Bundles of books rubber banded to a reading preference survey are finding their way onto desks in Melinda Buchanan’s freshman English class.
Buchanan, a teacher at Krum High School, has been busily assembling based on those survey results. Each student took the test toward the end of their eighth-grade year.
“They’re not required to read any of those books: It gives us a place to start a conversation,” Buchanan said. Her ever-growing selection of books — book shelves line much of her classroom, and her husband built a personal library in their garage — has recently been supplemented by a $2,000 grant from the Book Love Foundation.
Buchanan was one of 66 teachers awarded a total of $130,000 this year by the nonprofit.
Over the years, Buchanan has secured thousands and thousands of dollars through grants to expand her collection. In a perfect world, she said that enough funding would already be sitting on standby for more and more books, but we aren’t in a perfect world.
“It is what it is,” she said. “We have to spend our own money because there’s not an infinite supply.”
She’s been pushing sections of her collection into other English classes for years, with eventual plans of a dedicated library in each classroom on the campus.
These moves represent the newest incarnation of a decades-long saga Buchanan has been on.
Beginning her career in Slidell ISD in 1997 as a sixth-grade teacher, it wasn’t long before she saw the power of putting the right books in the right students’ hands. As she put it, there are always students who are adamantly opposed to reading for pleasure.
“And I had one of those young men: Sweet kid, and he would try anything I put in front of him, but he just didn’t connect with anything,” she said.
She saw the same student over the years as she moved up to teaching middle and high school classes.
Feigning anger, her principal led her to the cafeteria one day. He asked what she’d done to the now-senior.
“He pointed to [the student], and [he’s] sitting in a chair and he’s got his cowboy boots up in another chair and he’s reading a book,” she remembered. “I said, ‘You know, I finally got the right book in his hands.’”
She used to have a more strong handed approach: “I am going to grade you into reading,” she said, clapping her hands on the final syllables for effect.
“That doesn’t work.”
Nowadays, students have a 10-minute window at the beginning of her class to read, and they are graded on their attention to the title at hand, but her approach relies on giving the student the chance to find a title they can connect with.
According to a 2016 article published by University of Southern California professor Stephen Krashen: “Research done over the last three decades has shown that free voluntary reading is the source of our reading ability, our ability to write with an acceptable writing style, much of our vocabulary knowledge, our ability to handle complex grammatical constructions, and most of our ability to spell.”
Buchanan has noticed an increase in voluntary reading since she started tailoring the books more closely to the students, estimating that 60% of students are happy to dig into one of the books waiting on their desks on the first day of school.
“If you look through that stack and you want to read all three or four of those books, that’s wonderful. Take them. That’s great,” Buchanan said. “If there are none of them that catch your interest at all, that’s when we need to start having a conversation.”
The study also notes that the percentage of fiction readers is highest among those with the most education and highest income.
In her class, Buchanan doesn’t discriminate against fiction or graphic novels; she said most all of it has literary merit and could help students connect to a sometimes distant world.
“Reading can actually save lives for kids,” she said. “They can connect to somebody, especially if they are feeling alone and they don’t think anybody understands, and they connect with a character that makes them go, ‘Oh my gosh, there is somebody else like me out there.’”