Colby Sharp & Donalyn Miller

Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp are literacy powerhouses. Donalyn is an award winning teacher, author, and staff developer based out of Texas.  Nicknamed 'the Book Whisperer', she's the author of several books and travels the country talking about book access, independent reading, and best literacy practices. Colby Sharp is a 5th grade teacher in Parma, Michigan – he's a passionate reader of middle grade books and the author of The Creativity Project. When these two come together powerful things happen.  Most recently, they’ve written Game Changer: Book Access for All. Published in 2018, the book includes practical tips on creating successful school and classroom libraries, the power of book ownership, and the importance of cultural and social access to books,.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

So, I'm thrilled today to be joined by the authors of Game Changer: Book Access for All Kids! Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp, thank you for joining us.

 

Donalyn Miller

Thank you for inviting us to be here.

 

Colby Sharp

Thank you; excited.

 

Molly Ness

And I know Colby is calling on his lunch break...from- what are you teaching this year? Fourth grade?

 

Colby Sharp

Fifth grade.

 

Molly Ness

Great and Donalyn Miller is always on the road traveling for work to get out the important conversations about book access, school libraries, and effective reading practice. So, thank you for carving the time out with your- from your busy schedules. So, you guys are- you've written the quintessential book which talks about the importance of book access so start by telling us why does book access matter so much to kids and readers today.

 

Donalyn Miller

Well we know that having access to books is the first step in kids’ reading them. If you know anything about Colby and I, and our work out in the world, most of the people probably see us as advocates of choice. You know we're all about kids getting the opportunity to self-select their own books and how can the adults in their lives scaffold and support that choice. I have come to understand- we both have come to understand that choice is a privilege that depends on access because if kids don't have any meaningful access to texts that they want to read, then what are they choosing from? The choice is of shadow then we can give kids all the choice in the world, but if they don't have a lot of texts that they're excited about reading to choose from, then that choice doesn't really mean anything. We know that when kids read more, they'll build more engagement with reading and the more engaged children are with reading, the more successful they are more academically. I think it all starts- the first brick in the road really is that access piece. How can we guarantee that all children have physical access to texts to read 365 days a year? That's the challenge in front of us.

 

Colby Sharp

Yeah, I've been thinking a lot about youth sports and how youth sports have changed since I was a youth- especially since I was like 10-12 years old which was like 25 years ago. Like everybody that played baseball, played Little League baseball. And you know you paid your $30, you got your T-shirt; you play 12 games. We all did that and then when we got to high school, the ones that were a little bit better played varsity and it's kind of almost fair. But now seeing kids go through youth sports, it's like to be really good at baseball, you have to play almost- have to play on these travel teams that cost like five- six hundred dollars and you're playing baseball 8- 9 months a year. And my daughters do competitive gymnastics and we pay like $800 plus dollars a month for them to do it and it's not fair and a lot of kids have no chance to do gymnastics and they're just- they're not going to be able to and that's really sad and I worry that that's also happening with kids in reading and we have to find a way to make sure that that doesn't happen because gymnastics is one thing, but reading and having the opportunity to fall in love with books and read the books that you want, that shouldn't be- that's not negotiable like we need to make sure that is available to all kids and it's not.

 

Donalyn Miller

It’s not.

 

Colby Sharp

And we need ways to fix it.

 

Molly Ness

Not only...

 

Donalyn Miller

It shouldn't be ...I’m sorry to interrupt you. It shouldn't be a dice roll for kids on where they live geographically or what school they attend or what classroom they are assigned to- to determine their book access. It is too important and right now, it's a dice roll situation- you know ...any brick-and-mortar bookstores where they don't have meaningful access to the public library. Do they even have a public library in their community? Do they have a school librarian? Do they have a meaningful budget for the school library? Do the teachers have books in the classroom? There are lots of communities where the answers to those questions is no. It's no. So exactly what Colby is saying it's not just an access issue it's an equity issue

 

Molly Ness

And not only is it not fair but the research is pretty compelling about the gaps between kids who have books and kids who don't have books. For our listeners out there, who are unfamiliar with that, can you summarize some of those findings.

 

Donalyn Miller

Well, we know many kids that live in book deserts do not develop the literacy skills that they need to be successful- you know. Kids need to read a lot. They need to read widely, and they need to read in volume to be able to reach some level of literacy proficiency. If they do not have meaningful access to texts to read, how are they building that? How are they building that volume? How are they building that confidence and competence as readers?

 

Molly Ness

And let me push back and ask you to think about listeners who are saying well what about the public libraries? Why- why isn't access to public libraries- why isn't that enough? What about kids in the school libraries? Shouldn't that be enough to resolve these issues of access and equity?

 

Donalyn Miller

Well when people- I get a little cheeky about this question Molly- I'll just tell you because people often ask me this question then I say when was the last time you were in our public library? Because often, they are not patrons of the public library themselves, but they can't see that they have access points- you know. The reason they don't go to the public library is because they can just buy books off of Amazon or do whatever so they're not using the library. They don't really understand some of the barriers that might exist in the library that might make it not so free. Public library is not so free to many families in our community. What are the residency requirements to get a library card at your library- you know? My title 1 school in Fort Worth- two families living in the same duplex, they both don't have a gas bill with their name on it to go down and get a library card. Families who are living paycheck-to-paycheck or they're on an hourly wage, they don’t want their child losing library material because they're out $35. And some public library systems are taking that on. This is a conversation that's happening in a lot of public library systems around the country. So, Dallas- one of the largest cities in my state, they just waved- stopped charging fines in the Dallas Public Library System in the summer. St Paul, outside of Minneapolis stopped their fine program this fall. The New York Public Library System- probably one of the largest in the country did a fine amnesty program where they reset all the fines to zero for everyone 18 years old and younger who owed fines because the community leaders are starting to see that- that fine is actually a barrier to access to the neediest children in their community. We also have tangible barriers. Public libraries are strapped. Their budgets are strapped too so they're cutting their hours. They’re not open as often. What about transportation? How accessible is that library on public transportation or on foot? One of the schools where I volunteered not very far from me has a beautiful library about a mile from the elementary school where I work but it's on the other side of a highway overpass- you know. Fourth graders are not riding their bikes to go over there and get a library book. So the library is free; let's dig into that because it's not for a lot of our families and that's the truth.

 

Colby Sharp

Yeah with my own students, our library here in Parma- I think is open four days a week and, in the hours, that its open probably only half of the hours that its open, we're not in school. And we're a rural community and our kids, they can get there probably- 20% of our kids are in physical walking or bike-riding distance from the library, so yeah they cant. So, most of my kids have not been to the library within the last two years

 

Molly Ness

So, in your work about book access, you talk not just about access, but also about book ownership, so why is book ownership a vital part of the conversation about growing lifelong reader?

 

Colby Sharp

When I was 5 years old, I got a basketball hoop for Christmas. It was in a giant box. It was sitting right next to the dining room table and as soon as the snow thawed, my dad put it on the barn. I was just outside with my kids during our morning brain break and I can see my parents’ house in the barn, and I saw that basketball hoop and it just brought me back to being a basketball player as a kid. And if we want kids to be something, they need to own something in that like hockey players don't rent skates. You might rent skates to go skating, but a hockey player has skates. My daughters are gymnasts and when they get to level 5- which our oldest daughter just got to- you get these grips and it's like this rite of passage -as a gymnast to have these grips to do bars with- you know. I'm a runner and I'm excited to get a new pair of Nike Air Pegasus shoes which I've been wearing for the last 15 years. The same thing with reading. Not just the fact that if you have books are more likely to read, but just it makes you a reader like having a book; owning a copy of The One and Only Ivan because it's the book you fell in love with matters. So, for me as someone who loves sports and hobbies- has hobbies, I know that having the things that are part of my hobbies makes them more- makes me own it more.

 

Donalyn Miller

You know Frank Serafini said this, Dr. Serafini, he says becoming a reader and a writer has as much to do with assuming an identity of a reader and a writer as it does with learning any predetermined set of cognitive skills. So, it's that identity piece where- that books comes from. It's exactly what Colby is talking about- you know. How does that word reader- how do kids see themselves in that word reader? How to do they see themselves positively in that word or potentially negatively in that word? So, let's look at how book ownership feeds into that. What is the reading identity development of a child and how might it be influenced? And the difference between a child who- let's say- owns 15 books of their own versus a child who owns zero books. I mean that is huge and that- costs of 15 books is how much money? I bet the three of us books …, we can get 15 books pretty cheaply for a kid and look at what that would do, how transformative it would be from an identity standpoint. We did not- I grew up in an impoverished home and my brother had special needs and that was where all our money went as a kid, but I had a library card- but I also had a few books and I would get books on my birthday. I would get books at Christmas time. And those books were my most treasured possessions. As a child, I remember my mom giving me $5 for the Scholastic Book Club- you know and $5 was a lot of money for my mom back in the seventies. And I would pour over that catalog- that four-little page- out for about 4 hours and my only criterion for book selection was how to get the maximum number of books I can get for $5 and I would spend $4.99 of that money. I would or I’d go digging for a quarter and I got all sorts of weird books during that time. I always got the quarter book because you just be dumb not to get the quarter book, but I would wind up getting the joke books- any kind of book. It was probably one of most joyful parts of my reading life getting that little stack of books that was mine. And I was the oldest of four kids, so I shared all those books with my little brothers and sisters too.

 

Molly Ness

I'm just like you and that and I remember- I remember the newsprint, the feel of that paper that the old Scholastic catalogs would come on. I remember when they came out. The colors that perusing the catalog, so we know that so much of a child's life is actually outside of school. I think it's something like kids really only spend like a quarter of their lives inside school, so how can we increase book access outside of school? Obviously, you guys are literacy warriors who are taking on this battle within your schools and your communities. What about externally? How can we end book deserts for the kids who don't have those resources in their communities and need ownership and need to identify themselves as a reader?

 

Colby Sharp

I think one thing that we can do is we can make sure that were- they can take home the books that we have in schools. I have lots of books in my classroom. We have lots of books in our school library, but they're not really doing us any good from 3:30 at night until 8:30 in the morning, so they're much better in homes and in bookbags. So, the easiest way is to use the books that we already have and make sure we're sending them home with kids. The kids should never leave school with nothing to read. I hate when I hear that a kid would tell me they didn't read last night, and I will tell them why? I didn't have a book. I'm like why? There's so many books that you can- say- and I get that, they forget. I forget too so yeah; we can start there with a book we already have because they don't cost anything. We might lose a book here and there but it's okay.

 

Donalyn Miller

Summer to Write are- I talked about this with groups. I often imagine this- the key to our students reading achievement success is sitting locked up inside our schools unused by the children for three months of the year. And then we're shocked that they don't read over the summer. So, we're already- we're going to lose books and every school I've ever talked to that does some sort of mass check out, they don't lose any more books over the summer than they lose during the school year. And librarians will tell you that. And honestly, think it's down to- I think Colby and I said this, Game Changer would rather lose a book than lose a child. And that is what the stakes are at this point. I also think that beyond, I think talking with our public library systems about this issue is something that we can do. I do feel that they must be talking about it at a national level or why else would these large public library systems all over the country, across regions be waving their library fine program? So, I feel like a lot of them are having that level of a conversation, but it's also that bridge between the community and the schools. So how can our administrators, our school leaders, our district level administrators, our school superintendents, our campus principles; how can they be talking to the Lions Club and the Better Business Bureau and the Methodist Church lady circle, and whoever else it is in our community? How are we talking to these community groups who often are involved in philanthropy and supporting our communities and let them know how vital this issue is? Because I have had the opportunity to talk to some groups like that in my work and they're often shocked that it’s as bad as it is. They don't realize how bad it is, so they don't realize how much it affects kids and their community. And so, I think there's a lack of awareness at a community level as this issue is even as egregious as it is. So, how are we getting to our local business and our parents, our caregivers, our community leaders and talking to them about it? I don't think individuals- just can't necessarily take that on it's a system-wide issue. That's kind of the point. It's kind of the reason Colby and I wrote the book. It’s that right now, our current system of increasing children's book access is resting on individual teachers, librarians, parents, and administrators and their communities trying to make it work. If we don't talk at a system-wide level, the system is not going to change.

 

Molly Ness

I'm so glad that you bring up the lack of awareness around this issue. I consider myself pretty well red in reading research and current trends in literacy education and to come to a 2019 article by Susan Newman, which points out just the overwhelming number of book deserts and the fact that 32 million kids in 2019 in our country don't have access to books. Not only is it inexcusable, but it's to me, so surprising that this is not- these are not sophisticated services that we’re talking about. This is not giving kids access to mental health professionals with sophisticated backgrounds or difficult to identify. In terms of just access and the fact that we're still facing this is what really prompted me to start this podcast, as a way to have that national conversation about this- is an issue so what are we going to do about it?

 

Donalyn Miller

Well there's a beautiful school that I'm working in- in another state and I mean it's an old school. It's the only school in the community. They are in a real book desert. Must like Colby is. And I'm helping the librarians- are- we are cleaning that library and getting rid of this old stuff because it gives them the illusion that they have books. Someone walks by and sees the library's got books on the shelf, and they were like well all those books, there will- the librarians are going through those books and really looking at them and they're finding all sorts of really interesting books. One of the finds- that we found was that etiquette book for young ladies but the copyright date of 1958. And I said, do you know from ten feet away that looks like a book, but when we get up close to it- what I can guarantee you that that book has not been checked out for any other reason than ironically in the past 40 years. Somebody checked it out to make fun of it. I guess what they have across- one whole wall in that library, rows and rows of chromebooks, so it's not always a funding issue. We always hear, I'm not saying that the kids don't need the chromebooks because of course we need the technology too, but it's a lack of priority setting in that case.

 

Colby Sharp

We have chromebooks and astro-turf football fields all over this country.

 

Donalyn Miller

Yep, but we can't get a paperback book in every kids’ backpack. It's a lack of priority settings. So that's one of the reasons why I think it's those conversations- really need to start happening at a community level because most people are oblivious to it.

 

Molly Ness

So just being mindful of time, I wanted to get to the question that I ask of every guest. My belief is that ending book desert is far more than just flooding kids with books. I mean certainly, maybe want to have the reality kids having lots of lots of books for kids to take home with them, but we also want to create cultures where reading is a part of the fabric of that culture. With a community- is talking about reading and identifying themselves as readers, so in that vein, I'm hoping that you can tell me a book from your past or present that has really shaped you as a person and as a reader. Obviously, you guys are lifelong readers. Many of us and many listeners are following Colby's blog and his ever-growing reading list, so I know it's impossible to narrow it down to one and certainly if I would have asked you the same question in 10 minutes, you're like no- no, let me give you another answer, but what is the book that has forever shaped you?

 

Colby Sharp

I'll go first. I think Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. It's just really special and when I read it to a group of kids, I think that so many of them get a chance to see themselves in a book. So many of the kids too, I don't know maybe some people are a little different or- or the ones that are folding origami or the ones that are doing just being silly but have found these passions that they have- I don't know. I'm reading that out loud in my class right now and just enjoy that every day when I put the finger puppet on my finger, and we sit on the carpet in a circle and dig into Tommy, Lee, Harvey, and Dwight’s story. It’s just really magical. And I don't know, there's just something about a book that's just really- really fun that you share together with kids that just makes me happy.

 

Donalyn Miller

I used to read Origami Yoda with my sixth graders, Colby. And every year, I would have my students vote on what they thought was our favorite read-aloud was of the year and I let every class vote, so it would be fair. And then whatever book was the most favorite in that class, I had all the kids in that class sign the endpapers of the book, so my copy of Origami Yoda has all of the endpapers signed by the class that voted that their favorite read aloud of the year. I cannot separate that book from the memory of all of those kids and that's really one of the beautiful things about getting to be an educator who shares books with kids. If I had any situation in my teaching career that I would say would be like that, it would be The One and Only Ivan. I just- I moved from middle school to elementary school and I was, and I realized shortly after I did that that I had probably made a mistake. This is- it was just the truth Colby and I were friends during that time, so he knows, but I was- I was overwhelmed by all of that. I- I also change school districts which was extra level of challenge. I don't know why I did that, but I knew that I- I know about books and kids. I knew that part would be good that I would get that part right. I had confidence in that, and I had confidence in the kids, and I remember reading The One and Only Ivan every single day and just my kids and how they responded to that story about Ivan. How engaged they got about his is entrapment. How they responded to a little girl named Julia. And in the class that year, we have a girl with the same name as the main character and every time I read Julia’s name out loud, she just smiled so big to hear her name in that book. And my kids love that book so much. That book- to find the community that we had in that classroom.

 

Molly Ness

And that's exactly what books do- is create the community- and such a great book to do anything- any conversations around critical literacy. Well, thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for your leadership as being literacy warriors. We look forward to following you guys on social media and looking forward to reading your next writing projects. You guys really are the quintessential warriors in increasing conversations about book access for all kids. 

 

Donalyn Miller

Thank you for inviting us, Molly. And thank you for what you're doing with the podcast. You know just like you, I think we all believe it's going to take all of us to really push the urgency of this issue, so thank you for what you're doing. 

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