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Understanding Adolescent Readers: A Podcast with Penny Kittle

Choice Literacy

Penny Kittle is a classroom teacher and literacy coach at Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire. She is the author of Public Teaching: One Kid at a Time, The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching (co-authored with her mentor and friend, Donald H. Graves), Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing, and Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. You can follow her work at http://pennykittle.net/ 

In this podcast, Penny chats with Franki Sibberson about how to inspire a passion for reading in adolescents. A full transcript is available below the player.



Franki Sibberson: Penny, your high school students are passionate about reading.  Can you tell us how you inspire them to read so much?

Penny Kittle: I think I’d say I make it a priority and it’s something that -- I have conferences every day in my classroom and I’m talking to them about what they’re reading as they enter class, I notice what they’re reading and encourage them try something that they haven’t tried on the shelf; so it’s just one of those constant themes in my room.

And I think that my passion feeds their passion.  You know this morning, I book talked two books I read this week and I was just so fired up about them.  It’s kind of hard not to at least notice that your teacher cares about books.

Franki Sibberson: So what do you suggest for teachers who are trying to include more choice reading into their classes, and especially at the secondary level?

Penny Kittle: You know, I think of high school as -- high school English is like parallel tracks; there’s a track that is all about building stamina and volume for kids, and there’s a track that’s all about the deep study of literature.  And what I think happens too much is that we spend all of our time on just one of the tracks and we need both.

And instead of only focusing on the deep study of beautiful literature, we have to nurture this passion, this reading life, so that they increase the volume and the stamina they have for digging into those more difficult texts.

And they also are then practicing as independent readers all of the things that we’re trying to teach them in our deep study.  And I think when you ask me a question like, “What do you suggest for those trying to include more?”  I suggest, number one, that you make it as important as the study of literature.

So once it’s that kind of a priority in your thinking you’re going to carve out room for it.

Franki Sibberson: I love the way to think about it -- those two tracks -- that’s smart.  So as like an elementary teacher what are the specific challenges to independent reading at the secondary level, because I know it’s a different set of challenges.

Penny Kittle: Well, you know, the challenge is about whether or not the kid liked the book.  Every student will tell me that; that they’ll read if they like the book and they won’t read when they don’t.

We have an all-school, drop everything and read period every day called ‘Reading Break,’ and I’m in a different Reading Break every day and I see kids that are deeply engaged in what they’re reading, and I see kids wasting time.

And if you talk to the kids wasting time they’re either between books or they’ve always struggled to find books they like and no one’s really paid attention to that, or stuck with it, because I know everybody tries, but you have to just be so persistent.  “I will find a book for you.  We’re going to find it together.”

And so once they have a book they want to read, there is no problem with sustained reading in high school.

Franki Sibberson: So there’s really not that much of a difference between elementary and high school.

Penny Kittle: I don’t see any difference.  I think it was just like that when I taught 4th, 5th grade and had kids who didn’t like reading.  It was all about finding that perfect match, right?

Franki Sibberson: Yeah, it sounds exactly the same, yeah.

Penny Kittle: Yeah, it is, exactly.

Franki Sibberson: You had talked a little bit about the two tracks.  So what is the balance between choice and assigned reading at the secondary level, and how do you balance that and make sure you’re not giving up to much of one or the other?

Penny Kittle: Yeah, well, the truth about -- I think for all of us -- and I know we feel it at high school -- is that there’s just too many things that we want to teach, there are too many standards, too many expectations in every course every year.

And so everyone is already making choices about what they can include and what they have to give up.  And I have decided that I’m going to try to balance -- you know, Kelly Gallagher said 50/50; 50 percent of the reading that he gives kids teaches, and 50 percent they choose.  And I liked that and thought, “Yeah, that kind of represents what I do.”

But I decided that it’s actually a little different because it’s based on the kid and my really strong readers -- well-prepared kids -- my advanced students I had in the fall -- seniors -- I really expected them to take my choices more seriously, I guess I would say.

They chose but I really directed a lot of their choices towards literature; award winners from _______ prize winners to Pulitzer prize, to National Book awards, and just constantly feeding them really high-quality literature for their choice reading as well as what we were studying.

And so I would argue that sometimes you’ve got kids that are very able to respond and you may be directing their choices in a much greater percentage.

And then I have students on the exact opposite that have never read a book and they come to me in high school having never finished a book.

And I just simply can’t hand them something really difficult.  Like one of my students talked to me today about spark-noting her way through Great Expectations because she could not read it. 

And I think that that is just so much more damaging for the love of literature in the world; to take a wonderful book and have a kid just hate it and see it as torture.

I think -- I tell teachers we should take misery more seriously because it lasts just like love does.  And so what I wanted is that -- you know, the kid who doesn’t like reading, I’m going to give him more freedom longer and feed him good books, yes, but let him choose books that I wouldn’t necessarily choose and try to nurture that spark, find that homerun book -- as Allington called it -- that makes that kid a reader.

Franki Sibberson: And they bring so much misery; that’s such a good -- you have so many smart things to say.  So books and boys specifically, is there anything you do to hook adolescent boys on reading?

Penny Kittle: You know it’s interesting, when I was reading that question and thinking about it I was struck by the fact that it’s no different than with girls.  It would be easy to categorize boys, but they have so many facets to them as individual kids, just like girls do, and so there are definitely more boys who choose non-fiction more frequently than the girls do; at least at the start of the year.

So I would say that having a really rich collection of nonfiction -- a boy that I conferred with this morning -- I sat down beside him and said, “Are you still reading The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell”  It’s a memoir from Iraq.  And he said, “You know Miss Kittle, that’s the first book I didn’t skip pages in; the first one.”

And you know, I said, “Oh, I’ve got some others; if you want to go look in history and war with me I can show you some other books that are similar to this one.”  And it struck me that he, like many boys, in the past, has been first really drawn to nonfiction.

But that doesn’t mean that all are.  Because I sat down next to another kid who’s put on his goal-list for fourth quarter The Fountain Pen, which I think is an unusual choice.  It’s not something I would typically think as an adolescent-boy book.

And so you know it’s always about talking to them and figuring out what have they read?  What will challenge them next?  What’s a move for them?

You know we talked all about the concept of reading ladders in class today and had the kids set goals to move up the ladder and to reach for that next rung and what it is and what have you not read yet?

And I think that is as individual as all readers; they just are individual readers. 

I think I sent you my ‘What have I been reading lessons’ for the last year.

Franki Sibberson: I know, that was my next question.

Penny Kittle: Oh, that’s funny.  But I was really struck because I looked at -- because I put them into categories -- that I haven’t read a lot of poetry.  I read the poem a day from Writer's Almanac collections; I’ve only read two collections of poetry all year.  And I was kind of looking at my own weaknesses as I was looking at what I would call ‘my reading ladder’ from last year.

Franki Sibberson: Smart.  Okay, so you read a ton.  Can you talk about -- talk about some specific titles that have really hooked kids who hadn’t read much prior to coming to your class.  But also you had some really interesting categories in what you read and how you think about books, like books that are good for 6th through 9th graders who haven’t read a lot -- can you talk a little bit about that?  You say it better than I do.

Penny Kittle: Well, it was funny because I was sitting here with my notebook over the weekend and I was looking at my -- what I had read in the last three or four months -- because a notebook lasts me about four months -- and I started putting them into categories, and I was thinking about why I was picking up particular books -- for example I’m following Colby Sharp on Twitter -- and he kept recommending Hound Dog True, and so I read it and loved it, and I immediately thought, “Oh, that’s for that group of 4th through 8th grade kids,” because I work a lot as a K-12 coach and other kids have brought in books to book talk, and Hound Dog True led me to several others.

So there’s like this -- kind of like my reading will go in swirls and I’ll see one book and think, “Oh, I need more books like that that I can take into that next group of kids I’m with.”

And so I’m always looking for books in a series because how many of my readers will talk about -- you know, I’ve got a girl that’s reading the 10th or the 9th book in The Pretty Little Liars series, and I’m dismayed at the passion kids have for that series.

I actually haven’t read any of them; I’ve read the backs and went, “Oh my word, it sounds like soap operas or something.”  But the power of the series is that kids get connected so deeply to the characters and the setting is familiar and they can then really ease their way into the reading by knowing who these people and it feels like common ground.

Franki Sibberson: Right.

Penny Kittle: So Delirium/Pandemonium that -- Pandemonium just came out and I just raced through it and loved it and I’m looking forward to getting more kids turned on to that.

There are the Among the Hidden books that -- you know, especially like middle school age -- just become -- you know, like Cirque du Freak they become kind of fanatical about them.

And I’ve been working in Indianapolis where the Bluford High books are really popular, and I just think of all these series books as they have a place for kids. 

And I think in my own reading life with The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Encyclopedia Brown series, The Great Train series, you just tend to get comfortable as a kid.  So that’s one place I go.

Franki Sibberson: Right.

Penny Kittle: Other categories -- like I put in starter books; I think that’s what you were referring to?

Franki Sibberson: Yeah.

Penny Kittle: So these are easier, faster books that are less demanding.  So a kid who hasn’t read much can get in and get out easily.  And I think about books for -- I just have so many kids who don’t read, or are practiced non-readers -- and I’m always looking for book talk books by same, you know Black and White, it’s a good story of two kids in high school, it’s pretty easy to read; I think you’ll like this if you want a bit of a mystery, how is he going to get himself out of this tough situation?

So I’m going for books that are captivating but quick.  The Things a Brother Knows is another one that is an interesting sibling story.  It’s not very long, it’s not hard, there’s not a lot of test vocabulary.  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas -- Shooting Kabul has been popular simply because it’s another country and those tend to kind of entice kids into what’s it like somewhere else?

Franki Sibberson: It’s so hard too, because young adult stuff is such a span.  Like we’ve got 5th graders who are reading young adult but it’s such a different ballgame than seniors who are reading young adult.  Like what you have to keep up with is amazing.

Penny Kittle: Absolutely.  Especially -- like just reading over the weekend Everybody Sees the Ants and thinking about both Please Ignore Vera Dietz and that one, that they’re both, I think, just beautifully done and really great books, but they both deal with pretty mature things that we don’t want 5th graders necessarily worrying about.

You know, the scene in the locker room in Everybody Sees the Ants I think an 11th or 12th grader has enough distance from the vulnerability of the kid in that moment to be okay with it in a way that a 5th grader whose anticipating moving to high school cannot be.

And I think we have  to be curators of our library and be careful with what we give the kids.

Franki Sibberson: I love that idea of curating.

Penny Kittle: Yeah.  I mean I was thinking about Why We Broke Up -- which have you read this book, this Prince Honor book?

Franki Sibberson: No, I haven’t read that.

Penny Kittle: I just inhaled this book.  Loved it.  I loved the structure of it, these really long sentences that go on for pages, repeating structures, all kinds of stuff -- I had all these pages turned over just look at for sentence study -- but more than that it really captured for me the intensity of love and heartbreak in high school.

But that’s absolutely a book that 11th, 12th grader kids are going to understand and be able to handle and that I wouldn’t want to give to a 6th grader because I think it’s just too much.

Franki Sibberson: Right.  You have such good tips for just smart teaching, so thank you very much.

Choice Literacy