That's too many books. They can't do it. It's too much pressure. Parents will be mad. These are the excuses I made to avoid Donalyn Miller's idea in The Book Whisperer to challenge students to read 40 books during the school year, even when some of my colleagues were saying it was successful. Finally, and I don't really know why, I decided to take the risk. I proposed the challenge at the beginning of the year, and we glued in the list template into reader notebooks with the various genre categories. I saw some stressed faces on some of the kids, while others wore expressions of eagerness to get started. I decided to focus on the eager reactions so I wouldn't get stressed myself. I let the kids count audio books, classroom read aloud novels, magazines if read cover to cover, and some picture books that covered the informational and traditional literature genres.
At first, I won't lie, I graded their progress. I know Donalyn discourages that practice, but I just couldn't help myself. I still felt like I needed to control and assess the process in a traditional way. Giving grades seemed to be the only way I thought I could keep the kids accountable and make the kids and parents who need that kind of feedback happy. I could see that strategy backfiring, however. Surprise, surprise. It started to turn into a job, a homework requirement, and frankly, a drag - for them AND for me. I started to get e-mails from parents who were anxious about it, and I realized this was turning into a traditional assignment instead of an exciting way to invite kids to read all kinds of books. So I quit grading it.
Lo and behold, it worked. My students were reading tons and loving it. They discovered new genres and authors. I got to know tthe kids as readers in ways I never had before. Some made it a competition with others, but I didn't consider that necessarily a bad thing. I also began a Mock Newbery Club 2013 to further encourage the reading of quality books and to teach them how to evaluate the characteristics that make a book a Newbery contender. That helped put more books into the hands of eager readers. During the last week of school, we added up the total number of books we read (thinking back, I should've added MY books into the total - oh well - that's what next year is for). The grand total between two classes was over 2,000 books. Not all the kids made it to 40 books, and not all the kids read all the genres, but I realized that wasn't the point. Most of them read more books that 5th grade school year than any other school year. A lot of them had read their new favorite books, their new favorite authors, or discovered they enjoyed a new genre. The Newbery Club members had sophisticated conversations about writing and reading, and they were recommending books to each other. We celebrated using one of Donalyn's ideas. The kids decorated signs with the number of books they read and their favorite titles. We went outside on a beautiful, sunny day, took pictures, and ate a chocolate chip cookie cake a parent made in honor of the challenge. Next year, I'm going to tweak it a little, of course (I may re-name it 40 Book Invitation), because that's what we do as teachers...make a colleague's great idea a little more of our own, get to know our new students and what works for them, and say a little prayer that they end the year better than when they started.