to be avid readers ourselves in order to make recommendations and prove to our reluctant readers that not all books are boring. They just haven’t found the right one yet. But, that’s a post for another day…

NOTE: In the comments or on Twitter (@jarredamato), I’d love to hear what other challenges you and your students face as readers!

Why schools must create a culture of reading

NOTE: This post was originally published by Dr. Ryan B. Jackson on The Underdog’s Advocate.

As a high school English teacher, I constantly find myself creating analogies to help my students comprehend confusing concepts. (I’m also a sucker for alliteration, but that’s beside the point).

And so, during a recent conference with a student, a member of the Maplewood freshman football team, and his father, a former athlete himself, I attempted to convey the importance of reading in terms they would understand.

“Reading is a lot like exercising,” I began. “You see, the more you work out and lift weights, the stronger you become. The more you run, the faster you get.”

I could tell my hook had worked.

“Well, the same is true with reading. The more you read, the better you get at it.”

Heads nodded in agreement.

“So, that’s why I’m pushing your son to read so much in class and at home. He’s already improved his reading level by more than a year since August. But, we’ve still got work to do.”

The father shook my hand, thanked me for my passion and support, and promised that his son would be reading for at least twenty minutes each night.

As educators and non-educators alike discuss ways to improve our students’ reading scores, I want to remind us that sometimes the best solutions are, in fact, the simplest. There is no magic formula, special sauce, or computer program that will turn our reluctant, struggling readers into confident, proficient ones.

Instead, it requires that we trust and embrace the process of developing and nurturing lifelong readers. If teachers and leaders commit to creating a culture of reading in their schools, the results will inevitably follow. And by results, I’m not just talking test scores, although those will improve too. Research shows that students who identify as readers are significantly happier, less stressed, more empathetic, and ultimately far more prepared to succeed in this crazy thing we call life.

Before I dig deeper, I want to pause for a pop-quiz. (Don’t panic; there are no wrong answers!)

Here’s my question: How many of the following statements do you agree with?

1. I consider myself a “reader” and see the immense value in reading.

2. I read a variety of texts and for a variety of purposes.

3. As such, I am reading something all the time.

4. I generally only read about things that I deem interesting or worthwhile.

5. I enjoy sharing and discussing what I read with friends and colleagues.

6. I loved to read, and read a lot, during my childhood.

7. I consider reading a hobby of mine.

Now, I’m going to assume that you answered “yes” to the majority of the above statements. In fact, I’d bet that a lot of you, like me, identified with all seven.

However, what if we asked today’s students the same questions? How many would they agree with? For far too many, the answer would be one or two, if any. And through no fault of their own.

There’s no question that selling today’s students (and adults, for that matter) on books is harder than it’s ever been. We’re up against a lot of competition, most notably from the smartphone.

However, rather than admitting defeat to the likes of Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Netflix, and Xbox360, educators have a responsibility to show students that reading can be far more enjoyable, and beneficial, than any iPhone app or video game.

When my ninth graders unplugged from technology for 24 hours last semester, the results were overwhelmingly positive. Hours usually spent in front of screens were replaced with exercise, sleep, family time, and yes, even reading.

Our #PanthersUnplugged event was just one small way we are working to create a culture of reading at Maplewood High School. The first annual reading marathon, in which more than 40 students and teachers read consecutively from 2:30 to 10:30 (with small breaks for snacks and prizes every hour) on a Friday evening, was another.

Most of the work, however, is happening inside classrooms day in and day out. Our long-term goal is for all 1,000+ students to self-identify as readers, and to see the lifelong value in reading. We want all students to leave high school with not only the ability to read well, but also with the confidence and desire to one day read to their future children before bed each night.

Of course, we have a lot of work to get there. Approximately 90% of our freshmen entered high school reading below grade level, with nearly 60% reading at a sixth-grade level or lower. There are many reasons for this tragedy, but here’s a big one: too many schools have taken the joy out of reading. We’ve turned off our skilled readers, and done nothing to encourage our struggling ones.

Let me ask you this: How many of you would enjoy coming to school and being told that your only reading would be a passage from a TCAP prep book? And when you finished reading it (or maybe just skimming it, since that’s what your teacher told you to do), you got the privilege of answering biased multiple-choice questions?

Or, how about being told that the only novel you could read was the one that your teacher picked out because he read it as a kid? Never mind that it’s above your reading level and completely irrelevant to your life. And, since you’re not allowed to take the books home, you have to listen to your teacher read aloud one chapter a day while the fidgety kids in class constantly interrupt him? If you’re lucky, you’ll get through one book a quarter.

Should it be any surprise, then, that so many of our students have grown to hate reading? Years of “teaching to the test” and “drill and kill” have killed any enthusiasm they may have had. Furthermore, because students are now so turned off to reading, their reading level has remained stagnant, and often times, regressed.

Therefore, our first step is to earn back our students’ trust. We have to prove to them that not all reading is bad, and that starts with two things: time and choice.

Students need to read independently for at least 20 to 30 minutes every day, with no exceptions. In the beginning, teachers may start with 10 minutes (the same way you would start by running a mile before trying to run a marathon), and then add time as students’ reading stamina increases. Without this consistency, reading will never become a habit.

Students also need to have choice in what they read during this time if we want to increase their motivation. Otherwise, students will still see reading as a chore, not a hobby. Additionally, if we assign one book to all, skilled readers will find ways to skim or Sparknote it, while struggling readers will have trouble accessing it at all.

Therefore, as teachers, our focus should be on connecting students with books they don’t want to put down. Depending on their interests and passions (as well as their reading level), that book is going to be different for each student.

In order to get students excited about reading, here are five other tips for teachers of all grade levels:

* Be a reading role model. How can we expect students to love and appreciate reading if their teachers don’t? It’s essential that teachers practice what they preach. We should be reading alongside students, not sitting at our desk grading papers or working on our laptop. When we’re not reading a book ourselves, we should be conferencing with students about their books, making recommendations, and checking in on students’ progress. Every day should be a celebration of literature.

* Create a nurturing reading environment in your classroom. This includes an accessible and inviting library, absolute silence, appropriate lighting, and comfortable seating (if students read better on the floor, let them). If we treat reading time as sacred, students will too.

* Help students set personalized reading goals. Reading should not be a competition. However, most students respond well to a personal goal, whether it’s to read a certain number books or words, improve their reading level by a certain number of grades, or finish an entire series by the same author. Teachers should help students set these goals, and then check in frequently with them about their progress.

* Celebrate reading. We glorify athletes with pep rallies, yet our readers tend to walk through the halls virtually unnoticed. That needs to change. We have to be better about acknowledging and appreciating these students. Often times the only rewards that are needed are more books and more time to read.

* Be patient and positive. Remember that it’s a marathon, not sprint, and that it’s never too late for a student to become a reader. Continue to put good books in their hands, and eventually one will stick.

To be clear, 30 minutes of choice independent reading per day will not solve our literacy problem by itself. There are other instructional strategies that schools must implement in order to significantly improve students’ reading and writing abilities, but I believe that this is a great (and cost-effective) place to start.

In closing, I hope this post sparks dialogue in your school, community, or household. I would also love to hear your thoughts and feedback, whether it’s through Twitter (@jarredamato), email (jarred.amato@mnps.org), or in person here in Nashville, Tennessee. Happy reading!