FullSizeRenderLet’s talk about culture. I’m not talking about the stuff microbiologists have in those plastic petri dishes…I’m talking about the common values and beliefs of a community.

I was curious about the culture that we live in and looked up the top trends on Google. These are the top 10 results that were trending this past year: Meghan Markle, Celebrities, Hurricane Irma, NFL National Anthem, Unicorn Frappuccino, How to Make Slime, NY Yankees, DACA, Bitcoin, and the iPhone.

While this is by no means a scientific study, it does shed a little light on our values, what interests us, and what is important to us as a country.

The one thing that I didn’t see was a book. In American culture today, reading has taken a backseat. And, it’s not just Google telling us this.

Americans don’t read in school. According to a recent Scholastic survey, only about ⅓ of classroom teachers reported that they allocated independent reading time during the school day. Most educators cite “the demands of the curriculum” as a reason why they do not have students read independently in the classroom.

We don’t read at home. According to a Common Sense Media study, kids read for fun less and less as they older. By the time they reach the end of high school, nearly half of 17 year olds report that they read by choice only once or twice a year.

And, we don’t read as adults. According to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half of adults (18-44 year olds surveyed) report that they read no books for pleasure.

While we can’t force adults to read, I am here to say that we can make a difference in the reading lives of our students. And, hopefully, instill the love of reading and learning that will carry them into adulthood.

How can we do this? What strategies can we use to instill the love of reading in our students? We need to go back to the idea of culture.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

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Peter Drucker said this when he wrote about management and leadership in the business world. What he meant was that you can have 1000 new strategies to improve a business but if you don’t have a culture that allows the strategies to thrive in your organization, the strategies are worthless.

We applied this thinking to our school. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

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With this in mind, we focused on the reading culture in our school.

A few years ago, after being inspired by the work of Donalyn Miller and Steven Layne, a group of us at Barrett Ranch Elementary School (home of the Broncos!) decided to do something about reading in our school. We noticed that our kids were doing well learning the fundamentals- which says a lot about our RTI program because 50% of our students are English Language Learners and 70% of our students are socioeconomically disadvantaged (receive free or reduced price lunches). We have many students who come to us from another country not speaking a single word of English. I am constantly amazed at the growth that some kids show as the school year progresses. However, we also noticed that, for many students, progress became stagnant and they didn’t get to more advanced levels in reading proficiency. We had students who were considered “long term” English Learners because they stayed at intermediate levels of English proficiency for many years. When we delved into the data and looked for answers through the research community, we ultimately came to the conclusion that there were several factors creating this dilemma. First, the general lack of background knowledge was hurting our students in reading comprehension (see my earlier post on Building Background Knowledge). In addition, we saw that students needed more work on building academic language and vocabulary. Finally, we realized that they just didn’t have enough practice reading. They didn’t read more than what was required. They didn’t want to read more. Who would blame them? Their reading experiences came from small workbooks that drilled into them the foundational skills. While these skills are so important in learning how to read proficiently, I’ve never seen any student rush home to finish reading their page on sounding out C-V-C words.

We thought that if we could only get kids to want to read more, half the battle would be won. The research on independent reading, choice and volume is vast (see my video on Independent Reading). So we looked at our reading culture.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

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We formed the “Spark the Fire” Committee (named in honor of Steven Layne’s book Igniting the Passion for Reading) to start a campaign we called, “BRONCOS READ…” The sole purpose of this campaign was to come up with ways to get kids (and adults) excited about books- reading books, talking about books. To start to build that culture of reading. In the next few posts, I will detail the activities and ideas that help build our reading culture. From the 40 Book Challenge to collaborating with local businesses to create eight reading lounges on campus, reading became a priority. We have made it fun for kids and adults. It’s been several years now and we have made great strides in building that culture of reading and the love of literacy. A lot has happened since our first “Spark the Fire” meeting. We even got the 2018 Exemplary Reading Program Award from the International Literacy Association a few weeks ago!

We have an extraordinary staff. We all come from different places when it comes to our own reading lives. I come from the perspective of learning to read English as a second language. Reading books was a way for me to learn about a new culture that was different than that of my Vietnamese roots. Kendra Barrett fell in love with books as a young child listening to her mom reading aloud Mary Poppins. Sadly, she lost that love in school but rediscovered it in college reading Homer’s Odyssey. Karina Almanza’s love for reading was instilled by her farm worker grandparents who had no formal education and struggled to become self taught readers. She is a witness to the positive impact reading can provide in creating opportunities for children and families.

Whatever our perspective, we know one thing to be true. Reading has changed our lives for the better and we want this for our students. And I believe that if our school can do it, your school can do it, too. You, too, have an extraordinary staff. No ordinary group of people has the audacity to believe that it can change the world by educating the next generation of citizens. Sometimes, we educators just need to remind ourselves of this. Everyone has their own reading perspective or story and can articulate how reading has made an impact on their life. There is great power in this realization because many of our own stories are reflected in our student’s lives and backgrounds.

So where do you start? There’s no magic in this. You just start. You start with a little passion and desire to ignite a fire for reading. To empower others through literacy. To build a culture in which reading is celebrated and valued.

And remember always, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

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