It was barely two years ago that Teacher Magazine invited sixth grade Texas teacher Donalyn Miller to offer advice to colleagues about "creating readers" for TM’s Ask the Mentor feature. Back then, the editors described Miller as “a self-proclaimed book whisperer (who) says she has yet to meet a child she couldn’t turn into a reader.”
Miller’s three-part mentoring series proved wildly popular and led to an offer from Teacher to become a regular blogger at the TM site. Her blog, irresistably titled “The Book Whisperer,” overflowed with ideas about how to ignite the flame of reading in the hearts and minds of the most reluctant kids. Which led to another offer from TM’s parent organization, Editorial Projects in Education Inc. (which also publishes Education Week), for Miller to author EPE’s first practice-oriented book, to be published as part of a new partnership with Jossey-Bass.
This Teacherella story came to its picture book ending in the spring of 2009 with publication of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. The book has sold more than 13,000 copies in six months and will have a third printing in September. Miller will return to her classroom this fall and once again share the joys of reading with a new passel of Texas tweens.
Donalyn has been a member of the Teacher Leaders Network since 2008. After a busy summer of book signings and presentations, she answered several questions we put to her via email.
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Here's a question we know will be of interest to other teachers with an urge to write. How do you balance authorship and teaching ? Will there be a point, do you think, when you will have to choose between one or the other?
Honestly, I don’t think I am balancing my various roles as author, blogger, teacher, mother, wife, and friend that well at times. I was not prepared for the success of The Book Whisperer and the overwhelming number of e-mails, comments, and requests for interviews and presentations I have received.
This is a great problem to have, of course. I am grateful that summer arrived so that I could focus on the book, and the response to it, without the daily demands of my classroom. As an advocate for powerful changes in reading instruction, I have a responsibility to support those teachers who grapple with their own teaching situations as they try to incorporate more free choice reading, discard ineffective practices, and reflect on their own reading lives. Right now, I want to answer every e-mail, conduct every interview, and accept every speaking engagement.
I believe in what I am doing and the importance of it for children. My family and friends are incredibly supportive: my friend Carol and her husband Neil designed my upcoming website. Elizabeth Rich, my editor at teachermagazine.org, shamelessly promotes the book and sends me articles to read, and my husband Don reads blog feeds during his lunch hour.
I can’t keep up this level of effort forever, but I can commit to it today. I recognize what an incredible opportunity this is. How many of us really get a voice? A national forum to share our ideas about teaching? An opportunity to engage in dialogue with colleagues in the hopes of sparking real change?
As a highly visible "book champion" and blogger, do you feel some responsibility to speak out about national trends, policies, or controversies in the area of reading and books? And how might other teachers who share your professional passions use their voices?
As I have said many times, I am not a reading policy expert. I write about what interests me and affects me and teachers like me. My audience is largely composed of other teachers, and while I see the need to use my experiences outside the confines of my classroom to inform others about larger educational issues, I always keep the needs and interests of my fellow teachers in front of me when choosing topics for the blog. Sometimes I explore federal policies like funding for Reading Is Fundamental or consider how the use of stimulus money might affect teachers and children. Sometimes I write about the books I have read.
When it comes to teachers using their voices, I think about the other teacher/bloggers I regularly read like Heather Wolpert-Gawron from tweenteacher and Sarah Mulhern at The Reading Zone. We all write about the issues that impact our classrooms—great and small. I would encourage other teachers who are interested in blogging or writing to do the same.
Write about what you know—working with children, reading wonderful books, the inner workings of your school and district, and your own reflections about teaching. Join local, state and national teaching organizations, attend conferences, go back to graduate school—keep your brain fed and connect with colleagues outside of your school.
What's next for you, both in education and in book-authoring? What ideas are swirling in your head that you want to organize into chapters? How do you use your blog to develop and test ideas for books? How important is having your own classroom in this regard?
I do not have any plans to leave the classroom. My passion and my heart live in that little room, surrounded by my books and the children who I love. Outside of my family, my students are my first and only choice. All else fades into the background once school begins.
This is as it should be. I think that my credibility with other teachers lies in the fact that I am a classroom teacher, not a consultant or a college professor who may not have worked with children in years, although educational professionals of every stripe add meaningful perspectives. My role is as a classroom teacher. Without the constant interaction with children and my own responses and reflections about my teaching, my contribution is not as valuable.
I suppose my publisher would like it if I already had plans for another book, but I am enjoying the here and the now. I want to savor the experience of writing The Book Whisperer and how teachers are responding to it. As an avid reader, I am often disappointed by sequels, hastily written to capitalize on the success of a first book. It took me years of teaching, learning and reflecting to decide what I needed to say.
The opportunity to write a national blog gave me a platform, but my opinions were already there inside me. I did use the responses of readers from my original “Creating Readers” column to formulate topics for the book, but I don’t test book ideas via the blog. If anything, when I write a post, readers’ responses influence my thinking. I am not sure how the blog will lead my future writing efforts. Just like I do in my classroom, I prefer to let the magic unfold, and see where it takes me.
My next book will spring from my interactions with the children in my classroom, like all of my writing does. Some things I’m thinking about:
I am extremely interested in the needs of gifted readers and how these needs often go unmet in classrooms where instruction is pitched toward developing readers. I think many children who love reading when they are small slowly lose this passion as they advance through school. I keep revisiting these children in my mind and wondering what I can say about them.
I have spent some time this summer talking to parents about how to motivate their children to read more at home. Many of the ideas that I promote in classrooms: time to read, role modeling, access to books, and choices in reading material, translate to reading habits at home.
While presenting staff development sessions, many teachers ask me for my schedule, my reader’s notebook sheets, and my lesson plans. I am not really enthusiastic about writing a book about these components because one of the messages I try to relay in The Book Whisperer is that we all have to move past this search for the perfect lesson plan or the perfect schedule and design our classrooms around our core beliefs about teaching reading. I might change my mind if I can figure out how to write an interactive text, where teachers reflect on their own needs and design their own schedules, notebooks, and lessons. Still thinking about it . . .
In the immediate future, The Book Whisperer will appear as the featured book for Jim Burke’s English Companion Ning group in October. I am live-blogging at the NCTE Convention in November, and I will spend 180 glorious days reading and writing with my students this school year.