An Educator’s Gift

How Janet Allen Brought the Magic of Books to Her Students

03/31/2010  |  JENNAH WATTERS
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“It has been over 15 years since I left my own classroom,” says Dr. Janet Allen, who taught for 20 years before leaving the classroom and becoming a respected adolescent literacy consultant. “In spite of that time and distance, I can still remember my students’ responses when they came into the classroom to see the books packed and ready for my move. One of the girls burst into tears and said, ‘Mrs. Allen, you’ve packed away all the magic.’”

But thankfully, Janet knew that the magic wasn’t the books themselves, it was the enthusiasm for reading she had instilled in her students. Today, as a literacy consultant, Janet helps show teachers that they, too, can have motivated, interested readers in their classrooms. How does she do it? As Dr. Allen says in her book, Yellow Brick Roads, educators must make “literacy so appealing [students] couldn’t resist learning.”

For Dr. Allen, the key is giving students access to engaging, relevant young adult novels. “As adult readers, most of us would be thrilled if someone locked the doors at Barnes and Noble or Borders and left us there,” Dr. Allen says. “We would relish the time to choose from hundreds of great books and have the space where we could just sit and read. Our classrooms should be the same. There is nothing that replaces the power of being in a classroom filled with a wide variety of books where you are able to read and respond to those books in a community of readers.” In her classroom, Dr. Allen aimed to create a library full of books her students were eager to read. Although these books were not standard classics, students learned valuable lessons, strategies, and vocabulary while reading these engaging books; connections to other texts soon came naturally. 

“While I see all reading as beneficial,” Dr. Allen shares, “I certainly see the benefits increasing when teachers choose from a diverse collection of texts that contain specialized and interesting vocabulary. For example, in Lisa Fiedler’s Dating Hamlet: Ophelia’s Story, Ophelia often uses the contemporary ‘You’re So Stupid’ insults: ‘And what of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Think they too that you are...shall we say, several fathoms shallow of a full moat?’ Consistent meaningful exposure to such rich language makes a difference in students’ reading and their writing.”

When Dr. Allen began classroom read alouds with these new, engaging books — at first out of necessity, since she did not have a class set of the novels she wanted to use — she saw her once uninterested students come alive. Unfortunately, many students shut down again when the shared reading time ended. Dr. Allen eventually began making recordings of herself reading the books aloud so that her students could listen on their own while following along with the print texts. “Struggling readers became proficient readers when they could finally read the books in which they were interested, and not just those at their independent reading levels,” Dr. Allen says, in the Implementation Guide for the program that grew from her teaching methods, Plugged-in to Reading. “Even accomplished readers benefitted from the audio support, as they chose challenging texts that were beyond their level of independent reading range and interests.”

Soon Dr. Allen discovered unabridged audiobooks from companies like Recorded Books, publisher of Plugged-in to Reading. During independent reading time the audiobooks flew off the shelves, along with the print books. Students would gladly go on a waiting list for books that friends had recommended. Students were taking responsibility for their own learning, and enjoying themselves while doing it!

Dr. Allen firmly believes that “students need to read more. Volume and diversity of reading have to occur in order for word knowledge to increase.” In Dr. Allen’s classroom, having these books and audiobooks available for her students allowed for volume, diversity, and independence in reading. Before long, her classroom library expanded to include engaging nonfiction texts, many of which are now featured in Plugged-in to Nonfiction, motivating reluctant readers and allowing students to make new text-to-text and text-to-world connections. Dr. Allen created a classroom of readers — students who found an escape and a bit of magic in books, and whose lives, both academically and personally, were improved because of it.

“Books have power,” Dr. Allen says. “They have the power to take us places we could, or would never go. They have the power to give perspective to the lives we live, and the power to help us imagine lives we would like to live.”

And there are few gifts an educator can give greater than a love of reading.

Jennah Watters works with Janet Allen’s Plugged-in to Reading and Plugged-in to Nonfiction curriculum programs. For more information visit www.pluggedintononfiction.com. Join Janet Allen’s Plugged-in teacher network at http://ning.com or follow @pluggedintoread on Twitter.
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