Literary ‘bartering’ and book sharing begin with personalized professional development

by Jim Lang

We have a book exchange going on in Room B105.

For the last few weeks I have been unable to keep certain novels on my classroom shelves. Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy isn’t gathering any dust; in fact, I currently have a wait list for Allegiant, the third installment in the series.

Fans of Roth’s series have discovered Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy. Trust me – Ness’s futuristic trilogy about young Todd Hewitt and Viola Eade is a journey of thrills and unexpected twists.

And for those who favor a down-to-earth tale about a faithful dog to dystopian adventure, there’s Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, a book with a cover so tattered by multiple reads that I’ll soon have to purchase another copy.

Perhaps equally as thrilling to a book nerd like me, though, is just how often my students recommend books to me.

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change, recounting the behind-the-scenes stories of the 2008 presidential campaign, currently sits atop my “To Be Read Pile,” a loan from the same student who passed Laurie Halse Anderson’s Prom to me a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, Stan Sutton’s 100 Things Hoosiers Should Know and Do Before They Die rests half finished on my coffee table, a temporary gift from a freshman and fellow Hoosier fan in my seventh-hour class.

I plan to weave an Isaac Asimov short story, “The Last Question,” into my curriculum next year thanks to a recommendation from a student who examined Asimov’s works for her synthesis research essay.

And don’t even get me started on how much I have fallen in love with Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, thanks in part to discussions with a fellow King fan in my AP Language and Composition class. These same discussions have led me to the brilliantly creepy Locke and Key comic book series written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and the realization that Hill is King’s son. How on Earth did I live so long without realizing this obvious family connection?

This constant literary bartering that takes place in my classroom is nothing new at Floyd Central High School, though. As I was discussing with an English Department colleague just this week, it seems that our kids are constantly talking with us – and with each other — about books.

And just as significant as the fact that we have a real culture of literacy at FC is the reason why – because we teachers, free from any administrative mandate or top-down professional development program – worked together collaboratively to create it.

I realize the implied arrogance of the previous paragraph. Please take that statement for what it is – pride in the professionalism of my English Department colleagues and a recognition that while we are supported by a wonderful administrative team at our high school that no assessment, curriculum design template, data spread sheet, or other system-wide literacy goal or professional development strategy has had anything to do with the fact that we and our students talk about books at Floyd Central. A lot.

I would argue instead that our culture of literacy largely stems from a willingness of my colleagues and I to embrace best practice and invest in our own professional development opportunities.

As an example, at least six members of our English Department have spent significant time writing and learning as part of the Indiana University Southeast Writing Project, one of the most empowering professional development opportunities I have participated in as a language arts teacher. Our experiences at IUSWP – and our willingness and eagerness to share these experiences with each other – have created shared goals and an exchange of ideas within our department.

This idea exchange happens naturally and often – no one forces it. Our students enter our classrooms and see the same books on our shelves. They see and hear us constantly talking with each other and with them about books. Our shared enthusiasm for literacy becomes a constant invitation for our kids to read.

And more often than not, they accept this invitation.

I share these thoughts because I am proud to be a part of such a department. I am proud, too, to be a part of the IUSWP tradition of literacy.

Most significantly, though, I believe it is essential to realize that the powerful connection my colleagues and our students share with books – and each other — is nurtured daily by teachers who eagerly seek our own relevant professional development opportunities.

We attend IUSWP and other workshops. We research. We share materials and ideas with each other and with colleagues at other schools. We tweet the pros and stalk the experts at conferences. We share book titles as eagerly with each other as we do with our students.

We are the ultimate book nerds and proud of it.

We do all of this because we believe it is important. Because we see the results and it excites us. Because we enjoy it.

And here’s the thing – no one forces us to.

In a day of top-down mandates from Indiana state government, far too many school corporations mirror this philosophy with their own top-down mandates masquerading as relevant professional development. Some of it is necessary. Most of it is not. And none of it is as powerful or as effective as simply hiring good people and supporting them as they – gasp! – do their jobs.

And I don’t need a data spread sheet to know this is true.

I’ll just measure this success by the number of books currently not on my shelf.

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