The Role of Principals as Reader Leaders

Why Principals Should Read Children’s Books
By Alyson Beecher, program support specialist at Pasadena Unified School District in Pasadena, Calif.

When I was a principal, one of the most frequent comments I would receive when I talked to non-principals was, “You’re a principal who reads?!” They were surprised not because I read, of course, but because I read children’s and young adult books. I keep current on new titles, and I keep my finger on the pulse of what titles most motivate independent reading.

Is it important for principals to read titles targeted for students? Absolutely. Again and again, I’ve concluded that it is critical for principals, school site administrators, and teachers to stay on top of current titles and trends in children’s literature. Here are a few reasons why:

Principals are the lead readers at a school.  I am very adamant that if a school wants to become a reading community, then the principal must model reading. Children want to read what we are reading. You can move a school’s culture from “reading isn’t cool” to “reading is cool” by being the lead reader. One year, we had author Pseudonymous Bosch as a guest “Principal for a Day,” and for weeks after his visit, nearly every third- to fifth-grader was reading one of his books. If I promoted a book to several classes, the librarian knew it because the students immediately came to the library for that title. The fastest way to changing a school’s perception of reading is by being readers ourselves.    

Sharing books creates bonds between students and principals. Sometimes students aren’t ready to talk about issues that may be happening in their lives, but when we share a book with a child, we may be able to open up an avenue to talk about all kinds of things. Additionally, principals need to make themselves available for students to pop by to discuss books they discovered or to find new titles rather than because they are in some form of trouble. By sharing books and talking about books, we create a special bond with student readers that often produces wonderful results.    

State-approved reading lists are often outdated. California’s state-approved reading list was last updated in 2009, according to the California Department of Education website. What if I only shared books off this list? I can’t imagine children having to wait for amazing 2012 books such as The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, or Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead. What if Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst or Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom by Eric Wight doesn’t make it onto the list? My students would miss amazing books. By being a reader, I can find and share books that I know will be perfect matches for the students in my school.      

Awareness of good children’s literature allows for greater integration with curriculum and learning. By staying on top of new releases, I am always finding new books to support curriculum and standards, which helps to keep lessons fresh. Additionally, as states work to align to the Common Core State Standards, there is an emphasis on nonfiction or informational text. Over the past year, I have been intentionally increasing my reading of children’s nonfiction books to prepare myself for this transition. I have discovered some incredible nonfiction being published that will fit in beautifully to new curriculum alignments. Venture out and discover how nonfiction for children is changing and growing.

Principals who develop strong reading communities see an increase in test scores.  One of the best ways to improve test scores is to increase the number of books and types of books children are reading. Children will read more when the important adults in their lives are modeling reading, and when they are directed to books that would be of interest to them. I can only recommend books that will interest them if I am reading books on their levels. Additionally, books provide students with opportunities to travel to new lands or learn about things that they may not have an opportunity to try in real life. The vocabulary and concepts to which they will be exposed strengthen their skills and assist them in performing at a higher level on state assessments.    

There is time to read. One of the biggest complaints I hear from principals and teachers is that they don’t have time to read. Yet, most of us find time for what is important to us. Many teachers challenge students to read 20 to 30 minutes per night.  What can you do with 20 or 30 minutes per night? Finish a couple of new picture books or that latest graphic novel or a couple of early chapter books? Over the course of the week, you could even finish a full-length middle-grade novel. If you have a longer commute, try out an audiobook. Set a small goal of a novel and a couple of picture books, graphic novels, or early chapter books each week. You will be surprised at how quickly it will add up.  

Reading is fun. Recently, one of my friends was doing such an enthusiastic job booktalking an adult title that I had to immediately go out and find it, even though I seldom have time for adult titles. It’s fun to share about a great book that you are reading.  When children discover that reading can be fun, they become even more excited about reading. Before long, they are booktalking along with you.

How Principals Can Excite Students about Reading
By Donalyn Miller, fourth-grade teacher at O.A. Peterson Elementary, Fort Worth, Texas

As school leaders, administrators have a powerful influence on the reading culture of their schools. When principals show enthusiasm for reading and share with students the books they like to read, they send the message to both students and staff that reading matters. Here are some suggestions for principals who want to increase their role as lead readers at their schools:

Read books that you can share with students and teachers. Ask your teachers, librarian, and students for book recommendations. Select at least one book each month for every grade level at your school. You can discuss these books with students and encourage students to read books that you think they would enjoy. You validate your students when you read the same books they do and take their book recommendations seriously. Participate fully in the reading community of your school by visiting the library, reading often, and talking with other readers. You also provide a role model for your staff, who may need to improve or update their knowledge of children’s literature as well.

Start meetings with book commercials. At the beginning of every staff and professional learning community meeting, share one book recommendation. Select a variety of professional development, children’s literature, and adult titles. Encourage your staff to do the same. When you position reading at the start of every meeting, you reinforce that reading is of primary importance at your school.

Visit classrooms and read aloud to students. Principals have little time to visit classrooms and talk with students on a regular basis. By reading aloud to students, you can promote reading, share beloved books, and chat with students in a casual, relaxed way. Pick a silly book, a book you love, or a book that you think will resonate with students. Students enjoy getting to know you as someone other than the head of the school. Our administrators take turns reading aloud chapter books to students who are waiting in the gym and cafeteria before school starts.

Create a Principal’s Shelf in the library. In many bookstores, staff members showcase favorite books on personalized recommendation shelves. Readers enjoy a good book recommendation from a trusted reader. Work with your librarian to create a shelf of your personal book recommendations, and showcase books that you enjoy and recommend to your students and staff. Encourage other staff members to create recommendation shelves too. Don’t forget intervention specialists, extracurricular teachers, and support staff who interact with students on a regular basis. Children need reading role models everywhere!

Promote books during morning announcements. Invite students to talk about the books they are reading by presenting brief book commercials during daily announcements. Students enjoy appearing on the announcements and hearing their friends or siblings. Post book titles shared during announcements on the school website and in the office, or display these titles in the library. Share your own recommendations with students too. My students begged our principal to read Babymouse, their favorite graphic novel series, because they knew he would enjoy the books and share them on the announcements.

Add an “I am currently reading...” line to your email signature. I began doing this at the beginning of the school year, and it has caught on with other colleagues. While answering that flood of emails, you share book recommendations with colleagues inside and outside your building and reinforce how much reading matters to you and your school.

Increase book access in common areas of the school. Keep a basket of books in your office, the nurse’s office, and the main office waiting area. Invite parents and children to browse these books and borrow them. Encourage students who are waiting to speak with you or visit the nurse to read. Display books in the hallways and cafeteria. Ask your PTA or PTO to donate books for these areas or start a book drive.

Dedicate budget money for books. Most teachers who create robust classroom libraries spend their own money to purchase books. Your students’ access to books should never depend on the generosity or personal resources of your staff. As school budgets tighten, allocate as much money as you can to increasing book access for your students. Critically evaluate requests for test-prep materials and extras and purchase library and classroom books instead, which research proves result in student achievement gains.

These easy-to-implement suggestions can boost your school’s reading culture. Enjoy getting to know your students as readers and engage in reading relationships with them. Validate your students and staff and join them in a vibrant reading community that includes you as the lead reader.

A voracious reader, Donalyn Miller spent 10 years teaching middle school language arts and is embarking this year on a new adventure: teaching fourth grade self-contained. Donalyn is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (2009) and the upcoming Readers in the Wild, which describes her methods for inspiring and motivating her students to read. She writes The Book Whisperer blog for Education Week Teacher ( ).

Alyson Beecher has worked in early childhood, elementary, and special education at the site and district level, including six years as an elementary principal. Alyson is passionate about helping teachers and students understand the value of reading for learning as well as for pleasure. She serves on the Scholastic Book Fairs Principal Advisory Board and the Schneider Family Book Award jury. Alyson shares her insights on reading and favorite children’s titles on her blog,
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