Why I am Pretty Sure I Have Been Accidentally Stopping the Most Authentic Book Discussions Taking Place in My Classroom

Every so often, I am struck by the fact that I have been making a huge mistake as a teacher and I suddenly wish that I could run around and gather up all my former students to apologize.

Well this morning, while on a family walk, I had one such realization. My wife and I had taken our daughter and our dog out for a Sunday morning walk.  My wife and I were chuckling as we watched my almost-two year old struggle to hold the leash of my rather unruly lab-mix. And I was struck at the “conversation” that was occurring amongst the three of us.  I say “conversation” in the loosest sense of the word because my daughter has a whole lot to say, but only about 10% of it is understandable to any other human.

Anyway, I realized that all of these words that we had been trying to get her to say earlier in the day, were suddenly flying out of her mouth because she needed them and they were useful to her. She didn’t say them when we wanted her to say them. She said them when she had something that she needed to say.

And then it hit me.

For some reason, this moment, this walk, this authentic use of language by my daughter, it all made me realize that I had been making a terrible mistake.

You see, I have always said that I valued authentic talk about books in my classroom.  I have always said that one of the most important things to me was that my students were able to talk about the books that they are reading with passion and enthusiasm.  I have always said that, for me, one of the greatest markers of deep reading comprehension is that students can be engaged in conversations with their peers about their books.  I have always said that these things were important, but today I realized that I might have been putting a stop to THE most authentic conversations about books that my kids have been having.

Let me paint you a picture and see if you can catch this mistake that I have been making for years. One specific image that says it all sticks out in my mind. This image is so clear in my mind.  It is independent reading.  There is a silence that fills my classroom. A silence that I am proud of, that makes me feel as if really important work is being done.  A silence that I have worked hard to create. A silence that I have demanded of my students, because I can’t think if there is even a quiet buzz in the room, and so obviously neither can they.

I then gather a group of students and purposely break the silence because I have a lesson I need to teach to this group of students.  It is, of course, okay for me to break the silence. That is different than if the kids were to do it.  So I am leading my small group of readers, in something that I am sure is really important. And all of a sudden I am distracted.  There are two boys over in the pillow corner. They are curled up amongst our collection of pillows and they are both reading Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. And they are whispering. GASP. That’s right, they are whispering and gesturing in an exaggerated manner.

I am appalled that they have interrupted my work with my small group and that they have potentially interrupted the other students who are trying to maintain my demanded silence.  So I give them the look.  They ignore me.  I try again. They ignore me. They are way too wrapped up in their conversation to notice my looks. So then, I apologize to my small group of students, I walk over to the two offenders, I bend down next to them and explain that when they talk during independent reading, it stops the rest of us from being able to think as deeply as we need to and want to.  I smile. They smile. They look at me. And they say, “But Mrs. Lifshitz. We were talking about the book.” I smile. I nod. And I say, “That’s great boys, but not during independent reading.” And I walk away. And they are good and kind and respectful so they do what I tell them to do.

And they stop talking about the book.

And. It. Is. All. My. Fault.

There you have it. This scene has repeated itself in my classroom over and over again throughout my many years of teaching fifth grade.  I have been the one who has single-handedly stopped what could have been THE most authentic book discussions that have ever taken place in my classroom. The discussions that spring from a genuine NEED to talk about a book.  The discussions that come from the very heart of my fifth grade readers. The discussions that are caused because a reader is so overjoyed or so dismayed or so disappointed or so angry, that he or she MUST talk to someone about it right at that very moment. The discussions that are 100% motivated by the students themselves and not because it is their scheduled time to talk about their books and not because I told them that we are going to be practicing talking about our books and not because they have been assigned to talk about their books. They are talking about the books because they have thinking that they must share with someone else. Because they have thinking about their book that is too good to keep to themselves.

And I have stopped that.

I have stopped that because it wasn’t time for book discussions.  I have stopped that because I placed silence as a priority over authentic conversations about books.  I have stopped that because it wasn’t our scheduled literature discussion time. I have stopped that because in my classroom, in the past, I have been the one to say when we will discuss books and how we will do it.  I have stopped that because I felt the need to teach my students how to have literature discussions correctly before I trusted them to actually have those discussions.  I stopped that because I didn’t know what exactly they were talking about or if they were doing it in a way that would allow them to build off of each other’s comments.  I stopped that because I wasn’t in control of it and I didn’t think it was the right time.

And I look back now and see how very wrong I was.  These kids were itching to talk about books. They were so motivated to talk about book that they defied the silence of our classroom even though they knew they would be risking my very serious teacher look.  And I put an end to it.

I just can’t get over it. How did I not see what I was doing?

But here is what I know.  There is no point in lamenting what I have done in the past. I have recognized that it was a bad choice and now I need to look ahead.  Now I need to think about how I am going to do things differently. Now that I know what I know, I must think about how I am going to run my reading workshop so that it nurtures authentic discussion about books instead of hindering it.

Of course, as often is the case, I have no real idea. But I know that I am going to start by talking to my students.  I want them to know that if they are so moved by a book that they need to talk about it, I want them to feel like they can do that. And then, together, we will come up with a way for them to have those conversations so that it does not stop those around them from their work and so that it does not take away from their own time to read. I think that we will find a way together for there to be more conversation when the students authentically need and want them.

And if nothing else, I know that the next time I hear students talking during independent reading, I am going to think twice before giving them any sort of serious look. I am going to start by trusting them and giving them a chance. I am going to start by believing that the work they are doing is helping to make them better readers.  And then maybe, I will pull up a chair and just ask them what it is they are talking about.  I have a feeling that more often than not, I will be genuinely pleased with what they have to say.

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74 thoughts on “Why I am Pretty Sure I Have Been Accidentally Stopping the Most Authentic Book Discussions Taking Place in My Classroom

  1. I had the same thing happened to me when I was a kid. I was often eager to discuss what I read with the person sitting next to me, only to have the teacher shooting me a dirty look since I disturbed the peace and quiet.

    But then again, I’ve always been noisy and naughty most of the time so I’ve earned a bit of a ‘bad’ reputation myself.

  2. This made me smile. The true genius is in your self-reflection. The simple fact that you critically analyze your own teaching behaviors and practices it what benefits your students the most. Whether you make them stay quiet or always give the freedom to talk…you are inspiring them for sure. Keep on keeping on!

  3. Sorry if this is a little too much, but I LOVE this post. I am an education and English major and, if I choose the secondary pass, this is something to definitely keep in mind. I completely understand why you would get frustrated at first and then regret it late. Here you are, trying to teach a lesson you worked so hard on, and kids are talking. Even if it is about books it must be irritating. But then after disciplining you regret it!? That must be so hard. You’re right. You’re teaching a class where you should be talking about books but you also have to lead discussions. This seems like a very complicated balance but I’m happy that you realized it is okay to talk in class (as long as it’s about books, high school drama is not something you want to hear) and that you’re working to fix it. It makes me feel better knowing that even veteran teachers make mistakes and that it will be okay that I, as a new teacher, make some, too!

  4. The first line of this piece grabbed my attention. Boy, have I been there. Love it when fellow teachers/human beings share their short comings. It allows everyone to learn and grow. Sort of proud to say I’m learning all the time due to my many, many blunders, both within and outside the classroom.

    Thank you for writing about it.

  5. It is so true! We constantly do this thinking that we need to monitor and guide our students’ book discussions, or that these students cannot possibly be having quality conversations about any book. To recognize that they can lead themselves in quality conversations about reading materials can change the construct of our classrooms to where talking about books during silent reading isn’t just okay, but is encouraged. And this can open doors for students to discuss more and more books that they just have to talk about.

  6. Wow! As a teacher I loved this post as I too have made the same mistake! I’m going to join you in allowing my students the freedom to become excited by and gasp! talk about the books they are reading. Thank you for this!

  7. It’s good that you have realized that. It’s not that you were wrong in your initial approach, however, you just couldn’t see the kids’ perspective, which is okay. Thing improve if we start seeing things from different perspectives. It is a thoughtful post!

  8. Yes, being a reflective teacher is good. Creating conversation just to find out about the topic being discussed is part of teaching and learning process. Have you heard about ‘self-talk’ while primary students read independently? It was proven that these type of ‘self-talk’ improve their cognitive skills. Insightful and authentic thoughts.

  9. What a great post! I’ll definitely keep this in mind in the school library as well. Learning so often takes place in a social context, and students will often talk about books with their teachers if we let them.

  10. I love what you’ve written here. It’s a hard line to walk, for sure, because you’re also teaching respect for authority and rules, and if they can break the rules just because it’s something that the rule-maker or rule-enforcer likes, then they’ll always look for more loopholes. However, it’s an educational setting and they need to educate themselves, authentically! Could you make a “discussion corner”? Maybe where the kids who just HAVE to whisper about the book can go into the corner and do so? Also, I only read this post and the title of the next one, but I’m reaching out to impassioned, dedicated, introspective teachers and I can tell that you already are one. My organization, HypheNation, is creating/gathering lesson plans to help teachers at all grade levels bring a broader understanding of all demographics into the classroom, be it through a lesson on Toussaint Louverture, a novel/series like Hunger Games where all characters aren’t automatically assumed to be White (or shouldn’t be, because while they’re not explicitly described as black, they’re pretty clearly described as such), or an algebra lesson using examples that would be more commonly found in an inner city or a Reservation. If you’re interested in taking part (and your involvement could be minimal or full-fledged), please check out our About Us https://hyphenatednation.wordpress.com/ and contact me back! (Any other educators seeing this who might be interested should feel free to take a look as well).

  11. Pingback: Self- reflection is often needed as a measuring tool… Great Story! | THE PROVIDER

  12. Thank you for sharing. It makes me know I was only human as a kindergarten teacher when such reflections changed my approach, or reaction in how I was teaching my students. I, too, would find myself amazed that it took me so long to realize the error of my ways.

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