The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 84 Transcript
See a shorter recap of this interview in the blog post.
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This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to Episode 84 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, I interview teacher Pernille Ripp about how we can change our classroom practices to stop killing the love of reading.
If I had to pick one thing that makes the biggest difference in the quality of any person’s education, the quality of their life, really, it would be reading. And I’m not really talking about basic literacy—not about the ability to read—I’m talking about reading for pleasure, to satisfy curiosities, to understand how people work and find solace in knowing we are not the only ones who think and feel the way we do.
That kind of reading.
And I try pretty hard to help my three kids become the kind of people who read that way. I taught them all how to read before kindergarten, the house is full of books, we keep TVs and devices out of everyone’s bedrooms, and they see me reading quite a bit. But all five of us have multiple devices and we’re on them a lot. We can stream just about any TV show or movie we can think of, at any time. My 11-year old daughter is obsessed staring at people who poke slime on Instagram. My 10-year-old son spends way too much time watching a YouTuber named Logan Paul get in fights with stop signs and dance to car alarms. My 13-year-old daughter keeps up a running dialogue on Snapchat with dozens of her classmates. And my husband and I spend way too much time on Facebook, the “old people’s social network.”
So yeah, the reading culture in our house isn’t quite where I’d like it to be, and I know that’s on me. We’re working on it.
But something else has happened in schools, too. When I see what my kids do in school for “reading,” it doesn’t really look like reading. I ask them what books they are reading in school, and a lot of times they give me a blank stare. What they do in reading, they tell me, is mostly worksheets about reading. Or computer programs that ask them to read passages, not books, and answer multiple-choice questions about those passages.
Knowing this has bothered me a lot, and it led me to Donalyn Miller’s book, The Book Whisperer, and then to Kelly Gallagher’s book, Readicide. Both of these books show us that the reading programs and activities schools are using don’t work very well to raise students’ reading proficiency, especially if they are there as substitutes for real interactions with real books. And they certainly don’t do anything to turn our students into people who love to read.
The only thing that can do that is books. Reading actual books alongside other people reading actual books.
What baffles me is that the message still hasn’t reached so many schools. Schools are still shelling out thousands of dollars on expensive programs, putting pages and pages of passages and comprehension questions in front of our kids every day, sending them through the system without ever having them read a real book. Just excerpts. Just passages. Just reading-related “activities,” but little to no time with actual books.
So in this episode, I’m going to do what I can to get the message out there by having my friend Pernille Ripp on the podcast. Pernille is a seventh grade English language arts teacher in Wisconsin. She has been blogging for years, she speaks all over the country, and she has written several books about teaching. Her most recent one is called Passionate Readers, where she writes about her own journey from teaching reading through programs and activities to teaching in a way that honors books and develops a love of reading in every child. It’s an awesome book. The best thing about it is how transparent Pernille is about her own doubts and struggles in this process. In our interview we’re going to talk about why she made the change, what her classroom looks like now, and how other teachers can change their own practices. To find links to everything we talk about in the interview when you’re done listening, come over to Cult of Pedagogy, click Podcast, and go to Episode 84.
Before we get started, I want to thank you for the reviews you’ve left on iTunes. I read these every week and I absolutely love them. I’d like to send out a special thanks to Pdubya tech for his detailed review, and Matthew Todd G and veglizzie83 for their enthusiasm. If you’d like to support the work I’m doing here and you think other teachers need to be listening, please recommend the podcast to a friend and take a minute to leave a review on iTunes–it really helps get it out in front of more people.
I’d also like to thank this episode’s sponsor, Kiddom. Kiddom is a free platform that allows teachers to plan, assess, and analyze student work, and now, more teachers are using Kiddom to collaborate with each other. Using Kiddom’s free curriculum planning tools, teachers can plan in the cloud, so you can put your heads together no matter where you are. And when we work together, our students reap the rewards. Visit cultofpedagogy.com/kiddom to learn more about co-planning and sharing your best work with each other.
Now let’s talk to Pernille Ripp. In a few places you’ll hear a kind of scratching sound — we couldn’t figure out what was causing it, but ultimately decided to ignore it. This is good stuff, so hopefully you can get past the scratching, too. Okay, here we go.
GONZALEZ: So hi, Pernille.
RIPP: Hi, Jenn.
GONZALEZ: Hi. I am so excited to have you on. I mean, I really have waited for a while for just the right time, and now that Passionate Readers came out, it has just, it’s just come at just the right time, and I read it quickly, and I loved everything you had to say, and so I feel like this is the time. And so our focus is going to be on how to stop killing the love of reading in schools, and you are the perfect person to talk to about that. So tell us a little bit about, let me start with your teaching life first, and then we’ll talk about the writing.
RIPP: Well I’ve been teaching, I’m now about to round 10 years here in January, and it has been an amazing roller coaster of a journey, which I think many can attest to once they start teaching. You think you are doing pretty well and then as you get into your teaching further and further, you start realizing just how many things you still have to learn, and you also start looking back on all of the things that you shouldn’t have done, and you hope you could go back and apologize to all of your former students as you grow. And I think that’s the mark of a reflective teacher, right? Just always looking back and looking at what you’re doing, and going, “How can I be better? How can this be better for students?” And I think that’s just been my drive forward when I realized I wasn’t going to quit teaching, but I needed to severely change the way I was teaching, because otherwise I was just going to be crushing the dreams of children, and that was going to fall on my shoulders, and I was not going to live with that for the rest of my life, all in the name of kind of protecting the system of teaching that I had been sucked into.
GONZALEZ: That is one of my favorite things about you is that you are so reflective. I mean I sometimes I think you’re too hard on yourself, but I think it’s such a good model for how I wish all teachers, if all teachers were this reflective, we would have just wonderful classrooms. You’re currently teaching middle school language arts, but then before you moved to the middle school level, you were teaching, I think it was fourth and fifth grade for a couple of years?
RIPP: Yeah. I started as a math resource, and then moved into fourth grade and loved fourth-graders and kind of this just huge development they were a part of, and then when the chance opened up for fifth grade, I moved into fifth grade just to see what happened to these amazing fourth-graders and completely fell in love with fifth-graders, who are just in this amazing developmental stage of kind of trying on these new tween identities and getting ready for their teenage years but still in elementary.
And then I was ready for another change, and I took the terrifying leap to middle school, and it truly was terrifying. I did not think I was going to love being a middle school teacher, but I wanted a challenge, and I really wanted to see, you know, what was the buzz all about, because I had friends that were middle school teachers that just loved it. And it has been incredible. It has been terrifying and challenging and yet teaching my seventh-graders has been one of the biggest honors of my life, because they really come to you at times with their heart on their sleeve hoping that you’ll just see them as a person, and then at other times their walls are completely up. And so I just think of all the truths that they have willingly shared with me over the years, and sort of my fourth-graders and my fifth-graders, but really my seventh-graders just so loudly wanting to be heard and so loudly wanting instruction that was about them and their journey and just how easy it was to start the conversation yet how hard it was to actually do. And so I love middle school. I totally, it’s just, and my heart is there with these seventh-graders that turn into these big kids, and it’s such a honor to be with them.
GONZALEZ: That’s my background too. It’s funny, because I have a seventh-grader at home with me now, and that was my grade level. And it is, it’s such a special set of years, because they’re shutting a lot of people out at that time, so if you can form a relationship with them as a teacher, you may be one of the only adults that they’re willing to talk to.
RIPP: Yeah, and I think that’s something to really protect, right, and to really nourish and cherish and not take for granted. I walked into seventh grade being so green and feeling like a completely brand new teacher, and I still feel that way every year when these seventh-graders show up and just remembering that the words that they entrust us with are really meaningful and can be really hard for them to share. And so the least we can do is listen, and then anything we can do beyond that is only going to cement the relationship that we may have with them throughout the years.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. And so you have been blogging for a number of years about your teaching, and you’ve also written a couple of books. And the one that we’re going to focus on today is Passionate Readers, and that’s your most recent book.
RIPP: Yeah. I started writing my blog in 2010, and it was my husband that kind of pushed me in the direction of getting my thoughts out there, and I think honestly it was just because he was kind of like, why do you keep talking to me about these things? But for me too, I needed to get the thoughts out of my head, and I think that’s still the heart of my blog is just whatever I’m thinking of and that needs to be out of my head so that I can step back and reflect on it, and sometimes it’s hard to write, sometimes it’s really hard to hit “publish.” But I think one of the things that I fell into was that I kept looking for the perfect teacher, and I kept looking at my colleagues thinking that they were the perfect teacher and they had everything figured out because that’s what it looked like.
And I realized just how harmful that can be for new teachers, and veterans alike, because there’s no such thing as a perfect teacher. And so I wanted to make sure that my blog was a representation of everything that happened within a classroom. Yes there are days where we are triumphantly driving home, going, “Oh my gosh, today was just such a great day,” and then also the days where we go home and we’re just upset with ourselves or something fell apart or blew up in our face or we need to go back and apologize to a kid the next day. I wanted to put that out there too, because it was so important for the reality of what teaching really is to be out there for others and also for myself. This is truly my way of reflecting, of writing it out, it’s always a first draft that I publish, which is why there’s sometimes grammar and spelling mistakes and stuff, and then going back and going, “OK. Now process it as if I’m an outsider, and then where’s my solution? Where am I going with this?” I never expected anyone to read it, but the — I didn’t. Like, why would you, right? It should be called Pernille’s Random Thoughts, because that’s really all it is.
But then when I realized that I felt so free having this way of getting the thoughts out of my head, I turned to my students, fourth-graders at the time, and just said, you know, what do you want to share with the world? And to hear these kids and these ideas that they have for education and how they were just waiting for someone to come around and ask them really motivated me to get them blogging and then that also is what turned into the books that I’ve written. I’ve written four different books, and all of them are just a way for me to say, listen to my students. Listen to what these kids have. And yes, here’s all my practices and my mistakes and the research and all of that, but really just listen to my students, because they have shaped who I am as a teacher.
What’s Wrong with the Way We Teach Reading Now?
GONZALEZ: So we are going to, we’re going to focus this time, and I would urge anybody who has not read your blog to go and read it. It’s going to be a breath of fresh air. But we’re going to really hone in on how reading is typically taught in classrooms today, and what you discover, because you used to teach reading the way that a lot of people are still teaching it, and you have completely changed the way you teach it now. And so we’re going to just sort of follow along that journey and talk about why you changed and what your successes have been now, and just then give people some sort of practical advice for how they can make the same change.
So let’s start by talking about, you know, how reading is taught nowadays in our current–and we’re basically talking about the United States, although I think unfortunately, a lot of countries are starting to model their reading instruction from what we’re doing right now. But talk a little bit about what you’re seeing right now in terms of trends in reading instruction.
RIPP: So what I’ve been seeing, and this is not anything new, is just this distancing ourselves from common sense reading instruction, and I get it. I think we are all kind of facing the pressure of our districts and our government and our testing and our parents and everybody’s focus kind of on the data at the end of the day or the data at the end of the year to show that these children can comprehend and compete with this global market economy that we’re a part of.
But unfortunately, what that has led to within our classrooms and you know is just this further step away from what we know works within reading instruction, and this is nothing new. We have so many years of really great reading research out there, and yet it seems to be forgotten. And so I think about what Louise Rosenblatt said so many years ago where she talked about the two types of reading that were needed for children to become readers, that we needed both aesthetic reading and we needed efferent reading. So one is reading for skill, and one is reading for pleasure, yet what are we doing in our classrooms? We’re constantly reading for skill, we’re constantly asking kids to do something with their reading, and then wondering why they’re choosing to leave us and never picking up another book, or they can’t wait to get out of school so that they don’t have to read.
And so what I see is a lot of teachers actually standing up and going, excuse me, this is not going to work. Where is our time for independent reading? Where are my times for having conversations with kids? Where’s the money for classroom libraries and school libraries and having actually certified librarians in our schools? And instead, we’re buying all of these programs, and we’re saying, well, these experts — and many of them are truly experts — have a program and you’re going to teach it with fidelity, and that’s going to bring every kid up, but within that program, we lose the very essence of the kids that we’re teaching, and it becomes this race to teach the program in a perfect way.
But the thing is, none of us will ever be the masterminds behind those programs. None of us will ever sit with those kids that these programs were developed around, and so when districts rush out to buy programs, to buy computer programs or scripted curriculum so that we can all be on the same page, we’re forgetting that that’s not what education is about. Education, and especially with reading and writing, is about becoming even better as human beings. And where is that in the experience we’re creating for our kids?
And so when I think of common sense reading instruction, it’s nothing new that I write about. It’s, again, time to read. If we’re saying that we’re valuing reading, then kids need to be doing it in our classrooms every single day. People ask me, “How do you know your students read?” I see them, every day, and I see the kids that aren’t reading, and I see the kids that are struggling to find a good book, right? The kids that, you know, are kind of faking it through. That’s how I know my students are reading. I don’t need a reading log to show that.
We need to give them access to books, and we need incredible books in their hands at all times, and yes I spend a lot of money on books for my students, but I figure it’s my contribution to the future of America, but it shouldn’t be that way. I love technology, for example. I mean I created the Global Read Aloud, which really depends a lot on technology to be as big as it is, and yet I see so many schools go out and invest in incredible technology and not invest in classroom libraries, or they’re cutting librarians, or they’re cutting reading specialists or any of that, and it’s like, I get that a book isn’t as flashy as an iPad or a Chromebook or virtual reality or Sphero or whatever, insert whatever technology, right?
RIPP: But the thing is that book can change the life of a kid.
RIPP: And those other things can too, but it’s just like, we need that balance. And then of course choice. We know that choice matters. Whenever I ask kids, and I’ve been asking this for many years now, any kids that I can come across, what’s the one thing you wish all teachers of reading would do? Choice. And yet, what do we do time and time again? We take away choice from kids, either because we’re told to by programs or administration, and obviously, usually, it’s because of well-meaning intentions. I’ve yet to meet a teacher that actually has set out to kill the love of reading, maybe they’re out there. I don’t think they are though. But we make these weird decisions, especially for kids who are vulnerable readers, so kids who might not be where we would hope they would be at this time. We end up with these limited choices for them, and then we wonder why they’re the ones that distance themselves from reading the most, because they never get to develop their reading identity. They never get to go through the selection process. They never get to just read and struggle with text and have meaningful conversations and sometimes yes, make the wrong choice. We’re so eager to go in and go, “Oh, here’s your level,” or “Here’s your Lexile,” or “Here’s this pile of books.” And so we need to give choice. We need to foster reading community. We need to be having conversations, real conversations about reading.
I think about what Teri Lesesne and Donalyn Miller talk about, how often we as readers don’t want to do anything other than just sit in silence when we’re done with a book. I think about the book experiences that I have. For example, after I read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, which just came out here in October, I just sat there, right, and soaked it in and just sat there with the book for a long time, and then I turned to a friend and said, “Oh my gosh, you have to read this book.” I didn’t go and write a one-page review. You know, I didn’t go and make a wordsearch or a crossword puzzle or a book report on it.
And the thing is, I say those things because I’ve had kids do those things in the search of thinking that this is what real reading instruction looks like. And so I think for so long because of all the pressures of these kids becoming readers and apparently readers only means that we can take, you know, tests and do really well on comprehension, we’ve started looking for the quick and easy. And what else is easy than computer programs that make all the decisions for us? We don’t even have to talk to kids about their books, right?
RIPP: We can just shove them in front of a computer, and then the computer will tell us whether they understood.
RIPP: We put them into short, chopped up programs, and we do scripted curriculum, and it kills me.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. The passages are what bother me so much is that I think we’re now starting to push kids through the education system who never actually read an entire book. They only ever read passages, and sometimes they’re not even passages that are excerpted from real books. They’re sort of mediocre, not very well written, dry passages so that there’s no wonder that they’re not really loving reading, because they’re reading fairly dry stuff. Where, you know, there’s shelves and shelves of these really amazing books that are going to touch them emotionally that they never get a chance to read, because they’re reading passages all the time.
RIPP: And we assume that they’re reading these amazing books outside of class, and yet some of my kids, like, they had a really busy last week, and a lot of them were saying, “Mrs. Ripp, I barely got to read, because I had so much to do for school.”
GONZALEZ: Yep, yep.
RIPP: Right? And then we’re like, “Why aren’t you reading?” Well, because you had me do all this work.
The Catalyst: What Prompted the Change
GONZALEZ: So let’s go back, let’s scroll back a little bit to when you used to teach this way. What made you start to change?
RIPP: My students. It always comes back to them, and there’s, like, these moments now in retrospect, like, this is where it changed. It started with my students, but it also started with my own, you know, lacking qualities as a teacher. We were a balanced literacy curriculum district. I Googled, you know, I’d seen it in college, I knew what it was, but I didn’t know what it was really.
And then I just kind of followed the components of what it meant to be balanced literacy, and balanced literacy is fantastic, except for how I was implementing it, which was all teacher-centered, and it was exhausting, right? When we did book clubs, it was all about me, and I was reading five different books and coming up with all of the questions and all the kids had to do was show up, read aloud. There was no discussion about which book we were going to read or anything like that. It was just all teacher-centered, teacher-centered all the time, book reports just to prove they had read rather than doing meaningful work after they had finished the book.
And so I just remember, and it’s so clear to me, and I’ve written about it too, that moment when I was doing the “reading is magical” lesson that I think we all do at some point in the beginning of the year, and a kid in front of me whispered to his friends, “Reading sucks.” And instead, you know, I just, I wanted to jump on him and be like, “Oh, you just haven’t found the right book,” because how often have we said that? But luckily I was like, “Tell me more about that. Like, what do you mean? Why does reading suck?” And he just sat there with complete, you know, deer in the headlights kind of expression, because he was like, “Oh my gosh my new teacher is now, like, she heard me,” right?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
RIPP: “This is not good. She’s now not going to like me.” But his friend had the courage to raise his hand, and he was like, “Well, I don’t like sitting still.” And then we created an anchor chart, and that’s where the change really started. It was this, like, “Hang on. I’ve been dismissing their reading identities as they’ve been coming in. They tell me they’re not readers, and I tell them they haven’t found the right book yet.”
RIPP: “They tell me they don’t like reading, and I said, ‘Oh just wait. I’m going to make you love reading.’” Well some of my kids, like, I’d say that, and they’d be like, “Ha. I’m going to prove you wrong just because you said that,” right?
RIPP: Which makes sense. Like, that’s how I would react if somebody said that to me. But I also didn’t speak books with my kids, with my students. I read a lot. I was an avid reader, I’ve been for years, but I didn’t read children’s books, and so when kids would come to me and say, “What should I read next?” I would say, “Harry Potter.” And when they’d say, “Well I’ve already read that,” then I’d say, “Go ask your friends.” And it became so obvious when they left my classroom in droves to go see our fantastic school librarian Mr. Powers during our independent reading time, and I’d say, “Why are you going there? We have a classroom library.” And they’d say, “He speaks books.” I didn’t speak books. I couldn’t, because I didn’t take the time to actually read anything, so I’d never gone through our library and really looked at what I was telling kids to read.
RIPP: And so it was all these little things that just started going, “God, there’s got to be more than this.” Or the reading logs, I used to do the reading logs. Those kids that didn’t have parent signatures? Well guess what, they didn’t get the celebrations, they didn’t get the rewards, and the kids that were getting the signatures were the ones that I already knew were reading, right?
RIPP: I mean, so it was just like, I just started just practicing this questioning of each practice, because I think of that so often in education, and in life too, how many of the things that we do are simply routine that we’ve never questioned because either we’ve picked it up somewhere or somebody passed it onto us, and I think that’s what happens in school a lot. New teachers come in, whether they’re veteran or completely brand new, and they have these new ideas and quickly they’re kind of told, “Well, you can’t do that, because this is how we’ve always done things.” And I think that that’s what’s killing the education experience for a lot of kids, because we’re not questioning, we’re not sitting down and going, “Well, when was the last time we looked at these practices?” And when someone comes to us, which is the big thing now and say, “Well this is best practices, and it’s research-based.” Instead of going, “OK. We should be saying, ‘Great. Show me the practices and show me the research, because then I’ll show you mine.’”
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Some of the research that I’ve seen that comes from these companies, it’s their own research, and it’s based on their own data from their own tests that they give. I’m sort of quietly trying to fight that battle right now with the school that one of my children is going to, and it’s, they said it’s research-based, and I’m looking at it and I’m thinking, wait a second. This is a test you did with your own tests. You’re showing that students made improvements on your tests after a year of doing your program. Well yeah. But does that mean that they’re good, better readers? No, I don’t know.
RIPP: Right. And I think often too what those programs, and I’m thinking of some specific computer programs as well, that where they’ve pushed the research and what they’re not discussing is that besides their computer program being put and placed, is there was also given more time for independent reading, book selection, and bigger classroom libraries. Those are three research proven things that will improve kids’ reading comprehension as well as their experiences with reading. And so then when you add on a computer program onto that and then say, “Look. They grew as readers.”
RIPP: You can’t really say that, because you have too many variables going on. And so that’s why some of the research is being questioned, and rightfully so, because here’s the thing too: How much money are we spending on these programs? You know, I think of some of these programs that are $10,000 a year.
GONZALEZ: My gosh.
RIPP: How many books could we be putting in the hands of kids instead?
RIPP: How many incredible reading experiences could we be putting in their hands, and I think about some of the programs, whether scripted or computer, and how many of them are not geared towards having more complex reading experiences. So when we think about, what do we need as a society? We need kids that become, that are or become critical thinkers, problem solvers, creative individuals and we also have, we need people that have stamina and have the internal drive to sit down and do things over a long period of time. None of these programs, or not many of them, are actually addressing that. Instead, it’s, like you said with the passages, it’s these short comprehensions, it’s these short, kind of chopped up things all to see if they understood it. None of them are saying, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to help you become more, you know, be better at critical thinking.”
RIPP: And so it’s interesting. We have this push for all these standards of how we need to grow as human beings, and yet then we bring in these curriculums that actually don’t help us do that, but they’ll help us maybe score higher on a test.
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Toward a More Common-Sense Approach
GONZALEZ: So let’s talk a little bit about what your reading instruction looks like now. And one of the things I want to make sure that we really get at are the scary parts of it, because I think, you know, we can describe it and a teacher can hear it and say, “That sounds nice, but — ” and I want to just nail every single objection or question that they might have about it, because I’m sure you met all of those as you developed this new way of teaching reading.
RIPP: Well I think the fantastic thing is that I’m not alone in this work. Like, I think back to the pioneers, all of those that came before me who were great, just amazing human beings and put their work out there. So I think of, like, Atwell and Allington and Stephen Krashen and Kylene Beers and Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher and Donalyn Miller and all of these people that said, “Here’s what I’m doing. Take it. And then here’s the research behind it and make it better and make it your own.” And so I can tell you that stepping away from curriculum and stepping away from everything being teacher-centered is terrifying, especially if you are within a time confinement like I am. I teach 45-minute blocks of English, and that’s what I did for three years. And so to say, “Okay. Every day we’re going to have independent reading,” I’m then taking about a quarter of my 45-minute time with students and giving that back to them, and that is really hard when we then look at, “Well, here are all the things that I’m supposed to also be doing with these kids during this year.”
Time to Read
But I went back to the common sense approach. What do kids need to become readers? Well, first they need time. Okay. Every child, every day, 10 minutes at the beginning of class. And it is sacred time, it has been amazing. Yes, the first couple of days, etc., sometimes week, can be rough, but the big thing is just that habit every day, every child, and if I had more than 45 minutes, they would be getting more than 10 minutes, because that is when I see them reading. That is when we are planting the seed for outside reading as Allington has researched, it’s when we’re book-shopping, and it’s when I’m doing reading check-ins with my kids. I’m sitting down and I’m simply saying, “What are you working on as a reader?” And it gives me that two-, three-minute connection with a child if they need to book shop, if they’re not doing well, to see what their reading identity is, where are they on their journey, and then I kind of pull all this information to think about what I still need to teach them. That doesn’t happen during those 10 minutes.
The next thing that I know they need is choice, and they need real choice, and they need choice that actually makes them want to read, and so we talk a lot about free book abandonment and how we should be celebrating in the beginning when we abandon a book because we know ourselves enough as a reader to know that this will not provide us with a reading experience that will matter to us. And we need to start, you know, building up that stamina, so we need books that work for us at that time, and that’s really important for my students to remember, and to know and to recognize that what they need at this moment might be different than what they need in a month from now. And so they’re constantly evaluating their book choices just either through conversation or self reflection or just their habits.
A Robust Classroom Library
And so choice and then of course access to books. So we have a beautiful school library that my students get to go to and many of them utilize, and then we also have several thousand books in my classroom, but I can tell you several thousand books, it didn’t start out that way.
GONZALEZ: That’s, yeah, I want to underscore that you just said “several thousand,” and that is going to just make a few people’s —
RIPP: Yeah…terrify most people…
GONZALEZ: Well, right. And then how did you build that up, and you’re going to get the pushback here of, like, people say, “Well, why, why? Why several thousand?” Sounds amazing to me, but, you know, why?
RIPP: Well “Why?” Good question. There’s a lot of reasons why, but the easiest one is simply I need a book for every reader, and I teach kids that read from about a second grade level to a college level. I teach kids with lives that share no similarities at times and others whose lives are very much like my own. And so I need to make sure that every child has a chance of finding a book that will speak to them. There is a lot of research out there, and it kind of always just depends on, like, where you go. But all I know from the research is just you need a lot of books, and you need them both in your classroom and in your school, because it’s definitely not an either/or at all.
GONZALEZ: So why in both places? Because you cover that in the book, but I think you make such important points.
RIPP: I do.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Why is it important to have both?
RIPP: Because the kids need to see the books staring at them at all times, and I think that has made the biggest difference for some of my kids who would go through the motions of going to the school library and they would even check some books out, but then when it came down to actually sitting down and read it, they didn’t feel that same need or urge to read it. And I had a seventh-grader come back to me my first year at the end of the year, and he said, “You know what made the biggest difference? The books were always right there staring at me.” And I think about that too and Donalyn Miller and Terry Lesesne have said this too when I saw them present at NCTE a couple of years ago, they said, “You know for some kids, even if the school library’s right outside your classroom door, that’s too far away.” And I think about that with my own readers and their habits. Those kids that are reading okay-ish books, so not the fake readers, not the ones that can’t find a book, but the ones that are like in the seven out of 10-star books, they need to know that there are better options kind of screaming their name visually all around them. And there’s research on it too. Morrow and Neuman have both done research on it, and it says that students read 50 to 60 percent more in classrooms with libraries than classrooms without them. But like I also said, it didn’t start that way. I inherited a classroom library, I was really excited, I had several bookshelves, but I didn’t make the realization that when someone leaves their classroom library behind, they don’t leave you all the good stuff. They take that with them.
RIPP: And so I didn’t really know what fourth-graders would like, and I figured my titles were fine. But then, again, after about a year’s worth of use, when the kids weren’t really using it, I realized that I needed to do some really hard weeding, and actually I think it was even a couple years in. And I remember how scary it was to sit down and really go through the books and go, keep or toss. And I threw, I think, gosh, three quarters of my library out, because it was not anything that would entice the kids.
RIPP: And I ended up with this short little bookshelf —
RIPP: — of books, and I was like, “Oh my gosh. What do I do now?” Like, I have three kids at home, you know, on a teacher’s salary. I was like, I can’t go out and spend thousands of dollars on books, and my school didn’t have a lot of extra money, and I had to have this realization of, “OK. I would rather that a child can go up to this bookshelf and find a high-quality book pretty much any time they go there rather than have to dig through the junk and hope they find something.” And so it just became my mission that instead of buying things to make our classroom prettier or anything like that, like, I bought books, and I used Scholastic, and I went to library sales and parents donated books, and I was always really picky. It was big for me that the books were good, and then I just purchased books. And so it has been an ongoing process, and it continues to be, and I continue to weed in my library too, books that I thought that maybe kids would connect with, they haven’t. Well maybe it’s not that they need to get tossed, maybe they just need to go to a different classroom where they’ll access them. And so for me, that is one of the biggest things that I can give these kids is just to say, “Look at all these books. Look at all these choices that you have.” And I want them to feel enticed to touch them, to pick them up. And we also have audio books, like Overdrive for the kids and whatnot, and I have a few kids that like to read on devices. But it’s interesting to see how many kids gravitate towards that very tactile experience of sitting with a book in their hands, also so that they can hand it to a friend or hand it to me, and do that physical recommendation. And so that was this long-term commitment of, “I need better books and I need all sorts of books.” And I think about that too, and my students constantly push me on this too about how we evaluate our classroom libraries. And for me there’s kind of three questions that I always ask, and the first one is, you know, not just who is represented by how are they represented and who’s not? And I think that that’s so important. That came from a student too. Last year he looked at me and he said, “Mrs. Ripp, why are all the picture books featuring African Americans always about slavery or civil rights?” And I was looking around my classroom, I was like, “Yep. Where are all the picture books and the regular books about, you know, people of color or people anything other than, like, white cisgender, you know, whatever kind of core family doing anything?”
RIPP: And so that needs to come from us, because we’re the ones purchasing these books, and so we need to go out and say, “We need better books.”
RIPP: “We need more diverse books and we need own author’s books, own voices books.”
RIPP: And so that’s the other question too: Am I purchasing books where own voices authors are writing them, and so own voices came out of the We Need Diverse Books movement, and it just was, you know, the marginally represented author writing about their marginally represented culture or set in that culture. And so I think about out our LBTQ students or our gender nonconforming students or our Hispanic, Latinx students or anything that is not the norm so that kids can find themselves within the book. And then of course I also think about what am I displaying? Because whatever we’re displaying is what kids are going to gravitate towards. So when I was asked at one point what I was going to do for picture books for Black History Month, and I said I’m not going to do anything, because I’ve been displaying those books all year, right? And that’s so important. Like, we can’t do Black History Month displays, and then only show slavery and civil rights picture books. How is that just a celebration? And that shouldn’t just be one month out of the year. That should be all the time.
RIPP: And so those are the things that I think about when I look at my own classroom library, but again, that took several years to kind of realize what my book gaps were, because my book gaps, the books I’m not reading, I’m passing those book gaps on to students.
GONZALEZ: Right. Was it in the book that you had talked about, like, sort of fantasy books that you just were never really into those, and kids would sort of ask about it, and it was like, “I don’t really know”?
RIPP: Sports. I love fantasy. I hate sports.
GONZALEZ: Okay. It’s sports books. Okay.
RIPP: Sports and dogs and mermaids, and those three, like, and those three books are like some of the most, maybe not mermaids, but like dogs and sports —
RIPP: — are massively popular in my classroom, but they weren’t in my classroom library because I was like, “Why would anyone ever want to read about sports? That’s so dumb.” But again, that came from students, right?
RIPP: They were like, “Where are these books?” And that’s because I ask them. I’m always asking them, “What books do I need?”
RIPP: “What book gaps do we have? What can’t you find here?” And I also, to teachers who are like, “OK. Well I don’t even have any money to go out and buy books,” partner up with your librarian. Maybe you can become a satellite library where you can have 50 books on display from your school library, and then tell the kids, like, go down and see the school librarian. You can go check this out —
GONZALEZ: So you sort of just rotate them into your classroom for a while just to display them?
GONZALEZ: That’s a great idea. Yeah.
RIPP: Yeah. And then that way, you know, they need to go down and check them out. I have a friend who goes to the public library, and she brings in 50 books from the public library, and the kids know they have to sign them out.
GONZALEZ: Oh, yeah.
RIPP: But she’s, you know, again, like I think about how can we get books in the hands of these kids?
RIPP: Or go to conferences like NCT or ILA where publishers will hand you books.
RIPP: My students are blown away. They’re like, “What books are you going to bring back for us?”
Including Picture Books
GONZALEZ: Can we talk for a second about picture books? Because you mentioned that, and I know that that’s a really important piece and people who are teaching, you know, middle and high school need to know what your stance is on picture books.
RIPP: Oh my gosh. I couldn’t do my job without picture books, and I wish I had realized that a long time ago. I remember being really annoyed by students when they would ask to borrow my picture books, because they were behind my teacher desk, because I had them as mentor texts. And I finally started realizing, “Oh hang on. Okay. Picture books. The kids really like reading them.” And then I started diving into it more myself, especially when I moved to seventh grade, and I was like, “Where are all the short stories?” And by “short stories,” I mean like two- or three-page short stories that need to have, like, incredible, you know, character change or anything like that, and I all of a sudden looked over at my picture books, and I was like, “There they are.”
And it’s like, picture books have changed and transformed the way our reading community feels, because if you can imagine if you walk into our classroom, yes there’s all those books, the chapter books and all of that, but then all around us are picture books. And it’s just a vibe, right? You feel it when you walk in that this is a classroom where you can have fun and where you get to read and you can choose whatever you want, and it’s so funny, because some of my kids come in and they’re like, “Picture books are for babies.” And then I pull out, you know, like picture books like Bird, which is about drug addiction, or you pull out a picture book like I Never Knew Your Name, which is about teen suicide, and they’re just like, “Hang on.” I’m like, “I know. Is this for a baby? Would you ever read this to a 4-year-old?” But it’s also this community thread that brings us together.
And so for my students I think about, and this goes for any age, but especially with older kids, right, where there’s so much stigma attached to what they can and cannot do as readers and how often some of our vulnerable readers come in, and they’re just like already so defeated because, “Here I am in a classroom again filled with chapter books, and of course none of them are going to actually be available to what I can do, and now they’re going to have to go and find special books, and I’m going to look like an idiot again.” And I think about how picture books just become this great equalizer for all my students. No one cares what you’re reading in our classroom, because you can pick up picture books at any time. And so it really removes a lot of the stigma that my kids come in as far as who they are as readers, and we read them and we laugh about them and we cry over them and we talk to picture book authors and illustrators because we quickly realize, like, it is hard to write a picture book that has to carry some sort of emotional value within such short amount of pages.
And so, and I think too of, like, the kids that come in who are not where they should be as readers for whatever reason, and you can pull something like a wordless picture book and put it in front of them and all of a sudden they’re on the same playing field, right? They don’t have to go through the decoding of language, and instead, sometimes they are some of the ones that have the best ideas, the most creative, abstract thinkers, and yet they haven’t seen themselves in that.
And so I just think of all of the benefit I get from pulling picture books in, and just how they are such an untapped resource for middle school and high schools, and thankfully there are amazing people out there pushing picture books too, like, Paul Hankins and other people that are like, “This is why I use picture books.” But, you know, we cannot tell kids that some books are for younger kids or are for babies when it’s so far from the truth.
What About Grades?
GONZALEZ: Right, right. So 10 minutes at the beginning of every class is independent reading, and then I know the biggest question that people are going to have when they listen to it is how do you hold them accountable? How do you turn this into a grade? And so, and I know that there are a lot of philosophies out there about grading. The reality is that a lot of teachers are still in schools that will require them to give a grade of some sort. So how have you navigated that?
RIPP: And I’m in one of those schools where, I mean, I still, I have a system of grades and so on, and standardized testing. So what I’ve been on a big kick on for the last couple of years is that we can’t actually grade their independent reading, because that’s practice.
RIPP: And so you wouldn’t grade someone’s practice. And so when I’m looking at what my kids can actually do as readers, it’s the skill of reading. And so for me, the 10 minutes at the beginning of class is always with nothing to do except to read. I want them to fall into the pages. I want them to reach flow. I want them to be silent and in this moment of their book. When they come back to me, we then do a mini lesson on reading or writing or whatever it is we’re doing, and it is truly a mini lesson, 10 to 15 minutes. And then they go and do something, and that’s where I assess them. And so when I think about my students, for example, they just handed in this two-week long project they were doing on character development where they were just tracking a character throughout their own self-selected stories, and they were giving evidence and analyzing it, telling me all about this character. They were working on that after the mini lesson, after this protected reading, and that’s when I can assess how are they growing as readers? The other thing I can assess too is when I sit down and actually pull small conversations with them or small groups, and I can see how they’re progressing, and I can ask pointed questions about who they are and what they can do. And I think that that’s really important, because we do have to be accountable in some way as teachers of readers, and we do have to know how are these kids progressing, and what do I need to support them? And so we just have to be careful that we’re not constantly doing it. One of the things that my students say over and over and over, it’s not that they hate reading, it’s that they hate all the things they have to do once they’ve read.
RIPP: And I get that, like, as adults, and I’ve written about this too, like, the reading rules we would never follow as adults. Like, we would never want to sit down and write something after every single book we have read. Well, a couple of adults would maybe, but not all of us.
RIPP: You know. We would never want to do all these tasks, and if we did, we would probably start to read less and less and less, because we would be dreading the task after.
RIPP: And also the other thing that I have to be careful of particularly is that I’m not assessing their reading skills through their writing skills, because that’s also really, really problematic. I have kids who can comprehend at a really high level, who can speak beautifully about it, but the minute you tell them to write it down, it becomes a mess. And so I need to get to know my students to know how I can assess them. And so sometimes I give the students an option of, “OK. You can either write about your understanding,” let’s say we’re doing theme or something like that, “Or you can record it in, like, Flipgrid or some other video, and you can send it to me.” And so once in awhile I’ll say to kids, “OK. I do need you to write this, but I’m also assessing your written skills based on it.” And other times, it’s just like, I just need to see where you’re at and because I have 29 students, I can’t sit down with all of you within 45 minutes. We’d be doing this assessment for three days. So instead I’m going to send you over in this corner. You can record it. (My kids usually have their own phones.) And so you make it work, and it can be scary and sometimes like “Oh, I should have more.”
RIPP: I should have more stuff to show how they’re progressing. But then I turn it back to the kids, and because we just ended a quarter, I asked my students, “How have you grown as a reader?” And they struggled with that question, some of them, but then what they ended up writing, it was really remarkable to read. “I have grown as a reader, because I have tried new genres, and I now feel more comfortable picking books that I wouldn’t have picked before.” Or “I have grown as a reader now, because I notice that I’m not understanding vocabulary, and I know I’m supposed to reread, but instead, I’m doing these other things.” And so it’s like, all of a sudden, all of those words that I’ve been kind of spouting at them, they’re taking on and taking ownership of, and I think that’s the best type of reading instruction we have, and I think that’s like what Nancie Atwell, right, has been talking about for years now.
RIPP: It’s just like that ownership of learning, handing that back to students and saying, hang on. If I need accountability, that needs to come from the students. Where are they in their reading journey? Because we are so busy doing all the work for them. We’re setting the goals. We’re telling them where they are. We’re telling them where they should go. And instead, we should be going, “Okay, this is what I see, but what do you see?” And get their voice as part of the conversation.
GONZALEZ: Now in the, in your book you definitely sort of dig into a lot more of the sort of practical aspects of it, because I mean, gosh, I would love to sort of keep asking you all of these different questions like, how do you manage, like, the 29 conversations? How do you even look at the Flipgrid and all of that? But I’m going to trust that people are going to go and read about all of those.
What about Accelerated Reader?
GONZALEZ: Let’s talk for just a second about Accelerated Reader and what you’re thinking about that. I know that you do not use it, and that you strongly advocate that people stop using it. So let’s talk a little bit about that.
RIPP: I always get in trouble. People get so upset. Okay. So here’s my main problem, right?
RIPP: And there’s a couple. One, we tend to do programs like this for short term gain. We have completely lost sight of the end game, which is these creative, critical thinkers, problem solvers who actually want to read books. And for some kids, Accelerated Reader or programs like it works. They get really excited. I have a friend who’s like, “I loved Accelerated Reader,” because she was really good at it, so she would get all the points and she would get the reward. If those kids love it, by all means, let them do it. But the problem is we’re taking programs like Accelerated Reader and shoving our most vulnerable readers in front of it, and then we’re telling them, “You can’t choose that book,” or “That book is not at your level,” or “You failed this test, and so now you’re not going to be given these privileges that other kids are given.”
And I think about how we take reading, and we turn it into a task, and that’s exactly what a program like Accelerated Reader does: read a book, take a quiz. And yes, I know that they’ve changed their program, and now there’s more critical thinking and deeper thinking, but the thing is, teaching reading is not supposed to be quick and easy. Teaching reading is supposed to be about human connection, and I think about how my students would feel once they’re done with a book if I said to them instead of “Tell me about it” or “Tell a friend about it” or “Tell the world about it,” I said, “Go tell this computer about it, and then I’ll tell you whether you’ve really had a deep reading experience with it or not based on your score.”
But I get it, right? We’re always searching for data, and Accelerated Reader presents itself as a beautiful program that can give us tons of data. The thing is though, we can get that data in other ways. If we really want kids to have, you know, comprehension quizzes, then give them comprehension quizzes, but my god, that cannot be the heart of our reading program. And I think about teachers who are very adamant in their defense of Accelerated Reader because they’ve seen it improve kids’ comprehension scores or even kids’ reading lives. There’s other things that don’t cost thousands of dollars a year that will allow us to do that while also create the one-on-one experience that kids need and deserve in our reading classrooms.
And here’s the thing too. I think about my own children. I want my kids, I have four of them, I want for all of my kids to have the best reading experience as possible, and you cannot tell me that that’s going to come from a computer who pretends to know my child through the questions that it asks them. And then bottom line too: If authors are failing their own Accelerated Reader quizzes, that should tell us something about the program, right? I mean, I just did an Elephant and Piggie quiz because I was like, I don’t know, this would be fun on an airplane, right? I failed it. I’ve read this picture book, like, nine times, because of course the questions were not deeper level. They were not, “What is the lesson you want to learn from this book?” or anything like that. It was, “What did Gerald say to Piggy when this happened?” Like when did sheer memorization become the skill that we value above all?
So before people are like, “Oh, there she goes again bashing other teachers,” question it. Ask parents, ask students, ask is this really the best use of our money? Can we get these same results in other ways where we might not be killing the love of reading for some parents and some kids? I mean, I have parents that tell me that their kid hates reading because of these programs. Just like we have to question our own decisions, and we should be asking, you know, starting courageous conversations in our districts when we see programs being implemented or brought in that we know are going to do harm. We need to become the people that stand up and speak up, because often parents trust us. And so they’re not going to question, unless we tell them, “Whoa. This is what’s happening. How do you feel about it?”
Handling Large Groups of Students
GONZALEZ: So I guess, probably the only other question that I think is really pressing, because I know I’ve got a lot of middle and high school teachers listening, and I think they’re probably thinking what I would have been thinking, which is, “I have 130 students,” you know, up to, gosh, if you’re in California, up to 40 in a class. And so they’re thinking, okay. Two things. No. 1: What do I do with the kids who don’t feel like reading or are being disruptive? And then the other question is, if I can’t handle this through some sort of a computer system, how do I manage to have these conversations with so many of them? Is it a matter of just, just not as many as you would think, that you’re sort of touching base maybe once a week with each kid or how are you actually managing the bulk of kids?
RIPP: Right, great question, because that’s my reality too.
RIPP: I typically teach 130 kids, and like I said, 45 minutes. It’s one conversation at a time, and you stop beating yourself up so much. I check in with my students, I would say on a good schedule, every three to four weeks is when I have that one-on-one conversation with kids, because that’s how long it takes to get through 30 kids when you’re doing two to three kids a day, because there’s always an interruption, right? There’s always that kid that’s like definitely not reading, so you need to go check in with them. Or that kid that desperately needs to book shop but is completely lost and doesn’t know how to book shop so that’s where you start with them. And you just keep going, and I think about, especially moving to middle school from elementary where I felt like I knew my students really well. Like, man, by October, we were jiving, right? It was a community. I knew all those kids. And by middle school, I’m starting now, and now we’re two months into the school year going, “Oh, okay. That’s who you are.”
RIPP: Like, it takes forever, and so I think sometimes we get this false sense of security when we do computer programs or other programs where we’re like, “Oh, I know this kid is a reader.” But I just wonder, like, do we know this kid as their data, or do we really know them as a reader? Because those are two different things. And while the data is definitely part of the conversation, I need data just like everybody else does, it can’t be the whole conversation. So what it looks like in my classroom, like I said, is just check-ins, two to three kids, a day, every day during those 10 minutes of reading. I take very few notes, because I just, I just need the most important, and I always put it back to them, like “What is hard with reading?” And that kind of becomes my inspiration for any kind of mini lessons. And then, you know, the kids that aren’t reading, you just keep having more patience. You keep having more hope than they do. I think of a kid last year, he fought me till the last day of school, and that’s the thing too: We cannot go in there and expect every child to change, but we can go in there hoping that we can help. But the reality of it too is, and I tell my students this, I’m not here to make you love reading. I’m here to make you hate it less. And if you already love it, then I’m here to protect it with all of my might. But I think of sometimes we are just the tourniquet. We are just the person that comes in and stops it from growing even bigger, and hopefully we are passing on a child that the next year’s teacher can maybe move further with.
RIPP: You know, maybe we are just planting seeds but we will not actually see them fully grow. And I think of this one kid, you know, it was like some days he flat out refused. Some days he was disruptive. Other days I could just slide a stack of picture books, and he would actually read a couple of picture books, and whenever he did, in my head I was like, “That is a victory right there.”
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
RIPP: He read more than he would have if I didn’t do anything.
RIPP: And I think, that’s it with the programs, right? Like, kids can fake their way through it, or kids can kind of get through it, but then if they still leave us hating reading —
RIPP: — then we haven’t changed them.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. And I’m thinking too, the super reluctant, lower level reader, they may, they could get through a full year of the programmed instruction and still not have had really any success. Before we wrap up, because I’m going to just keep urging people, because this is really 10 percent of what your book covers, is there anything that we sort of left out that you really wanted to make sure that we touched on?
RIPP: I think the biggest thing, and you can do this without anyone’s permission or any kind of money is go back in your own classroom and ask kids, why does reading suck, you know? And when is reading amazing?
RIPP: And then finally ask them, how can I be a better teacher for you? because that bottom line is everything that has changed me as a teacher, has been the truth that my students have so graciously given to me, and said, “Here. I don’t know what you’re going to do with this, but maybe you can do something about it.” Because that’s the thing: We don’t need better systems, necessarily. We just need to start listening to the kids that are sitting right in front of us —
RIPP: — going, “We can do better,” and then we can work with them to figure this out.
RIPP: And the thing is, we have to bring those voices in.
GONZALEZ: Thank you so much. I’m just — there are times when I have people on this podcast for their ideas and then there are times when I just want amazing people to be heard and to serve as just great role models for the way we should all be looking at our jobs, and you are doing both, so that’s just fantastic. People can find, so the book is Passionate Readers, and I’m going to provide links to everything on this site, and then they can find you at pernillesripp.com. Anything else you want in terms of how people can find you online?
RIPP: No. I think I’m the only Pernille Ripp in all of North America, so I’m fairly Google-able. And the thing is too, like I’m not at expert, and I know that sounds really self-deprecating, but it’s like I’m just someone who’s on a journey to make what I’m doing better. And so I think it’s really important that people feel empowered by learning from others just like I feel empowered having learned from so many others. And if I can help anyone question their practices or move forward or try an idea, please reach out, because we only get better together. And I think that’s what’s so incredible with social media is just, like, how much we can learn from each other.
RIPP: And not to idolize people but just to say, hey, we’re all in this journey, we’re all trying to make it better for kids.
GONZALEZ: Thank you so much, Pernille.
RIPP: You’re welcome. Thank you.
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