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When Reading Became Cool… Accidentally
By Nancy Wade Zappulla , BS, MS
Published: 05/10/2010

Teenager book Recently I read a study, and two sentences stood out like neon. Checking out books from the library does not improve reading skills. One must actually read the book in order to experience reading improvement. Really?

As the English teacher and librarian in a school program in a short-term juvenile detention center, I am a witness to the veracity of those statements. Six years ago there were books in bookcases in the classrooms and in the dayrooms of the four living pods. I’m sure that the majority of those young people could read those books. However, I never saw a student reading.

The majority of the students were didn’t read for enjoyment and saw no reason to change. Many times a student would respond to my question, “Would you like me to get a book for you?” with, “I ain’t read no book.”

Since then, things have changed, but completely by accident…or providence. Today we have a tiny little space with 3,500 books, and students who whine, “Ain’t you got no new books, Mrs. Zappulla?” Today reading, tomorrow grammar.

Here’s what we discovered:
  1. The first step in creating an environment of readers is to find out what they’re interested in. Ask about the books you might have around the classroom. Bring books from home, and see how they respond. And when they tell you what they want, write it down. That lets them see that you’re taking them seriously, not to mention acting as a memory prod. If they mention unfamiliar authors or books, write down as much information as you can elicit. Personal suggestion: always wear clothing with pockets and carry sufficient paper to jot down the information about the books. Also, remove these papers before you do laundry.
  2. Get the books as quickly as possible, and if you can’t find the books, update the student promptly. If you don’t produce either book or update, they will be relentless in reminding you. Or even worse, they’ll write you off as yet another person who doesn’t mean what they say.
  3. Let them see you reading. Okay, maybe that’s a fantasy---the idea of having time to read in class, but you could talk about what you’re reading in your free time. Let them hear and see that reading is important to you and not just because you’re a teacher.
  4. Regularly bring books to class for a version of “Show and Tell”. If you choose books with engaging titles and covers, the students will be interested. You can say, “You know, I haven’t gotten a chance to read this. Do you think you could check this out and then get back to me about it?” This could require that you allot class in time for reading for…well, let me be honest…pleasure, but that is part of education, right? Remember the quote about actually reading the books? The more my cherubs read, the more they want to read, because their reading skills are growing.
  5. Have reading contests, and have them often. Let the folks in one class compete with another class. Last fall during ten days my 28 students read 28,888 pages during such a contest. What a great thing for folks to be bragging about…pages read! And yes, you do have to become a cheerleader, but what better reason to shake a pompom than students learning to love reading?
  6. Buy and freely give away bookmarks. Because I stress that our books are important and corners turned down are an offense against all things sacred, finding cool bookmarks has become my quest. Currently, exotic cars and custom motorcycles top the list of favorites, though some gravitate more toward marine mammals. Ask regularly, “Who needs a bookmark?”, and before long they’ll ask for themselves.
  7. A crucial support to the love of reading in our program has come from the detention staff. Though their primary function is safety and security, the influence they wield is mighty. Our staff supports reading in many ways, from talking one-on-one with students about books they’ve both read, to participating in discussions, to saying, “Hey, let me look at that book,” when I’m passing books around to stimulate interest. Our staff is much more than muscle, that’s for sure!
  8. Another vital component of our reading phenomenon is the support of the facility administration. Our administrators have stood side-by-side with the education faculty in providing books, incentives, and the personal encouragement that our kids crave. The space and décor of our library was created by our administration team, as well as a fruitful relationship with our local public library.
  9. Tell everyone you know the amazing stories of your students’ love of books…and then share those stories with them. People have these pictures about “those kids” we teach, and often these images are highly inaccurate. Sharing stories reminds me what an incredible reading world I inhabit. Others who hear the stories go away with their perceptions altered, and sometimes they donate books. Here’s how I get to tell those stories. Whenever I get a chance to slip in words like “school” or “my students”, I do, and the regular response is, “Oh, where do you teach?” When I smilingly answer, “At the juvenile detention center,” they’re shocked, sometimes muttering about how they could never work with such kids, and that’s my chance to tell one of the stories about the kids and books. What a triumph in watching a skeptical expression morph into one of amazement, and besides, the truth will set you and me and everyone else free, right? And when I report these conversations to my kids, we celebrate together the destruction of that stereotype of “those kids at the detention center.”

Now you know what happened in our juvenile detention facility, and you can try some of these ideas in yours. There are no guarantees attached to these suggestions and accounts; okay, maybe there is one. I guarantee that the results, whatever they may be, will be well worth your efforts, and the reverberations will go on forever.

Corrections.com author Nancy Wade Zappulla is a teacher in a short-term juvenile detention facility in Vingina and is also the school's librarian


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  7. Viresh on 11/19/2010:

    Though their primary function is safety and security, the influence they wield is mighty.

  8. debmac on 05/12/2010:

    One of the things we do here is book club. The kids read a book and then write a paper on it (the teachers take into account the skill level of the kids). They are then "rewarded" with pizza. We have had kids who prior to coming into detention were not able to read eagerly checking out books and writing book reports.

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