Teachers Tracey McManus and Emily Lohse with their students who are holding signs with the number of books they read this year.

Learning to Love Reading at Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School

Teachers Tracey McManus and Emily Lohse with their students who are holding signs with the number of books they read this year.

July 17, 2019

Consider it mission accomplished. The goal was for the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School fifth graders to develop a genuine love for reading; for the youngsters in the classes of teachers Emily Lohse and Tracey McManus to come to understand they will never have a boring day if they have an interesting book within arm’s length.

As the school year raced toward its final moments, the classes gathered together to celebrate a year’s worth of independent reading that saw the boys and girls read a combined total of 1,714 books during 2018/19. It’s an impressive amount by any standard and one that’s certainly deserving of congratulations and a pat of the back.

 The fifth graders made a small poster that featured the number of books they read in 2018-19.
The fifth graders made a small poster that featured the number of books they read in 2018-19.

On the first day of school last September, Ms. Lohse told the fifth graders they would be participating in a “40 Book Challenge.” “Jaws dropped, some kids gasped and a few even went so far as to say ‘that’s crazy!’” she recalled. “Yet throughout the year, students transformed from skeptics to readers. Morning reading became a part of their everyday routine in class, as well as assigned reading time at home each night.”

Students logged the books they read in their reading notebooks, as well as on the website Biblionasium, where they wrote book reviews and shared recommendations with their classmates. “They were given suggested genre guidelines, such as a suggested number of historical fiction, fantasy, poetry, etc., but the books they read were ultimately left up to their own choosing, although I loved giving recommendations whenever I was asked,” Ms. Lohse said.

The 40 Book Challenge asks students to read 40 books of their own choosing throughout the school year. It’s inspired by Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer. “She is an advocate for giving students time to read as well as the freedom to choose what they read,” Ms. Lohse said. “The purpose of the challenge is not necessarily to read 40 books, but rather to inspire kids to try new books and develop a love for reading that they will carry with them into future grades. Research shows students who read regularly become better readers, score higher on achievement tests in all subject areas and have greater content knowledge than those who do not.”

When all was said and done, students had read anywhere from nine books to well over the 40 that the initiative challenged them to read. “Although not all students reached the lofty 40 book goal, all students read more than they had ever read before and many reported feeling surprised and proud by how much they read,” Ms. Lohse said.

Ms. Lohse herself took on the challenge to set a good example for her students and she finished the year with 30 books read. “Reading with my students was a great way to not only encourage them to be readers, but also to bond with them over books,” she said. “Throughout the year, students would bring me books and ask me to read them because they wanted to talk to me about them! This led to many great conversations and shared reading experiences.”

Students completed “reflection surveys,” sharing their thoughts on the initiative. “I am happy because now I feel more comfortable reading,” Sophia Van Arsdale said. “At first I didn’t like to read, but now reading isn’t so bad, after all it’s pretty nice to read at school,” Kimberly Cappe said.

No one should doubt the value of the 40 Book Challenge. “Throughout the year I started liking reading more because last year I had no motive to read,” Daniel Sakellarios said. “I think it has changed my opinion towards reading because [now] it’s what I do when I‘m really bored and it’s fun,” Vincent Pupillo said. “At the start of the year I was like why? I thought it would be really annoying, but it wasn’t.”

Moving forward, the challenge is sure to provide dividends for the fifth graders. “This class changed reading to me because it changed my type of books and I enjoy the books I read now,” Zain Amin said.

Probably the greatest compliment for an elementary school teacher came from Kenny Velarde. “I never liked reading, but Ms. Lohse made me love books,” he said.