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Online June 2012 | Volume 69
Strong Readers All
Kimberly B. Pyne
How high school students from low-income and minority backgrounds and college volunteers created a reading culture together.
The lobby of the college building echoes with the noise of teenagers milling around a table filled with books. Hands flutter over the bright covers, picking them up, flipping them over, thumbing through pages. "I need something short. My graduation project's due next week" can be heard at one end of the table. "Who's read this already? What's it like?" comes from elsewhere. "What happened to that one by Tupac? Is it still here?"
"I read this one last month," says one girl, thrusting a copy of The Hunger Games at her friend. "It's the best one. I'm gonna borrow the next one this month, even if we aren't talking about it."
The lanky African American boy in the baseball cap takes it gingerly, grimacing and uncertain. "It's a girl book?"
She puts one hand on her hip and mock-glares up at him. "No! It's got a girl in it, but you'll like it. Trust me."
Welcome to an Elon Academy Saturday at break time, the mid-point pause in this monthly gathering of the more than 70 student participants in a college access and success program in Alamance County, North Carolina. Break time means socialization and snacks, but also a chance to grab the book you're planning to read for next month's Book Jam. The jam encourages these students from low-income homes and underresourced schools to make reading an ongoing part of their lives. Reflecting current research on adolescent literacy (Beers, Probst, & Rief, 2007) and multifaceted definitions of college readiness (Burke, 2005; Conley, 2007), this project enhances the efforts of local public schools to make students college ready.
Sophisticated reading habits are a necessary foundation for college-level writing, research, class participation, and many other college experiences. Yet in one study of first-generation college student experiences, Byrd and MacDonald (2005) found that "college reading was an area in which participants felt particularly underprepared [especially regarding] vocabulary level and the amount of reading required" (p. 32). Developing strong reader identities and practicing thoughtful, transferable reading skills across the disciplines are important components of any pre-college curriculum, but they are especially crucial for low-income students whose college completion rates are much lower than those of their middle-income peers (Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 2010; Carey, 2008).
The Elon Academy, a college access and success program housed at Elon University, is a comprehensive program aimed at addressing all aspects of college readiness. Students with significant financial need or no family history of college are recruited from the local public schools during their 9th grade year for a multiyear program that combines four-week residential experiences on Elon's campus each summer with ongoing support during the school year.
The program serves a population that is approximately 30 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic, and 30 percent white, with multiracial and other categories making up the last 10 percent. The majority of families are low income, with many earning less than 30 percent of the median salary for the area. (Read an early description of the program in the
October 2008 Educational Leadership.)
Although Elon Academy students claimed to be good readers, they had little interest in reading beyond the minimum their high school required. Fewer than a quarter of them read regularly outside school, and several struggled with honors and advanced placement reading assignments. Some had complex home and job responsibilities, caring for siblings or contributing to their family's monthly income, which limited the amount of time they had available to read. We wanted to create a reading culture that would strengthen students' reading without overloading them.
With Krashen's (2009) research into the benefits of sustained silent reading in mind, we developed the Book Jam, a book club–style reading experience, as part of our monthly Saturday programming. The Book Jam had roots in the popularity of book clubs among adults, as well as librarians' and teachers' successes at creating book groups that meet in class (O'Donnell-Allen, 2006) or as extracurricular clubs (Appleman, 2006).
The jam kicked off during the first Saturday program of the year with staff introducing our purpose—to read like real readers, to enjoy books together, and to practice reading as a good habit. College student volunteers talked about their reading lives and gave enthusiastic book talks on their favorite titles. Several of the high school students volunteered their own favorite titles, building a buzz of energy and interest.
From that Saturday on, students and college volunteers "book jammed" most months, meeting on couches or sprawled on the floor, talking about a shared novel, poetry collection, nonfiction text, or graphic novel. During our first semester, students selected a group to read with, and each group then chose a book to read together. By mid-semester, students realized that their reading interests were in conflict with those of their closest friends, so they began forming groups each month on the basis of shared interest in a particular title. The quality of reading and conversations almost immediately improved, and book chats began opening new lines of friendship.
Sessions began with students sharing individual impressions and questions about their book, then opened into a free-flowing conversation. Little advance preparation beyond reading was required. There were no obvious penalties for neglecting your reading except perhaps being asked to spend the jam sampling another book instead of chatting. By reading alongside real college students and sharing their reactions to texts, students became immersed in a culture in which reading is a lifestyle, not merely an assignment.
During a typical jam session, students offered personal and real-world connections ("It's like that in my family, too."); asked provocative questions ("Do you think Charlie is gay? He likes girls, but kissed a boy."); and argued about the value of the books ("It's a good portrayal of a teen dad, even if it's a little unrealistic."). One volunteer recalled a complex conversation about Sharon Draper's Copper Sun:
We talked about who we identified with the most. Two African American female students had a hard time with this. Neither had felt themselves particularly similar to any of the characters, despite being very close in age to the two main [characters], Amari and Polly. However, both of the students had mothers who had emigrated from Africa, and they found elements of their mothers in the characters of Teenie and Afi.
Initially indifferent to Copper Sun, the group warmed to it during the conversation, even wrestling with the motives of a character they had initially dismissed.
The goal was never to force students to love a book but to engage in a lively and entertaining wrangle about books. Such conversation can turn a low-interest text into a valuable intellectual endeavor. Readers who'd put a book aside occasionally asked for a chance to finish it after being intrigued by their peers' comments.
Although some students could always make time to read, others found it difficult to squeeze in even a single book. One student confessed that he was "just a slow reader," which made finding time especially difficult. Reading fluency only develops through practice, so in response to this challenge, we allowed students who ran out of reading time to read during the jam session hour. This flexibility, especially for long texts, reduced frustration for some students and enabled them to complete books.
Students chose books on the basis of personal interest, but the excitement of peers sometimes piqued their interest in books they would have otherwise ignored. When asked why they persevered with a book, some students said that discovering connections to their own lives or finding characters to relate to was the most motivating. For others, the shared experience of reading with others was key. Students looked forward to hearing others' perspectives on something they had all read. The subtle expectations from peers, family, program staff, and college volunteers also seemed important.
One priority for the jam was to provide access to books not always readily available to students in high enough numbers for them to share the reading experience. A literacy grant from Elon's Phi Kappa Phi honor society funded the purchase of sets of 10–13 texts each semester for two years. We selected titles carefully, combining recommendations from the Young Adult Library Services Association, English Journal's Don Gallo, and English and education university faculty with expertise in young adult literature.
After the first semester, students also strongly shaped book choices. The novel Copper Sun
appeared after several students said they wanted to read historical fiction about slavery; Maggie Stiefvater's
Shiver was added when students requested paranormal romances; John Green and David Levithan's
Will Grayson, Will Grayson addressed student concerns about sexual orientation while providing a new title from an author students had previously enjoyed. We included books by authors who shared cultural backgrounds with our students. These included local author Paul Cuadros's memoir A Home on the Field and Angela Johnson's short but powerful novel The First Part Last. Highly popular texts rotated in and out of the mix on demand; others changed each semester to add variety.
Not all books were a success. Some books failed because of perceived length or a slow first chapter. Others (such as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Ishmael Beah's Long Way Home) missed because students struggled with the genre or historical context. One group voiced unanimous boredom with
Maus, Art Spiegelman's graphic novel about the Holocaust, but discussion later revealed that they had not understood the dual narrative and found the Jewish dialects difficult. In a secondary classroom with teacher scaffolding, such books can prove highly successful, but for students reading independently—especially those with less developed reading strategies—these books may only fulfill their belief that reading is difficult and not for them.
Similarly, including texts that reflect students' cultures is vital, but some of the very qualities that make them beautiful cultural representations may make them impossibly confusing to students with limited cross-cultural experiences. For example, the bilingual poetry collection Red Hot Salsa excited many Latino and Latina readers but left others intimidated by the Spanish. Although some students felt our selections did not incorporate their individual interests enough, others valued being pushed beyond their reading comfort zones to gain experiences with texts, people, and ideas they would have never chosen on their own.
College student volunteers from a variety of majors added to the jam their passion and their status as college students. These students were living, laughing evidence that college-age students valued and enjoyed independent reading—even when a book wasn't to their personal tastes. Recruited primarily through on-campus advertising and word-of mouth, they helped conversations remain focused and modeled open-minded discussion. Student surveys revealed that one of the most significant aspects of the jam was the opportunity to talk with the college volunteers.
Volunteers received an hour of training that addressed their role as listener and facilitator rather than teacher and moderator. They briefly covered how to create a welcoming atmosphere, arrange the space for eye contact and collaboration, ask open-ended questions and solicit personal reactions, encourage students to lead, and avoid "teaching" in favor of real conversation. Some were more successful than others, given their limited training and volunteer status.
Occasionally, a volunteer failed to show up, leaving a group to discuss the book without a mentor. Some groups excelled at having their own conversations, but the students agreed that they missed the college students' insights. Although the college role models were powerful for students, maintaining a volunteer corps for a project that met only once a month required ongoing staff effort.
When monthly jams were held consistently, there was positive energy around books on Saturdays and beyond. Most students reported reading more and with more interest than they previously had. Some students indicated that they became more confident in school-based reading, and others were more eager to tackle the readings in our summer academy. Several students formed their own book club during the summer program, requesting titles and soliciting others to join them during free time. One student founded a book club at her high school that included more than 30 peers.
The jam has not been a miracle fix for every reading need, but a move in the right direction for our students. It earned 92 percent positive reviews on our anonymous assessment survey—with a surprising 100 percent of students advocating for the program to continue.
College readiness hinges upon facility and confidence with texts of all kinds. By creating additional spaces for reading, college-access programs can help first-generation, low-income students develop the reading habits necessary for their college hopes and dreams.
Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. (2010, June). The rising price of inequality: How inadequate grant aid limits college access and persistence. Washington, DC: Report to Congress and the Secretary of Education. Retrieved from
Appleman, D. (2006). Reading for themselves: How to transform adolescents into lifelong readers through out-of-class book clubs. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Beers, K., Probst, R. E., & Rief, L. (Eds.). (2007). Adolescent literacy: Turning promise into practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Burke, J. (2005). ACCESSing school: Teaching struggling readers to achieve academic and personal success. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Byrd, K. L., & MacDonald, G. (2005). Defining college readiness from the inside out: First-generation college student perspectives. Community College Review, 33(22), 22–37.
Carey, K. (2008, April). Graduation rate watch: Making minority student success a priority. Washington, DC: Education Sector. Retrieved from
Conley, D. T. (2007, March). Redefining college readiness: Volume 3. Eugene, OR: Educational Policy Improvement Center. Retrieved from
Krashen, S. (2009, Spring). 81 generalizations about free voluntary reading. Children and teenagers: The publication of the young learners and teenagers special interest group, 7–12.
O'Donnell-Allen, C. (2006). The book club companion: Fostering strategic readers in the secondary classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Kimberly B. Pyne is associate professor and assistant director of academics for Elon Academy at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina.
Copyright © 2012 by ASCD
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