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Time to read

SMS 40-book challenge a real page-turner

SOLON– Middle school students are reading more and more.
And it’s making a difference in reaching benchmarks set by the district.
At the heart of it all is Solon Middle School’s 40-Book Challenge, an optional but highly encouraged competition over the course of the school year.
Every student is asked to read 40 novels from a wide variety of genres, and are given dedicated school time to accomplish the task.
“There’s something quite amazing going here,” said Julie Smith, middle school instructional coach.
Smith and eighth grade language arts teacher Kate Gordon appeared before the Solon Community School District Board of Education at a Jan. 16 meeting to present on the success of the program.
The district’s strategic plan calls for an academic goal of 95 percent of students in third through 11th grade being proficient in reading.
It’s typical, Smith explained to board members, to see a dip in assessment scores when a student transitions to middle school.
“We are doing the exact opposite,” Smith said. “We are climbing toward that 95 percent proficiency mark.”
While the rest of the state is plateauing around 70 percent proficiency, Solon went from 85 percent for sixth graders to 90 and 93 percent for seventh and eighth graders in recent Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress (ISASP) results, she noted.
“We feel our initiative, our efforts to increase their volume, to increase their stamina, having them read daily with choice, all those things are impacting that in some sort of way,” Smith suggested.
The idea for the 40-Book Challenge developed several years ago when a Literacy Brainstorm Committee tackled the challenge of making students better readers.
“We didn’t just want to teach kids how to read, we wanted to teach kids to love to read and to read from a wide variety of genres; that we wanted them to be lifelong readers and to carry that well beyond the walls of the middle school, well beyond high school and college– just embrace reading,” Smith said.
Reading is needed for learning, for participating in society and makes for a well-rounded person, she added.
The committee revisited “The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child,” by Donalyn Miller, and its message resonated with the members.
Miller identified some essential needs for classroom reading– time, choice, response, community and structure, Smith said.
“Kids need time to read,” she observed. “You can instruct them, but you have to give them time to practice.”
Students also need ways to interact with their social peers, and to think and write about the text, she noted.
The group came away determined to restructure reading time, and the first initiative was the 40-Book Challenge, piloted in the spring of 2017.
While not required or graded, students were strongly encouraged to read building-wide, and were provided assistance with setting and tracking their goals.
Book recommendations from teachers and students are a regular part of the program and middle school walls are filled with charts tracking the number of books and celebratory photos. Achievements are celebrated every quarter with funds provided by the middle school PTO.
“They’re proud of themselves,” Gordon said of the students.
For students to be successful readers, they need books in their hands, Smith said.
But you need to know what they want, which led to another initiative– a Reading Habits Survey.
The form has been modified over the last three years but generally tracks the number of books read, where students are getting books, what genres they enjoy and who influences their selections.
Students fill out the survey at the end of each semester.
The first survey in 2017 only covered half of a year and some students, while in 2018 the program was not fully implemented. But there was full participation in 2019.
“We feel like the volume of reading has increased,” Smith said.
In 2019, 42.9 percent of students met the challenge, compared to 3.1 percent two years ago, while the number of those reading only a handful of books per year has dropped from 25.7 to 3.1 percent.
The school library was their main source for books, but that’s switching to classroom collections after the six members of English Language Arts team made a big effort to stock their rooms.
“We purchased a lot of books,” Gordon remarked.
Teachers spent $24,000 filling their closets and shelves with selections, she said, with assistance from the PTO, the use of Scholastic Points and grant funds from the Solon Education Foundation.
From the survey, instructors also know students are most influenced by their peers in their selections and like to follow authors and series, preferring action and adventure and mystery fiction and history for non-fiction.
It’s important information to have when making book purchases, Smith added.
Also aligning with the challenge was a shift of instructional practice at the middle school, which adopted the Reading Workshop model and piloted the Lucy Calkins Reading Units of Study curriculum, Gordon explained.
“That gives kids more time with books in their hands and there’s more free choice and they’re not being told what to read,” Gordon said. “I think that is a huge influence on the kids and they feel more empowered with their choice of books.”
Time is set aside in class for recommendations and all students are required to give book talks, presenting reviews in a group setting.
Students read 30-45 minutes a day in class, Smith said, but all teachers are aware of the challenge and students are expected to read during Spartan Time or study hall.
Middle school students are likely in text 50-75 minutes every single day, she suggested.
It’s increased their stamina, Smith said. Three years ago, they would be lucky to be able to read for seven to 10 minutes without a break. The more they read, the more they naturally build vocabulary and comprehension, she said, noting research links volume with proficiency.
The next steps will be to once again tweak the survey for more deliberate and accurate results and building up the non-fiction collections.
“Funding is huge for us,” Smith said. “We need to be able to keep purchasing books.”
Kids want their hands on the latest titles, she said, and teachers need to have those books on the shelves.
Board members wondered if the program should be extended, some way, to both lower and upper grades, with Dan Coons suggesting it would be interesting to track reading habits into high school.
Board member Rick Jedlicka indicated the program was a great fit for the middle school, but asked if the district should expand to Solon Intermediate School or other buildings.
Superintendent Davis Eidahl noted work had begun on a third-grade reading club focusing on student choice.
Eidahl said he loved what he saw at the middle school.
“You see a child waiting for a parent reading book, or you walk into the cafeteria and they’re reading books during lunch,” he said. “Chaos all around them and they’ve got their face in a book.”