COOKBOOKS, CONNECTION, AND CHOICE: SARA BELONG TALKS ABOUT READING ENGAGEMENT
When Sara Belong noticed some of her students refusing to read, fake reading, not being interested in the ‘popular’ books, and taking on the identity of “I don’t read,” she knew she had to do something. After sitting and conferencing with students about their interests and experiences as readers, she realized the gaps in her classroom library and set out to make some changes. The most prominent gaps she noticed were books about hunting, fishing, outdoor adventure, cooking, trucks, instruction manuals, and magazines. When she brought in a pile of cookbooks from home, she couldn’t believe the response. Her students were racing to grab them first, leaving the table empty, writing down recipes on the recipe cards she had available, and even telling her of their cooking adventures at home with the recipes they wrote down. When she learned about a student who eats vegan and another who “doesn’t cook but bakes cookies,” she brought in more cookbooks to address these interests, and the look on the students’ faces said, “You notice me!”
Stepping outside of the box of traditional classroom reading, asking her students “What will you read?” and embracing how her students respond to that question has allowed her to form new connections and break down preconceived notions of what reading is: “They are seeing that they don’t have to read what Ms. Belong likes to read.” When she presented some of these new forms of texts to her students, one question she received was, “I’m allowed to read that?” When her answer was, “Yes!” she knew that student felt noticed and supported: really seen.
In Game Changer: Book Access for All Kids, Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp emphasize that “Readers’ unique needs and interests should be the primary drivers of independent reading and matter more than mandates and expectations of teachers and caregivers” (p. 106). When Sara reflects on how honoring her students’ interests has affected her classroom reading community, she says, “It’s made all the difference for their engagement and motivation to read. I had one student who only wanted to read scary, real life stories, and now that we’ve found some titles she is interested in, she has gone from being disengaged to asking, ‘Can we read now?’ She seems happy to be here.”
Sara is constantly searching for various types of texts to include in her classroom library that will address the interests and needs of her readers. She is currently on the hunt for more cookbooks, instruction manuals, and outdoor adventure magazines. Her eagerness to honor these forms of texts reflects what Antero Garcia in Game Changer: Book Access for All Kids says in relation to cultivating passionate readers: “…we must consider the modalities of reading we are willing to include. More importantly, we must consider what opportunities are denied, and what interests are diffused when we exclude certain kinds of media” (p. 118).
When Sara hears a student say, “I’m not a reader.” She always says to herself, “Yet!” We love this. Thank you Sara and Antero for challenging us to examine our bookshelves and the books we talk about to kids!
Sara Belong teaches grade 6 at George Street Middle School. She adores her husband and three children and loves yellow curry, coffee, and peanut butter balls. Sara is currently reading To Know and Nurture a Reader by Christina Nosek and Kari Yates and is excited to try out the strategies in her classroom reading conferences.