Remember the Follett Challenge I featured here back in January? John Lodle is chair of the English department at the winning school, Belleville West High School in Illinois, where he has taught for the past 20 years. In today’s post, he’s kindly taken time to share the initiative that earned them the grand prize. The faculty at Belleville worked together to create a program that truly created a “community of readers.” Their accomplishments are not only impressive, but replicable at other schools, too. Here’s what inspired them to create The Million Page Challenge and how they pulled it off.
Recently, a widely-published report by Common Sense Media Group chronicled the decline of pleasure reading among our nation’s teens. According to the group’s research, 45% of 17-year-olds say that they “never” or “hardly ever” read by choice.
During the same week the report was published, the staff and students at Belleville West High School—located in southwestern Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis—learned we were the grand-prize winner of the third annual Follett Challenge.
What’s the connection between these two pieces of information? The project we entered in this year’s Follett Challenge—our Community of Readers program—addresses the importance of pleasure reading for high school students.
Belleville West High School started the Community of Readers program four years ago. At that time, members of the English department were disturbed by two trends. First, despite several years of programs aimed at improving student achievement on standardized tests, we watched the gradual erosion of our students’ scores on the ACT and the PSAE (the annual assessment tool in the state of Illinois). Second, we noticed many of our students were unlikely to consider reading as a leisure activity; they lacked the passion for reading that was so much a part of our lives as English teachers.
Intuitively, we knew that students who enjoyed reading chose to read more often. We knew that students who read more became better readers. We knew that students who were better readers scored better on standardized assessments. But how could we prove what we knew to be true in our hearts? And how could we create a program that would help our students become more passionate and successful readers?
In our quest to develop such a program, three books were essential, and I enthusiastically recommend them to any teacher or school interested in creating life-long readers:
- Readicide, by high school teacher Kelly Gallagher, examines the importance of balancing assigned reading with pleasure reading.
- The Book Whisperer, by middle school teacher Donalyn Miller, describes a classroom in which students are responsible for selecting almost everything they read.
- The Power of Reading, by noted researcher Stephen D. Krashen, combines hard evidence on the importance of pleasure reading with suggestions for effective reading classrooms.
Inspired by the information from these authors, determined we needed to try something new, and supported by administrators who value reading, we launched our Community of Readers program in the fall of 2010.
The centerpiece of our program in that first year was the Million Page Challenge. The English department challenged that year’s freshman class (a class of approximately 600 students) to read one million pages of pleasure reading during the course of the school year. That first group of students far surpassed our expectations, reading more than 1.4 million pages in eight months. So we continued the Million Page Challenge each year, creating some competition between classes as a new group of students joined our community each fall.
The Challenge’s inaugural group of students just graduated a few weeks ago, and they finished high school with almost five million pages of pleasure reading among them.
When we started the Million Page Challenge, we understood we couldn’t expect our students to become avid pleasure readers without offering them the necessary support. Building on the suggestions of Krashen, Gallagher, and Miller, our department incorporated three key elements in our program: time, choice, access.
If we want our students to see value in pleasure reading, the way we structure our classes must suggest its importance. Providing students with time in class to read sends a strong message about the significance of pleasure reading. Despite some initial concerns about carving out class time to read, members of the department can attest they haven’t had to make any significant reduction in the content or skills covered in their classes. By finding just a little time for independent reading at the start or conclusion of class each day, we can give students almost an hour each week to spend with books they want to read for pleasure.
Our formal curriculum still requires students to read and study from the canon: To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, Night, Julius Caesar, The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher in the Rye are still staples in our newly-designed CCSS curriculum. But the pleasure reading program allows students some choice in their reading materials. When we allow students to choose their own books—Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Eleanor & Park, Every Day, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Crank, Ender’s Game, Deadline—they become eager, engaged, passionate readers.
Time and choice are meaningless, though, without student access to high-interest books. In an age of budget reductions for school libraries, Belleville West is fortunate to have two librarians who are attuned to the latest and greatest in young adult literature. Teachers make time for regular trips to the library with their classes, and every teacher in the department maintains a classroom library so that good books are never more than a few feet away.
I should also stress the importance of teachers as reading role models. As teachers, we can provide time, choice, and access to our students, but our own behavior speaks volumes about the importance of reading. (Yes, pun intended.) At Belleville West, teachers display signs outside their classroom doors to share their current reading. We participate in book club meetings with our students. We talk in class—formally and informally—about what we’re reading, and we ask our students about the books they’re reading. When we give our students time to read for pleasure in class, we read for pleasure along with them. (I know that can be tough when stacks of essays are piled on the desk, but the example we set is important!)
As we end our fourth year of the program, Belleville West High School has truly become a Community of Readers. Walk through our halls before school, and you’ll observe students sitting against their lockers immersed in good books. Stroll past the library in the morning, and you’ll see a line of students waiting for the doors to open. Wander into the cafeteria during lunch, and you’ll hear students talking about the books they’re reading for pleasure. Look into a classroom after a test or quiz, and you’ll notice students voluntarily pulling books from their backpacks to read. Reading has become an integral part of the culture of our school.
Each year, the members of the English department—with the support of the library, the administration, and the school’s Strategic Reading Committee—have worked to improve and expand the program. Teachers in the social studies department devoted a summer workshop to Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide and now incorporate some of his ideas in their classes. The athletic department partners with us for the “One Book, One Team” program; this summer, players and coaches from the varsity football team are reading Geoff Herbach’s novel Stupid Fast in preparation for a Skype visit with the author. High school students visit local grade schools to read to young students and to share books with them. Each spring, the English department and the library hold a reading celebration day, highlighted by a visit with a favorite author.
Have our students embraced reading for pleasure? Definitely. Based on start-of-year and end-of-year surveys from our freshmen, we know our students read more for pleasure and enjoy reading more than they did before starting high school. Has all of this reading had any effect on test scores? We’d like to think so. The first group of students participating in our Community of Readers program showed double-digit gains on standardized state tests when compared to students in the previous three years.
When we learned our program was the grand-prize winner of this year’s Follett Challenge, we felt great pride and validation for our work. Even before the announcement of the winning entries, we were happy this contest had provided us with a forum to share our program with other schools throughout the country. (Since winning the contest, we’ve been thrilled to field calls and emails from other schools interested in developing their own life-long readers.)
This contest has provided us with a platform to share the importance of pleasure reading and to share the ways in which we have created a culture of reading at Belleville West High School. With the generous prize money provided by Follett, we look forward to expanding the collection of high-interest books in our school library, to sharing the program with our sister high school in our school district, and to building a collection of e-books in our library. We’re especially excited about the ability to increase the number of electronic books in our collection, as this represents a new way to keep our students connected to books during the summer months, a time when they don’t always have access to physical libraries.
As teachers, librarians, and administrators, we should all be passionate about our own reading. If we can ignite that same passion in our students, we shouldn’t have to see any more reports on the demise of reading.
Thank you so much for sharing this inspiring story, John! If any readers have questions about The Million Page Challenge, the Follett Challenge, or the Community of Readers initiative, please feel free to ask in the comments.