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“Don is a wonderful storyteller, and his honest essays about himself and his family, their escape from the Vietnam days before Saigon fell, his life as an immigrant child, and his experiences and memories of reading illustrate the lasting influence of families, teachers, and books. Don is also an inclusive and responsive school leader, and credits school staff and families with driving change at the school. He stresses that any shift or initiative in a school’s culture driven solely by its leaders is unsustainable…Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness is rich in practical strategies, thought-provoking conversation topics, student and teacher voices, and inspiration. It is possible for all children to experience reading joy and succeed on short-term measures of success like standardized tests, but Barrett Ranch and schools like it show that when we focus on engaging and supporting readers and their families, children succeed and retain an appreciation for reading. Don Vu and the Barrett Ranch community have given us a gift—a glimpse into the messy but gratifying process of reimagining what reading looks like in our schools.”– DONALYN MILLERaward-winning teacher, staff development leader, and author of The Book Whisperer, Reading in the Wild, and Game Changer!: Book Access for All Kids

Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness is one of the most important books for educators today. Don Vu helps us reimagine what is possible when we create a culture of literacy and commit to student choice, agency, and independent reading. He weaves in personal story throughout, which helps illuminate the challenges and triumphs of the immigrant and refugee experience. The stories and strategies Vu shares, as well as the trade books he recommends, will help educators at all levels create the best environments possible for our immigrant and refugee children to thrive as readers, writers, and learners.”— FRANKI SIBBERSON, 2020 President, National Council of Teachers of English; Teacher, Librarian, Author

“I love this book with all my heart. Don’s expertise and personal journey make Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness an instant standout in the world of literacy leadership. With poignant stories, a powerful refugee perspective, and practical strategies, it will help you deliver on the promise of making education the great equalizer.”— BRAD GUSTAFSON, National Distinguished Principal, Author of Reclaiming Our Calling

“America is at a crossroads, yet Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness tells us that a path to a better America can be made in our very own schools, with compassion, hope, and Vu’s six conditions for a culture of literacy for all. This master storyteller weaves together his own immigrant story, his school’s successes, and reading research into a beautifully inclusive fabric. This book will not only help you grow professionally, but truly touch your soul!”
JOANNE DEVINE, Past President of the California Reading Association and Placer Area Reading Council, Lifelong Educator and Reading Specialist Reading

“There are few books I’ve read that speak as deeply to my heart as Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Don Vu takes you on a personal journey that is incredibly accessible and filled with takeaways for all educators who care deeply about equitable education. This is a book I’ll give to educator friends because I believe it’s a book we all need, not only for our own hearts but also for our students’.” — TODD NESLONEY, Director of Culture & Strategic Leadership, Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association; Author of When Kids Lead: An Adult’s Guide to Inspiring, Empowering, and Growing Young Leaders

“Vu intimately understands the power books have to shape identity, particularly for young newcomers who seek belonging. Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness is a compassionate and creative guide that challenges teachers to reimagine the role and importance of books in the lives of their immigrant students. Weaving in stories of his own, from growing up as a refugee in the United States to his years of success in classrooms and as a principal, Vu is a vital voice for educators.” — JESSICA LANDER, teacher of recent immigrant and refugee students, Author of Driving Backwards, and Coauthor of Powerful Partnerships: Engaging Families for Student Success, co-founder (with her former students) of the national We Are America Project

“As our student population continues to grow more diverse, this book is needed on every educator’s shelf. Don has tackled some of the realities our immigrant youth experience and gives practical strategies to educators. Honest, timely, and an insight on what it is to live a true literacy American Dream.”—LYNMARA COLÓN, Director of English Learner Programs and Services, Prince William County Schools; Author of Empower Our Girls: Opening Doors for Girls to Achieve More

“What a gem of a book! Elementary principal Don Vu speaks from the trenches and from the heart, providing a pathway to inspiring all children to read, especially those from diverse language backgrounds. He encourages us to examine our potential blind spots on equity, race, and poverty, while guiding us to make important shifts that impact students’ achievement and lives.” —LORI OCZKUS, Author and Literacy Consultant

“In this exhilarating text, Don Vu shares his immigration story as the impetus for educators and families to create rich, literacy lives with ‘books everywhere.’ He convincingly argues that achieving the American dream is only possible for refugees, immigrants, and other vulnerable groups if all ‘kids are educated and liberated.’ To that end, in Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Vu brilliantly describes how to create and sustain compassionate schools and classrooms where all languages and cultures are celebrated and all literacy learners thrive.” — REGIE ROUTMAN, Educator and Author of Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners

COMING SPRING 2021: Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness

1975: New Americans (that’s me in the red hoodie)

According to the US Census, almost a quarter of all students in the United States are first or second generation immigrants. By 2030, the percentage of students learning English as a second language is projected to be close to 40%. Furthermore, as immigration has recently become a top concern for politicians, the number of hate crimes against people of color reached a 16 year high according to a recent FBI report. With the coronavirus being the most pressing concern today, over 2,100 anti-Asian American hate crimes were reported between the months of March and June of this year alone. And, the latest impact of COVID-19 on immigrant populations—healthcare disparities, housing instability, access to technology, and differentiated supports—have all clearly highlighted the suffering these newer Americans are experiencing. 

The American Dream may seem far from the reach of many of our immigrant and refugee students and families, but the power of literacy and reading can make all the difference in the world.

Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness is the first professional title to be dedicated to addressing a school’s reading culture with a focus on the needs of immigrant and refugee students and families—including learning their new target language, English. 

Dr. Don Vu presents six conditions of culture (Commitment, Collection, Clock, Conversation, Connection, and Celebration) that must be addressed in order to create a school environment where immigrant and refugee students can thrive. Each condition is backed by research and practical strategies are presented so that any educator can begin to make a difference in their classroom or school.

From his own refugee experience to his professional journey of leading an award-winning school nationally recognized for its reading culture, Dr. Vu allows readers to not only better understand a unique refugee perspective but open themselves up to what their own immigrant students and families are experiencing in school today.

Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness is a call to action. It’s an inspirational guide for educators who want to make a difference not only in their schools but in their country and world. It’s a testament to the transformative power of reading and how literacy can open the door for all to realize the American dream.

To be published by Scholastic Education April 2021.

Sowing the Seeds for a Stronger America

From ACSA Leadership Magazine, November/December 2018

Photo by Edgar Colomba on Pexels.com

“You speak English pretty good! You don’t even have an accent!” 

This was said to me. 

Last year. 

I am a 45 year old man, 43 of those years spent in America. I have a doctorate degree and have worked in public schools for the last 24 years as a teacher and school administrator.

And what if I had an accent or had difficulty understanding English? My father, a naturalized American citizen, was belittled and harassed by a US Customs agent at the San Francisco International Airport for not understanding a regulatory question that was muttered to him. He was returning from a trip overseas this past summer and recalls feeling humiliated and disrespected.

This happens all the time in our society and I am grateful that I’ve only experienced a more mild form of prejudice and intolerance. We’ve all seen and read the recent headlines of heinous crimes against people of color. Unfortunately, the ugly truth is that the numbers of hate crimes have increased for four straight years since 2014 according to the FBI. However, you don’t need to be a victim of a hate crime to be affected by the current climate in America. Prejudice takes a toll, a psychological toll on its victims and it impacts all of us in schools. Our colleagues. Our communities. Our kids.

The good news is that we can do something about this in our schools. If there’s any place in America where we can create change for a better society, it’s our schools. So, what are things that we can do in schools to combat racial prejudice and promote understanding in a multicultural society?

First, we need to start with us educators.

Ask a colleague of color if they have ever experienced prejudice or racism. If they say they haven’t, then ask them if they’ve ever felt out of place in any setting because of their race or ethnicity. Try to understand and just listen. It may take a while to build that trust but, in the end, it will build a bridge. Once you build that bridge, you can start having conversations about how to make your school and district a safe place for all people. What if you don’t have many colleagues of color?

Diversify your district. This one’s for human resources and district leadership. Hire qualified people of color. If your district is comprised mainly of white educators, then it is imperative that you search for educators who have different experiences and backgrounds. It will benefit your school, district, and community on many levels. Your school community will benefit from different perspectives on programs and policies. In the end, your students, whatever their race or ethnicity, will benefit from seeing a person of color as their teacher or principal. It not only prepares them for the real world but allows them to have positive experiences with other people outside of their own culture.

Check your bias. We all have bias- whether it’s conscious or unconscious. It’s good to reflect and explore how this impacts us as educators and what we can do to minimize the negative impacts of our own prejudices in our classrooms and schools. You’ll be surprised to how much unconscious thought impacts your actions. There are many resources and programs to help districts navigate this issue.

Immerse yourself in the community.  Most of our staff at Barrett Ranch do not live in the neighborhood of our school. However, it is important that we know and understand our school community so we plan events in the neighborhood- school meetings in the community library, fundraisers at local restaurants. What if you extend that reach even further? You can shop the local businesses. Go to the barbershop. Go to the grocery store. Even if you don’t see any students or parents in the neighborhood, you’ll already have a better understanding of who they are by experiencing a little of their world outside of school. And, if by chance you meet some of your school community, you will start to build a connection and trust that will only add value to the work you do in school.

Travel. If you can, pack your bags and go some to a foreign land. I don’t mean go to Cancun and hang out by the pool for a week drinking margaritas. I mean immerse yourself in a new culture. Meet the people, eat the food, try to negotiate the subtleties of the culture, and learn some of the language. Experience how disorienting, scary, and frustrating it can be for an outsider. If there’s any take-away from your experience abroad, it will give you a small sense of empathy for your students and families who are experiencing the same thing in your school.

If you can’t travel the world, explore different cultures through art, food, and entertainment. Visit an Asian or African art museum in a large city near you. Make reservations at a Vietnamese restaurant. Watch a foreign movie or read an international book. The bottom line is that you are opening yourself up to a different perspective that can help you understand the world and your school community a little better.

What about the parents and students?

Assure the parents and kids of color that they are valued and respected. Make it clear to the entire community that you value diversity and everyone is welcome in your school and district. However, saying it is not enough. Do things. Put on a World Fair to showcase the diversity in your school. Bring in parents of color for Career Day. Encourage them to volunteer in your classrooms. Engage with them at pick up and drop off. Sometimes a smile or a welcoming handshake can make a huge difference.  

Be sensitive. Understand that parents and kids of color may be experiencing prejudice and intolerance in their daily lives. There is psychological toll that can be detrimental if one is constantly worried about being deported or constantly perceived to be a threat. Feeling like you don’t have a place in society or in a school can be painful. School should be the one place that is a safe haven for all families. 

Don’t make assumptions. We use to have our English Learners parent meetings at the same time as our Title I (Free and Reduced Lunch) meetings. That stopped when we realized how offensive that was. We can’t make assumptions about our families of color. Learn about the families and kids and really get to know them. Their stories are different and complex and it takes effort to really get to know our families beyond generalizations.

Teach tolerance and empathy. The greatest gifts we can give our kids are the skills and ability to thrive in a multicultural society. They’ll have a better chance of being successful if they start learning about other perspectives from an early age. Ensure that classrooms and school libraries have books that reflect a diversity representative of not only your school community but the world. Demand that curriculum is inclusive and perspectives represented in social studies, art, and literature. Plan for kids to work together as a community and promote shared values such as respect, kindness, and courage. Include families in this work. Read books like Sara Ahmed’s, Being the Change, and work with students on lessons centered on social comprehension and empathy.

Whether it is combating unconscious bias or hate, we don’t have a chance of changing the world for the better if we don’t address it in our schools. In fact, doing it in schools gives us the best chance of success. We owe it to our communities to do a better job. We owe it to ourselves, our colleagues, our community, and most importantly, our kids.

Don Vu is the principal of Barrett Ranch Elementary School in the Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District in Northern California. His school is the recipient of the 2018 Exemplary Reading Program Award from the International Literacy Association and the 2017 Celebrate Literacy Award from the California Reading Association and the Placer Area Reading Council.

Don has been an educator for about 24 years. He believes that school is where the seeds are sown in building a better America. 

You can find out more about Don and his school at http://www.drdonvu.com. Follow him on Twitter: @drdonvu

How to Get the Most Out of a Diverse Classroom Library

(From Edutopia 11/1/2019: https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-get-most-out-diverse-classroom-library)

By now, most of us in education are familiar with the term “windows and mirrors” in relation to children’s literature. Originally applied to curriculum as a whole, the term was famously used by Rudine Sims Bishop to discuss the way books and stories can act as windows in which children see a world outside of their own or mirrors in which they see a reflection of themselves in the world. Providing both windows and mirrors is critical in the development of individuals who will grow up to be caring and compassionate citizens of the world.

Luckily, there are many great resources to help teachers and principals find books that can be windows and mirrors for students. A Google search for “diverse book lists” will lead educators to collections of worthy books to share with students, and to organizations such as We Need Diverse Books that not only donate books to schools but work with publishers to ensure that previously underrepresented stories are told.

What we don’t talk about often enough is what to do once we get these books into our schools and classrooms. What are the best strategies to hold up the mirror for a child to see a clear reflection of themselves? What can we do in the classroom to help kids see diversity in the world and develop a sense of empathy for others?

While it’s important to provide access to these books, it’s just as important to know what to do with them in your classroom. The ideas that follow are built around whole-class reading, and applying them to choice reading would take some adaptation—for example, a teacher could write up some background knowledge needed to understand a story and leave a printout in the book for interested students.


Discuss the importance of perspective: Is a story a window or a mirror? Or both? This depends on the perspective of the reader, of course. It’s important to discuss this question as a classroom community so that students can find meaning in their own perspective and the perspective of others.

When reading R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, for example, students may find themselves identifying with the lonely new kid who is so different from his classmates. Later in the same story, they may find a new understanding of a sibling who has been ignored and neglected at home. It’s important for students to acknowledge and reflect on these perspectives. Teaching Tolerance has a great lesson plan to help facilitate these discussions.

Build background knowledge: Think about what students need to know before they read a particular book. Building their background knowledge can improve their reading comprehension by providing context for the story. For example, if you’re going to read Write to Me: Letters From Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady, you’ll need to be sure that students have some understanding of the World War II internment camps.

Take on another point of view: If we’re hoping books are windows, we want kids to see the world from another perspective, to experience a walk in someone else’s shoes. What better way to facilitate this experience than having students ask themselves, “How would I feel if I were this person?” or “What would I do if I were in this situation?”

Activities such as journaling from a character’s point of view can be helpful in getting students to reflect on these ideas. If a classroom was exploring the idea of sacrifice while reading Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, students could write a letter to the tree from the old man’s perspective. What would he say? What did he learn in his life?

Some teachers may have students role-play different characters from a story to add another layer of reflection. While teachers need to be sensitive and careful not to reinforce stereotypes, role-playing characters such as Salma and Lily from The Sandwich Swap can help kids develop a deeper understanding of differences and similarities.

Compare and contrast: In Classroom Instruction That Works, Robert Marzano says that identifying similarities and differences is critical to enhancing students’ understanding of and ability to use knowledge. This strategy can be used to highlight the similarities students have with characters as well as differences they see.

Using a graphic organizer such as a Venn diagram, a student can explore the ways they are similar to and different from a character such as Harry Potter or Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. In this type of activity, the student can develop a better sense of who they are and also understand the character on a deeper level.

Connect to the world now: Find ways to connect stories and characters to the real world. Can you bring in someone from the community who can speak to the experiences found in a book? If you’re reading Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, for example, a person who volunteers in a soup kitchen can be a window for kids who wonder what it’s like to visit a soup kitchen—and a mirror for students who have been to one.

Sharing news articles and videos is another way to connect stories to the real world—reading about a current refugee crisis would be a great connection to Alan Gratz’s Refugee.

For all of these strategies, you’ll want to provide students with time to reflect on their learning. Ask them to share: What did they think and how did they feel as they saw themselves in a character in a story, or as they encountered a character who was very different from them?

It’s also important to allow students to ask any questions that they may have. Many students may have strong feelings about new ideas, and it’s important to debrief with them regarding how to move forward with empathy and kindness.

4 Tips for Principals From a Parent Who Knows the Job

(From Edutopia 12/10/19 : https://www.edutopia.org/article/4-tips-principals-parent-who-knows-job)

It’s been about three months since I resigned from my position as an elementary school principal. A part of the deal with my wife in allowing me to take a “gap year” was that I would get more involved in our daughter’s schooling. You see, I was never able to make many of our daughter’s school events because I was so busy running my own school’s events.

This seemed like a good deal—getting more involved was something I needed to do as a parent, and I now happily volunteer in my daughter’s fifth grade class every week. Being in the classroom in this capacity offers me an opportunity to see school from a different perspective, and it’s been a good reminder to me that parents play an important role in a school—a reminder I’d like to pass on to other school leaders.

So, according to this room dad, what are the most important things principals need to do in leading their schools?


1. Be visible: As a parent, I want to see my principal there on campus. I get it—you can’t always be there. You have district meetings, professional development, and things that take you off-site often.

However, you should make an effort to be out and about when parents are on campus. Be there during drop-off and pickup—you get bonus points if you’re helping open car doors or doing crosswalk duty. If it helps, schedule it on your calendar—and remember to mix it up so you’re around at different places on campus at those times so you see different families.

If you can’t be there physically, communicate with your community often. Email or call us—I don’t expect you to contact us all personally, of course, but writing or robocalling to share important information is great. Write your newsletter messages—some of us parents really read them. And don’t just communicate the business stuff: Use these tools to let us know more about you. For example, don’t just tell us that there’s no school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day—tell us what this holiday means to you personally. I would love to read that in your principal’s message in January.

The bottom line is that all of this helps us get to know you, and that’s important since we trust you with our children.

2. Don’t just be visible, be good with kids: If kids are truly the most important thing to you—which they should be—it should be crystal clear through your actions. I love seeing my daughter’s principal interacting with kids.

I know it’s hard, but try to know students’ names and a little bit about each one. Play with them, laugh with them, and connect with them. As a principal, I used to send each child a birthday postcard from school with a handwritten note and a reminder to come to the office to get their birthday pencil. It was a small gesture, but kids loved getting the postcard in the mail. It was all a part of building relationships with kids and building a culture of caring at the school.

I don’t need to be at school to know that you have a good relationship with kids. When my kid comes home and tells me that you played soccer with her and her friends or that you came to the classroom to read with them, that tells me you’re building connections. When I see these types of interactions between the principal and students, I know that kids come first.

3. Don’t just be good with kids, be good with the adults: When you’re walking around campus, talk to parents. Ask us how things are going. Get some feedback and ideas on how to make our school better.

When I see teachers and staff at my daughter’s school, I hope to get a sense that they feel supported and are able to keep focused on the kids. Teaching is a stressful job, and there’s a lot to complain about—that’s why getting support from the leader of the school is so important. I want my kid’s teacher to be primarily focused on doing her best job teaching, not being overwhelmed with administrative or disciplinary issues.

Your relationships with the adults on campus—both parents and staff—have a direct impact on my child’s learning, so they matter to me.

4. Oh, and one more thing: Notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about how parents want their principals to be able to write excellent SMART goals or comprehensive school plans. This comes with the territory for principals, and I know you have it all on your to-do list.

But as a parent, I just don’t care about that. I’m not saying that stuff isn’t important—I know it’s definitely important to your district office and state department of education. I’m just saying that if you’re not focused on the kids and on building relationships, it doesn’t matter if you have the best SMART goals in the history of education. As a parent, I just want to know that my child is important to you.

Summer Tour 2019

I’ll be at the International Literacy Association (ILA) Nevada Intensive on June 21- June 22! I have 2 sessions:

Summer Leap

The Summer Leap: Using Summer to Bridge the Literacy Gap for SED Students

The “summer slide” negatively impacts socioeconomically disadvantaged (SED) students disproportionately. We will discuss how elementary schools can keep kids reading over summer vacation by:

  • Opening up their school libraries for part of the summer
  • Allowing students to check out books over summer break
  • Working with local libraries/bookstores to engage kids
  • Supporting parents throughout the summer through school communications
  • Starting a summer read aloud series on YouTube


IMG_2012Video Book Talks and Trailers: Using Multimedia to Build Background Knowledge and Promote Equity

Book Talks are a great way to introduce kids to a new book. The Video Book Talk takes it to a whole new level- using multimedia to produce a book talk allows educators to include something that is critical to reading comprehension- background knowledge. In this session, you will learn about the research on building background knowledge and its impact on literacy and its role in equity in schools and society. You will also learn how to make your own Video Book Talk. It’s easier than you think! Bring your own device if you want to give it a go!

I’ll be at the Scholastic Reading Summit in LA later in the summer!


Creating a Culture of Literacy in your Classroom and School

Want to create a culture of literacy in your classroom and your school? Principal Don Vu and Barrett Ranch staff used research-based ideas (describe as the Conditions of Culture) to develop a 5 year plan to transform literacy in their school. From easy to implement ideas for the classroom to an inspirational project of creating reading lounges on campus, you’ll be ready to start your own campaign!

Notes from the field: Creating a culture of literacy

Below is an article that I wrote for The California Reader (Vol. 52, No. 2, Winter 2019), a publication of the California Reading Association.


Broncos Read…How to Create a Culture of Literacy

     A few years ago, after being inspired by the work of Donalyn Miller and Steven Layne (at the 2014 CRA Conference in Sacramento), a group of us at Barrett Ranch Elementary School decided to change the reading culture of our school. While our kids were doing well learning the fundamentals of reading (which says a lot about our academic programs because 50% of our students are English Learners and 70% are socioeconomically disadvantaged), we also noticed that progress in reading was stagnant. Kids just weren’t very enthusiastic about reading.

     Many of our students never had a chance to see reading as anything else other than a subject in school that was practiced in between the pages of the district adopted textbook. For those who struggled, reading was even worse. These students were caught up in intervention programs that epitomize the idea of “drill and kill”. While learning the foundational skills of reading is essential and important, it doesn’t inspire students to pick up books and develop lifelong reading habits. We realized that if our reading program stopped at the foundational skills and academic standards, we were only doing half of our job. There was something missing.

    So, we did what most educators do- we formed a committee. A small group of teachers and I formed the Spark the Fire Committee (a nod to Steven Layne’s 2008 book Igniting a Passion for Reading) whose sole purpose was to come up with ways to get kids and adults excited about books. Reading books. Sharing books. Talking about books. We called our effort the “Broncos Read…” campaign and it has been going strong ever since.

     Last summer, a group of us were in Austin, Texas, at the International Literacy Association national conference to receive the 2018 Exemplary Reading Program Award for our school.  This was affirmation that we are on the right track but it is also a reminder that the work we do to engage students in literacy is always ahead of us. Here are a few things we’ve learned on the way in our journey.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Peter Drucker once said this while researching organizational management in the business world. What he meant was that you can have a thousand new strategies to improve a business but if you don’t have a culture that allows those strategies to thrive in your organization, the strategies are worthless. It’s the same for schools. A culture of literacy prioritizes the work of engaging students and staff in books and stories. If lifelong reading is valued, then it’s always an agenda item for leadership team and staff meetings. Money is allocated for classroom and school libraries, books are shared and talked about school-wide, independent reading time is reserved for both home and school. With a strong reading culture, things like Donalyn Miller’s 40 Book Challenge or Todd Nesloney’s Book Prom become integral to the school and leave no question that literacy is a priority.

Don’t forget the adults. You can’t create passionate readers if you don’t have teachers who are passionate about reading themselves. That’s why we put so much time and effort into providing professional development for teachers and staff. We allocate funds for our teachers to attend reading conferences (CRA, Scholastic Reading Summits, etc). We collaborate with local reading councils (for us, the Placer Area Reading Council has been an invaluable partner) to bring in literacy experts to work with staff. We also create our own professional development through yearly book studies and, new this year, we are creating a professional development library for all staff. It’s critical to engage teachers and staff so that they can sustain the energy and passion required in this work.

Follow the research. Our work should be rooted in the research. Go back to the research on the importance of independent reading (Krashen, 2011; Miller & Moss, 2013), student choice (Allington & Gabriel, 2012), access to books (Neuman & Celano, 2012), and volume of reading (Allington, 2012; Cunningham & Stanovich, 2003; Guthrie, 2004; Hiebert & Reutzel, 2010; Swan et al., 2010). Read about best practices on reading and writing instruction. Pick up The Book Whisperer (Miller, 2009) or From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Confident, Capable Readers (Harvey & Ward, 2017). This is just a start. The volume of research is robust and it will help provide a framework (as well as support) for the activities you plan for your school. For example, we cited research regarding the summer slide and the importance of reading during summer to encourage families to read over vacation (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2013; Cooper et al., 2000). We planned reading activities, opened up our library, and let kids check out library books over the summer and they logged over 150,000 minutes of reading in the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge!

Be creative and have fun. While teaching reading and learning the fundamentals can be challenging work, students and teachers need to be reminded that reading can be fun and transformative. This means that staff should be creative and innovative. Don’t be so quick to say no to an idea. When teacher Kendra Barrett came up with an idea that we should convert a common pod room into a magical reading lounge, we did it. A couple years later, with the generous help of local businesses and our PTA, we have 8 whimsical reading lounges housing thousands of books for students to read for pleasure.

     We started this reading journey five years ago and, in some ways, we are just beginning. We realize that the work that we do isn’t a short term fix. We won’t expect that after having a Book Prom, all of our students will score proficient or advanced on the state assessments. We see the quest of developing the lifelong love of reading in children similar to farming. You sow the seeds, you create the conditions for growth, and you tend to the crops. There are no shortcuts here. The good news is that this work is fun, it’s innovative, and it can be invigorating to our personal and professional journey.

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


Allington, R. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Allington, R., & Gabriel, R. (2012, March). Every child, every day. Educational Leadership, 69 (6), 10-15.

Allington, R., & McGill-Franzen, A. (2013). Summer reading: Closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Cooper, H., Charlton, K., Valentine, J.C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000). Making the most of summer school: A meta-analytic and narrative review. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 65(1), 1-118.

Cunningham, A., & Stanovich, K. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Educator, 22 (1-2), 8-15.

Guthrie, J. (2004). Teaching for literacy engagement. Journal of literacy research, 36 (1), 1-28.

Harvey, S., & Ward, A. (2017). From striving to thriving: How to grow confident, capable readers. New York, New York: Scholastic.

Hiebert, F., & Reutzel, R. (2010). Revisiting silent reading: New directions for teachers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Krashen, S. (2011). Free voluntary reading. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Layne, S. (2008). Igniting the passion for reading. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner reader in every child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, D., & Moss, B. (2013). No more independent reading without support. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Neuman, S., & Celano, D. (2012). Worlds apart: One city, two libraries and ten years of watching inequality grow. American Educator, 36 (3), 13-23.

Swan, E., Coddington, C., & Guthrie, J. (2010). Engaged silent reading: Revisiting silent reading. In E. Hiebert & R. Reutzel (Eds.), Revisiting silent reading: New directions for teachers and researchers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.


Don Vu is the principal of Barrett Ranch Elementary School in the Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District in Northern California. His school is the recipient of the 2018 Exemplary Reading Program Award from the International Literacy Association and the 2017 Celebrate Literacy Award from the California Reading Association and the Placer Area Reading Council.

Don has been an educator for about 24 years. He’s a member of the Scholastic Book Fairs Principals Advisory Board. You can find out more about Don and his school at drdonvu.com. Follow him on Twitter: @drdonvu

Broncos Read…the Importance of Culture (PART I)


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.


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.


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.


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.


A Book Club for Everyone: The Importance of Diversity in Books

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Colin and I love the book A Different Pond– for the same reasons.

A few weeks ago, one of my teachers, Jennifer DeBortoli, gave me a copy of a book titled, A Different Pond by Bao Phi. She left it on my desk with a note that just said, “Don- I think you’ll like this book”. She was wrong. I loved this book.

A Different Pond is a story about a young Vietnamese American boy who wakes up in the wee hours of the morning to go fishing with his dad. They go early because his dad has a second job to go to later that morning. They fish because, “Everything in America costs a lot of money” and they are recent refugees in a new country. They fish, not for fun but for survival. The book shows a family unit that works together to make ends meet. Already looking exhausted, mom and dad are both headed off to work and leave the kids to take care of one another later in the morning. At dinnertime, the family reunites and gathers around the table. They tell funny stories, talk about their day and homework, and eat some rice and fish.

When I was a young kid in school, I would’ve loved to have read a story about other Vietnamese people. To be honest, I would’ve loved to have read anything remotely close to representing any Asian American experience. The only time during school we read about Asians or Asian Americans was the chapter in social studies when we learned about World War II or the Japanese Internment. That was usually about a page…and these weren’t even the stories that celebrated my culture or history. Far too often, we neglect to tell the stories of the people who make up our schools and communities. When we do that, we are sending the message that you are not as important as others, that you live in the margins of the mainstream…that your story is not worth being told.

After reading A Different Pond, it took me a while to process what this story meant to me as a reader, a Vietnamese American reader. I connected with the characters in ways that I’m not sure I can explain. But, here’s my shot at it:

I knew exactly what the boy felt like waking up early in the morning, excited to spend some time with his father, and hoping to contribute to the dinner table. I remember fishing with my family. I remember the red and white floaters, the excitement of catching a fish. I remember those times as part of the joys of childhood, not so much the struggle.

This book reminded me that my story is forever weaved together with that of my parents. I reflected on my parents’ refugee experience- a journey to a new and unknown country to escape war and persecution. I can’t imagine the fear but marvel at the courage to learn a new language and culture. I look at family pictures from our first few years in America and can see the exhausted looks on the faces of my mom and dad and am reminded of the beautiful illustrations from the book (Thi Bui is the amazing illustrator of A Different Pond). The bags under the eyes of the mom and dad in the book depict more than characters who are tired from their daily struggles. To a reader who has lived it, they represent sacrifice, perseverance, and hope for a brighter future.

If you have a hard time understanding my perspective (of course not everyone shares my history and background), indulge me a bit and imagine you taking your family away to live in a country that is very different from America. You live in this foreign land for decades and your kids go to school there. They learn the new language and adopt the new culture. You are a citizen of this new country now but you still have your American roots. You look different and, in some ways, you are different. Everything’s good except there are not books or stories about Americans who live in your new country. No stories about Thanksgiving or the celebrations that may reflect your past (or present). No stories that include people who look like you or share your experiences. Would you start to feel less important in that society?

The picture above is with one of my students- Colin. He’s one of our few Vietnamese American students. He’s in Ms. DeBortoli’s class and after she read aloud A Different Pond to the class last week, Colin said to her, “I can’t believe they said Vietnam. That’s where my family came from. I just loved it”. Decades later, we are still looking to see ourselves represented in American culture…to see ourselves in the stories that make our country great.

This is why diverse books are important- not only because they make us feel important but because they make us important.

Colin and I just started our Vietnamese American Book Club today.