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Building an Authentic Passion for Reading Should Not Be “Polarizing”

When people ask me why I joined Success Academy, I like to deadpan, “I did it for the business card.” You have to admit that “Director of Children’s Literature” is a job title to brag about. Seriously, though, the very fact that Success Academy established such a role speaks volumes about the organization’s priorities and its approach to learning. It’s a position that our founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz created because she passionately believes in providing high-quality reading material to our scholars and in fostering a lifelong love of reading.

I joined Success Academy because this job lets me do what I know is right: provide access to thousands of high-quality books to kids, most of whom live in neighborhoods without bookstores, and share my love of books and my belief in the power of reading with leaders, teachers, and kids.

A recent New York Times article about Success Academy focused on our “relentless pursuit of better results.” We are relentless — we’re talking about the education and life outcomes of thousands of NYC children — but not only about test results.

We’re relentless about selecting great children’s literature for our classrooms. My colleagues and I spend hours and hours discussing and selecting the best books to use for a particular unit. We preview dozens of articles in order to choose the handful that our kids will read as they learn about a topic. Earlier this year, I read more than 500 poems in one day to find the 20 or so that our middle school scholars would study that month. (By the way, lest you think I am paid to sit at a desk and read all day, I do 99 percent of my children’s book reading on my own time. I rarely have the time to read grownup books.) As we discuss possible classroom texts, we consider lots of factors: the quality of the writing, plot and character development, accuracy in nonfiction, the Common Core standards, the goals of that particular unit, etc. But the final verdict usually sounds something like: “This is such a fifth grade book. The kids are going to really get Kenny,” “Second graders think Clementine is hilarious,” or “Nope, I just don’t think kids will love it.”

We’re relentless about helping kids develop a passion for reading. I’ve written before about some of the joyful ways we share our love of reading, from professional development sessions on “Falling in Love with Books” and “Public Displays of Affection” to our Drop Everything and Read and One School, One Book initiatives.

We’re relentless about helping kids develop a passion for reading.

Reading a lot helps kids become better readers, and reading well helps kids pass state tests and get into — and graduate from — good colleges. Those things are important. However, we want kids to love reading for its own sake. At Success, learning to read isn’t just about acquiring a set of skills — it’s about critical thinking, making meaning, humor, discovery, awe, insight. Reading is about joy!

When we noticed that kids were becoming overly concerned about their reading levels, we quickly corrected course, focusing on helping kids choose books that they truly wanted to read, regardless of whether they were a few levels above or below their exact reading level. Teachers make it a priority to know their kids as readers, learning their favorite genres, series, and topics so they can make meaningful book recommendations to them.

We also encourage teachers to use books and reading as incentives — rewarding reading with more reading. Teachers might read a nonsense poem or a chapter from a class favorite as a reward for meeting a goal. A scholar might win the right to pick a guest reader — a family member or last year’s teacher — to visit the class. Just this week, a first grade class at SA Harlem 1 was so eager to dig into new books about the Arctic that their teacher, Ms. Schuler, rewarded them with a special trip (complete with an “airplane ride”) to the Arctic, where they were “allowed” to start their research. She says, “They were over the moon to have a sneak peak into the books and begin their research.”

Does everyone at Success Academy agree with every decision and every method? Of course not. We’re a large organization full of smart people with diverse experiences — that’s what helps us continuously learn and improve. But two things we all agree on are the incredible importance of reading and the great joy that books can bring our kids.


Written by Sara Yu April 9, 2015

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