Donalyn Miller is a full-time teacher in Keller, Texas (near Ft. Worth) and a popular writer, speaker and advocate on behalf of joyous reading and plenty of it. Her first book, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Jossey-Bass), has been a top seller at Amazon since in first appeared in the spring of 2009. Donalyn was a finalist for 2010 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year and has been a consulting teacher for the National Writing Project. For a wild ride, keep up with her GoodReads page. As we learn in this recent interview, she’ll be pursuing another adventure this fall: moving from 6th to 4th grade!
1. Your The Book Whisperer blog at Education Week Teacher, and your five-star book of the same title published in 2009 have both been big success stories. We’re sure other teachers who have a urge to write a book about teaching practice would love some advice. And how has this success affected your professional life?
When I wrote The Book Whisperer, I did not imagine that the book would be a bestseller. I was unknown other than my Education Week blog. I think this gave me a sort of reckless bravery. If I was only going to have the opportunity to write one book, then I was going to write about my truth—what I really believe about reading instruction and children’s reading. Talking with teachers all over the country, they tell me that they appreciate that I am a practicing classroom teacher and my voice is an honest one.
Writing, blogging, speaking, traveling, and teaching (as well as being a wife and mom) are challenging at times. I could choose to do less, but I don’t. I am dedicated to remaining a classroom teacher. I love working with children and I think that I have more credibility with teachers because I continue to teach. I spend about 50 days a year traveling and speaking—most of these during the summer. Sharing my ideas and learning from other teachers wherever I travel ignites my passion and helps me continue to grow as a teacher. I am not done learning how to be a good teacher. I hope I am never done. My husband and I believe that this is our shared mission and he is an incredible cheerleader and supporter.
It is much more difficult to find time to write now. When I wrote The Book Whisperer, I was not traveling and speaking, which demands a lot of my time, especially during the summer. Instead of writing whenever I feel the muse strike me, I must be more disciplined about writing these days. I think that anyone who wants to write needs to dedicate regular time to it and pack away excuses about inspiration and motivation. As my friend Jeff Anderson says, “A writer in motion stays in motion.” Kate Messner, who writes children’s literature and published the professional book, Real Revision, has an incredible online writing camp for teachers this summer. Don’t write because you want to be published. Write because you matter and your ideas have value.
This school year, I am changing districts to work for an amazing principal, Dr. Ron Myers, who wrote the afterword for The Book Whisperer. I am also changing grade levels, and I will be moving from 6th grade language arts to 4th grade self-contained. I am excited about working with my own class in a workshop setting all day.
Every summer, I hold a Book-a-Day challenge on Twitter and my blog. I invite teachers, librarians, and other readers to read a book a day for every day of summer break. This is the fourth year for the challenge. My plan this summer is to ramp up my knowledge about series that my new fourth grade class will enjoy.
2. We read your recent Ed Week post where you share some ideas about how to encourage summer reading. Just how important is that? Are you optimistic, pessimistic or somewhere in-between about the impact of the Common Core on “real reading”?
I recently heard Richard Allington speak about the negative consequences of summer reading slump or summer slide. Kids who do not read over the summer fall behind their peers and the effect is cumulative. Several summers without reading can result in a year or more reading achievement gap. I think it is vital that children continue to read over the summer.
I encourage my students to make specific plans about what books they will read over the summer and I send lists of recommended reading home to parents during the final weeks of school. Our school also opens the library a few hours a week during the summer so that children can check out books. Just like hot meals, the school is the primary source of reading material for many children. Without school and classroom libraries, many students lose access to books over the summer.
I cannot predict how the implementation of Common Core would affect authentic reading. I don’t think that the architects and early responders of Common Core believe that children should read less. The more children read, the more capable they are at mastering grade level goals.
3. What are some hot new books for intermediate and middle school kids that could help energize summer reading programs this year?
I keep booklists on slideshare at www.slideshare.net/donalynm and I update these lists often. I also keep an ongoing list of book recommendations, sorted by age level and genre, on goodreads.
Two new books that I think should be on everyone’s must-read list are Wonder by R.J. Palacio and The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. 2012 is turning out to be a great year for middle grade fiction, but these two books are standouts and have wide appeal across age ranges and interests.
4. Late last year you joined some teacher friends to create the Nerdy Book Club website. How did that come about? What are your goals and why/how should people get involved?
The Nerdy Book Club began as a joke. Several reading friends on Twitter began using the hashtag #nerdybookclub whenever a tweet seemed especially reading-obsessed. Bemoaning the fact that many of the books our students loved were passed over for major book awards each year, my friend Colby Sharp and I decided we would start our own book awards, the Nerdies. We began a blog and created a nomination ballot for the awards. While providing time for readers to vote, we hosted blog posts from readers who reflected on their reading lives and how they became readers. These Reading Lives posts are beautiful testaments to the power of teachers, librarians, parents, and siblings in connecting children with books and sparking a love for reading.
After the 2011 Nerdies Awards ended, Colby and I recognized that the Nerdy Book Club blog was popular and filled a need in the teaching and reading community. We polled readers about what they would like to see on the blog and invited our tech-savvy friend, high school teacher Cindy Minnich, to join us in running Nerdy Book Club.
The membership requirements are simple. If you read, you are a member of Nerdy Book Club. Every reader has a value and a voice in our community. We invite anyone to post on the blog about their book love, their reading experiences, or their work with young readers. Last month, Nerdy Book Club was chosen the Best Children’s and Young Adults blog by the Independent Booksellers Association.
5. What about career plans? Do you expect to remain in the classroom? Other leadership roles? And the inevitable question: Are you working on a new book?
I am working on another professional book, Reading in the Wild, which will come out next spring. I surveyed 900 adult readers about their reading habits and generalized a profile of the lifelong reader.
Here is an article I did with Scholastic recently about the new book. I am lucky that I can write, speak, travel, and teach. I have opportunities for leadership without leaving the classroom and I have no plans to leave. It is hard at times to maintain a balance, but I am dedicated to remaining a classroom teacher.
We close with a quote from the Scholastic article:
“We give a lot of lip service to the idea that we’re creating lifelong readers in the classroom, but we aren’t being intentional about it. Where’s the list of habits we’re trying to create? How are we instilling them in kids?”