The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Fall-Winter 2021

Book Smart

Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
In Lower School, giving students ownership of their classroom library is one way to make sure that reading continues to be rewarding, engaging–and fun.
The scene in the fourth grade reading classroom earlier this fall could have looked chaotic to the casual observer. The shelves in the classroom library stood bare while hundreds of books teetered in piles around the room. Amid the disarray, fourth graders swapped and sorted books between stacks, occasionally stopping to debate a book’s correct location. At that moment, reading and writing teacher Mary Munkenbeck may have regretted inviting her students to reorganize the classroom library, but there was a method to the makeshift mess.

Third and fourth grade is a critical transition point in a young reader’s development. As reading becomes increasingly independent, reading for fun suffers a marked decline. It’s an issue that Scholastic, in recent research, termed the “decline by nine.” In their 2019 Kids & Family Reading Report, Scholastic found that while 57% of eight-year-olds report reading a book for fun at least five to seven days a week, by nine years old, that number drops to 35%. In her classroom, Mary’s goal is to keep her students invested, engaged, and enthusiastic about reading.

When asked what they like to read, children usually cite favorite genres or mention a book series that has captivated their attention. So, it made sense to reorganize the classroom library by genre and series to match how students think about books. Reorganizing the library together allowed students to get to know the books and take ownership of the collection. To make the library user-friendly, students suggested marking books that are part of a series with stickers and grouping them in clear bins. The project also helped the class identify underrepresented book genres in the library. Fourth graders spent the fall “test-driving” nonfiction books to choose the ones they wanted to add to the classroom library.

Fourth grade reading classes run on a workshop model. Mary usually starts with a short lesson on a reading strategy to guide the day, and then the class breaks into groups that take turns meeting with her. Depending on the day, the groups could be working on a particular reading skill or doing guided reading, where they are reading chapter books, drawing out the meaning, and making connections. One of the skills students focused on this fall was characterization and how authors communicate a character’s traits through dialogue, action, and description. In a recent class, five students discussed The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill and how the main character changes throughout the book. “Our discussions activate inferential thinking,” says Mary. “Each student picks something they noticed and shares supporting evidence with the group.” While one group meets with Mary, the others are engaged in active reading, jotting down their thoughts about the text in think bubbles or reading independently and working on the reading task for the week. 

Fourth graders have book “shopping” days each week, where they can trade in finished books from the classroom library for new ones. In their book bags are two “just-right” books–one to read now and one to read next; two nonfiction books; and one picture book to practice reading strategies. “I give them choices because I want them to find what they love to read,” says Mary. However, knowing that fourth graders are susceptible to getting stuck in a genre, she uses group time in class to expose students to different kinds of books. “I try to tackle the less-loved genres in small groups to support their understanding and maybe get them excited about a different genre.” Each student has a reading stamina chart in their interactive notebook, and they can look back over the year and see how their ability to read intently has increased.

Kids who are reluctant readers are often choosing the wrong books, notes Mary. They might choose a series because a friend loves it or try to read a book that is too challenging. By looking at their reading logs and weekly assignments like book reviews, Mary can usually deduce if there is a mismatch between a reader and book and steer them in a different direction. Mary models appropriate book choices for her students in picking the books for each reading group. “I’m giving them a book I’m pretty sure they will love. They’ll be able to read it, talk about it, write about it, and it’s going to feel good.” As students build an awareness of what a “just-right” book feels like, Mary hopes that this knowledge carries over to the books students choose to read in the library and at home. 

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