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When Closing The Book Opens The Door To Learning

We recently shared the Success Academy Reader’s Bill of Rights, a document reaffirming our core beliefs about the importance of reading. It consists of 11 amendments, one of which has proven very controversial: Every Success Academy scholar has the right to NOT finish an Independent Reading book if a compelling reason is provided. Why include this particular amendment in our Bill of Rights?

Finishing Every Single Book Builds Grit and Brings Its Own Rewards

Let’s be honest: We’ve all had to slog through a book that felt more like an endurance test than a fascinating read. Sometimes we found ourselves grateful that we were forced to finish, or surprised ourselves by falling in love with the book. We have felt great accomplishment in challenging ourselves to finish and gained valuable cultural literacy. And we have developed stick-with-it-ness by tackling a tough task and, in the process, improved our reading habits.

We want to foster that grit and determination in our scholars, too, but that’s not a good enough reason to force them to finish every single book.

Ensuring a Love of Reading

The single most important goal we have for our scholars is for them to fall in love with reading. When kids love to read, they read often, learning more and becoming better readers and better learners. When faced with an intimidating “wall of text” or a poem full of confusing syntax, they know they can handle it because they’ve done it before.

One of our greatest challenges is holding onto those readers who do not yet feel that passion for reading. We have to make sure we don’t alienate fledgling readers from the written word—especially in middle school! This is why we ensure that kids are reading books they truly want to read, books they selected themselves based on their personal preferences and current interests.

But what happens if a scholar chooses a book thinking it is a suspenseful, haunting ghost story, when it’s really about silly, slapstick ghosts? What if the book takes a sad turn, and this particular reader needs an uplifting book at that moment? Or a scholar who’s been working particularly hard in math needs an action-packed escape book to recharge? What if the scholar is up for a challenge and the book is too easy, or the book is too dense or confusing for a scholar to comprehend at that moment?

As Principal Elizabeth Vandlik put it, “Routinely forcing children to finish books they are not interested in snuffs out any fledgling passion for reading and reinforces the negative outlook held by far too many unenthusiastic readers: Reading is a boring and painful chore that must be endured, and we have no say in the matter whatsoever.”

That’s when our Fifth Amendment kicks in.

What This Looks Like in Practice

Our scholars have the right to stop reading an Independent Reading book if a compelling reason is provided – and our teachers play a major role in when and how that happens. Teachers engage in constant book talk with their kids, get to know them as readers, find out why they stopped reading a particular book, and recommend alternatives that might be a better fit. If a scholar seems to be developing a habit of not finishing books, the teacher steps in to evaluate whether the child needs extra support.

This could include working to motivate kids to keep reading a book, or encouraging them to pick it up again later. For example, many readers find that Philip Pullman’s fantasy masterpiece The Golden Compass starts slow, so I warn kids to make sure they keep reading. “It’s worth it, I promise” is often enough to motivate kids to get through the tough part. Some readers may require more specific urging: “Just wait until the Gobblers kidnap Roger. Lyra is determined to get him back, and that’s when the big-time excitement begins.”

Shelving a book for a while, maybe even a whole year, can also be incredibly valuable. My cousin gave me A Wrinkle in Time when I was around 9 years old. It sat on my shelf for years before I read it because I thought it was weird and it made me uncomfortable. But I did read it, and A Wrinkle in Time became the most important book of my childhood.

If a kid gives up on a book, that doesn’t mean he or she is giving up on it forever. And it doesn’t mean we’re giving up on the reader. We aim to find the right book at the right time for every scholar.

Sometimes, the right time is later.

Written by Sara Yu January 23, 2015

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