Saturday, July 16, 2011

Whispering Home...and in Other Subjects, Like MATH

Have you read Donalyn Miller's book, The Book Whisperer? I finished it a week ago in preparation for the read along; I promised to write an entry talking about the book as it applies to homeschoolers. My thoughts are still percolating. The more I reflect on the reading, the more I think it applies to much, much more than my intended assignment and includes both homeschoolers and classroom teachers.

Whispering Books at Home or School
First, the book strongly resonates with me because I began teaching in middle school language arts. If I were to boil down Miller's book to its essence, I'd say that she is challenging teachers to make reading more real for kids, moving away from the artificiality of book projects and reports where students read novels in small groups or as an entire class study, focussing instead on kids choosing their own titles and reading, reading, reading. She attests to growth in both student interest in reading and their subsequent rise in test scores as they make their own choices and read...a lot! This paragraph (p. 51) especially speaks to me:
In The Power of Reading, his meta-analysis of research investigating independent reading over the past forty years, Stephen Krashen reveals that no single literacy activity has a more positive effect on students' comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, spelling, writing ability, and overall academic achievement than free voluntary reading. By loading the instructional day with traditional drill-and-kill activities such as weekly spelling and vocabulary lists and tests, grammar workbook exercises, and low-level comprehension assignments, all of which have a minimal or, in many cases, negative impact on student achievement, Krashen asserts that we are denying students access to the one activity that has been proven over and over again to increase their language acquisition and competence as communicators: again, free, voluntary reading.
In the homeschool setting, opportunities for "free, voluntary reading" are abundant. Or at least they can be. But so much depends on the teacher, just as it does in the classroom. Some classroom teachers leave students little reading choices; it's no different in the homeschool setting. Some homeschoolers choose curriculum that prescribes what a child is to do from early morning til late in the afternoon. Others give children complete freedom to choose. Even with reading freedom I think Miller's plan hinges on the teacher (whether in the classroom or at home) knowing a wide variety of literature in order to continually recommend new options to the child. I suppose homeschool parents wouldn't need to have this personal knowledge as long as they were aware of the necessity and could find others (such as librarians) to help expose the child to a variety of books that would pique interest.

Whispering Other Math
The more I consider Miller's message, the more I wonder to what extent it should apply to other content areas. She talks about how in-school reading should look more like real-life reading. When you and I read, we select books that interest us. When we're excited about content, we share it with our friends in informal ways. We don't do projects. We're not forced to sit through slow, boring studies with 30 of our closest friends, analyzing for character, setting, plot, etc. as we go.

So how does this thinking apply to other subjects? Why should we complete dozens of math problems when there are real-life math opportunities--dozens of them--encountered by students on a daily basis? Why should we read science texts if we can experience science in the real world? How do we authenticate "school" whether the location is at home or in a public building? What if we take the following sentences from Miller's book and replace the bold (mine) with other subjects/content (in parentheses) such as math?
My students' self-concept as readers (mathematicians) must extend beyond the classroom...(at home or at school)...or they have gained nothing lasting from me. If teachers (or homeschoolers) control reading (mathematics), we never give ownership of it to students. Students will not walk out of our classrooms (homes) with internal motivation to read (do math) if they see reading (math) as an act that takes place only in school under the control of their teachers. Reading (math, science, etc) ultimately belongs to readers (learners), not schools, and not schoolteachers (whether at home or at school.) p. 171
I have no answers, but I'm interested in the discussion. Have you read Miller's book? What are your thoughts? How does it apply to homeschooling? What about other content areas during the school day?


  1. All I can say is...Great minds think alike! ;)

    Miss posting math activities but we've been busy here as well and it's all been unschooly math...basically, she makes up math stories and writes them down. Penguin math is her latest creation.

    I couldn't agree with you more on the book reports...sometimes they get in the way. And great idea to extend the idea to all subjects. When math is related to every day life, it's far more interesting and fun! More complex than doing workbook pages.

  2. I need to get me that Book, I want to read it. Thanks for a great post :)

  3. Very interesting ideas. I only taught math for the first time in my 7 years teaching this past year so it is definitely not my strongest subject area, whereas I love English and have almost exclusively taught it. I am excited to read more about your ideas of giving students ownership of their math thinking.
    Thinking of Teaching

  4. I am reading the book as part of the book study and am a homeschooler. It has changed the way I plan to do our days this next year! I had already planned on doing more "Living Math" with my 2nd grader because she prefers it to paper math. And we do science that way, too ... using a book and working from it. It makes school so much more fun and engaging for her.


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