Language Arts in middle school often follows the same path – assigned reading. St. Joseph Language Arts teacher Elizabeth Casterline is following a different path.

Actually, many different paths.

“I wanted to get students ingrained in independent reading,” Mrs. Casterline said. “Research shows that kids become better readers by reading their choice of books.”

Inspired by Donalyn Miller’s unconventional teaching methods in “The Book Whisperer”, Mrs. Casterline challenged each of her 72 middle-schoolers to read 40 books by the end of the school year. What they read was up to them. She only asked they write a quick index-card summary after each book.

Index-card summaries from completed books line the walls in Mrs. Casterline’s Language Arts classroom.

“I want them to be picking what’s right for them,” Mrs. Casterline said.

Eventually, they will get to traditional assigned reading, but right now the emphasis is on the reading habit.

Mrs. Casterline created a comfy reading corner in the classroom. It features a piece of furniture her former fourth-graders know well.

The comfiest corner of the Language Arts classroom hosts a few middle school readers.

“When I found out I was coming over to the middle school, [my son] Ryan’s immediate request was that my classroom couch comes with me,” Mrs. Casterline said.

Their classroom also has a homegrown – and growing – library, comprised of books Mrs. Casterline brought with her, books she inherited with her classroom, and books she adds every month by student request.

St. Joseph Middle School Language Arts teacher Elizabeth Casterline in front of her classroom library.

Scholastic Book order forms play a significant role in Mrs. Casterline’s plan. Her kids shop the monthly catalogs “like it’s Christmas”, placing orders or making requests their teacher takes to heart.

It is also the catalog of choice for the St. Joseph Book Fairy, a group of 23 anonymous donors who purchase a new book for every middle school student every month.

“They got all 72 kids covered,” Mrs. Castlerine said.

“The book fairies are great,” sixth-grader Vincent Thian said. “It’s good to get books that are free and in good condition. And you can bring them anywhere.”

The 40 Book Challenge aside, all students must read four books a quarter for a total of 16 books by the end of the year. Collectively, they are ahead of the curve, finishing 456 books the first quarter – 168 over the minimum for all 72 students.

Middle school students following their book bliss during free choice time.

Other teachers have noticed students reading more in their free time. Early test scores are positive, particularly the NWEA, which showed the middle school, as a whole, didn’t suffer the typical summer slide in reading.

Could it be the increase in student reading this fall? Mrs. Casterline thinks it might.

“Evidence shows the more you read, the easier it is and the more you understand,” Mrs. Casterline said.

Perhaps the best evidence comes from the students themselves.

“Now I’m not abandoning books as much as I did before,” eighth-grader Merlina Montesino said. “I read the back cover more carefully and look up reviews for the book.”

“I started reading before I go to sleep instead of being on my phone,”eighth-grader Julissa Reyes said. “[Reading] helps me relax,”

“I can read faster and understand the text better,” seventh-grader Emily Mawi said.

“When Mrs.Casterline first explained the challenge I thought it was going to be impossible,” sixth-grader Breanna Ingraham said. “I am very surprised I finished 17 books so far. I am currently on my 18th.”

There are many paths, but one goal.

“My hope is they become lifelong readers,” Mrs. Casterline said.

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Questions? Call Cathy Erskine at 269.963.1131