On a week when our attention is turned to the issue of book banning it’s interesting to consider why book choice is so critical to effective literacy teaching and learning. Consider this excerpt from NCTE’s Principles for Intellectual Freedom in Education: The preservation of intellectual freedom in education depends upon the fostering of democratic values in the classroom, critical thinking stances and practices among teachers and students, open inquiry methods and access to information, and the exploration of multiple points of view.
While this ideal can be realized in an individual classroom, it’s much more sustainable when that value is shared by the whole school community. In an article published in Voices from the Middle this September called “An Urban School Shapes Young Adolescents’ Motivation to Read,” Dr. Chantal Francois describes a school where this is happening:
When I asked students to name what made them want to read in school, their responses illuminated the role the school had in shaping their reading motivation: 75 percent of the sample said that they believed that Grant Street was a “reading school.” Another 72 percent said that the constant opportunities to talk about books throughout the school made them want to read…
What does a reading school look like?
Martin, a ninth grader new to Grant Street, said, “In junior high school, we had independent reading. I never liked it . . . Here, a teacher recommends a book, and that really helps me. They know my taste. Sometimes I don’t know so many titles, and they help me . . . .”
The appreciation of book recommendations extended to students’ peers as well. Stephen, an eighth grader, said his classmates knew him well enough to put good books in his hands: “They just come up to me and say, ‘You’ve read this? You have to read this.’” In turn, Stephen often recommended books to his classmates.
One of the techniques used to create this culture of literacy is a voluntary book club:
[Principal] Steinberg posted fliers in the hallway advertising the books and purchased several copies of each title to distribute to any student who wanted to sign up. Those copies became a part of each English teacher’s classroom libraries or part of the school library. Steinberg then hosted a lunch with pizza and drinks for each featured title, open to any student who had read the text.
Building strong literacy learning practices could establish an environment where censorship is less likely to arise. As Francois reflects in his closing paragraph:
The factors that students named in interviews and that I saw as patterns in observations—nonnegotiable independent reading, constant opportunities to talk about books, and the principal’s involvement in their reading at school—affirmed the long-held idea that reading, and the motivation to do it, is mediated by its surrounding context.