Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Love - An Interview with Penny Kittle

My colleagues always ask me how I find the time to read professionally.  My answer is, "How can I not?"  It's what keeps me grounded... in learning, in current thinking, in the underpinnings that frame and enhance my beliefs as a teacher.

I often pull Harwayne, Miller, Graves, Fletcher, Ray, Rief, Fox, Tovani, Smith, Keene off my shelve (along with many other important readers and writers who challenge my thinking).  Whenever I need a push, a nudge, a regrounding, a kick in the pants... my old friends are there to greet me, challenge me, and move my thinking forward (or reenergize my core beliefs).

And, I'm so glad I have Penny Kittle on that list as well.  Her new book Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers is a grand read.  In it, she encourages us to think of our students as readers for a lifetime.  Penny nudges us to help students develop the stamina and strategies they need to become readers who read because they want to read.  Using trust as the backbone of her work, Penny emphasizes the importance of becoming a reader who chooses to read and builds the capacity for students to become the kinds of readers who read with purpose and passion.

I am so glad that Penny agreed to let me interview her.  And, I'm glad Book Love is at my fingertips.  It's an important addition to our professional world.  Enjoy our conversation: 

First of all, your acknowledgment page is so endearing.  What was your inspiration for using the photo booth snapshots?

The acknowledgments page came about by accident.  My husband got that filmstrip photo booth strip from my mom laminated as a bookmark on a holiday years ago, and he's used it ever since.  I took a photo copy of it and pasted it in my notebook because I was writing about being five and there was such spirit there in those photos.  I wanted to remember that and write from that place--and my Winnie-the-Pooh stocking hat I'm wearing--I wore it everywhere.  I started writing next to the photos and then it became a place where I was listing all of the people that were helping me get Book Love to print.  Suddenly I just knew--it felt right to include it, since the introduction speaks of my falling in love with books as a small child.  But I wanted to write much more about every person's contribution and tried to, it just wouldn't fit.  No book is written alone--no book that I've written anyway.

In your acknowledgments, you mention both Don Murray and Don Graves.  What would you tell a teacher who asks about their work?

I had been reading books by Don Murray and Don Graves for most of my teaching life.  When my husband was offered a job here in New Hampshire, I remember telling him I'd move because of the University of New Hampshire and the possibility that I could meet the Dons--and Tom Newkirk, Jane Hansen, Linda Rief, Tom Romano.  The Dons wrote many of the most important books I've read about teaching writing.  They were first.  They are the foundation of the writing process teaching we all emulate.

Murray and Graves were best friends for more than 35 years--and spoke on the phone every day after Don Graves retired and moved to the White Mountains (where I live).  Murray created a writing workshop in freshman composition at UNH.  He held individual conferences with his students and showed them what he did as a writer himself (Murray won the Pulitzer Prize while a journalist in Boston).  Graves studied the way young children wrote--from drawings to words.  He had an office down the hall from Murray and the two often spoke about the possibilities of teaching the writing process to young writers.  When Graves wrote Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, it was Murray who helped him find his voice for the book.  That book revolutionized the teaching of writing and established Heinemann as a leader in educational publishing.  The Dons discovered so much together that has taught all of us.  But they also laughed a great deal and were together in the hardest times--Graves conducted the funeral service for Murray's daughter Lee, who died at 19, for example.  They shared their writing almost every day by email and continually pushed each other in writing and in thinking.

It is one of the great gifts in my life that I knew them both so well.  They helped me believe in myself as a writer and also helped in bringing my first book from my notebook to its finished form.  They always welcomed me in--as a writer and a friend.  There were huge shifts in thinking in education because of their work. I hope we never forget it.

In my book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop, I write a lot about building stamina and strengthening endurance.  Reading Stamina is a huge issue in most classrooms today.  In Book Love you tackle the topic too.  How do you encourage the teachers you work with to move stamina to the forefront of their instruction?

I'm glad you brought up your wonderful book on conferring.  I love that book, Patrick. I've read it twice and bought it for many friends here.  You are a master in the art of workshop teaching.

For years I've been trying to understand stamina in reading in high school.  My students didn't have it.  They didn't practice reading, and they came to me often (much too often) having dodged difficult reading for years.  They Sparknoted their way through English class and waited for content teachers to give them the notes from the textbook, so they didn't read much at all.  One way I help teachers understand this problem is filming my students who share their experiences as readers.  I've also made movies to show what happens when we put idiosyncratic reading lives in a central place in a high school English classroom.  Students are so willing to challenge themselves.  They'll read more than we could have imagined.

I think most high school teachers would say they weren't ignoring stamina, but they believed it could be built by slowly reading hard texts with students.  And I think one kind of stamina is built that way--but it isn't to prepare a student for college reading.  College reading is lots of pages a week and students need to experience that volume before they get there.  Studying difficult texts most often does not build a reading life for a student, either.  None of us do something that is almost always hard enough.

I believe high school English has to have parallel tracks in reading--one track is slow and difficult and often dependent on guidance from the teacher through difficult texts--but the other track should be the opportunity for students to build stamina through finding books that interest and engage them, causing them to read a lot and read willingly.  This isn't casual reading.  It isn't something we can just recommend our students do or pay scant attention to in our teaching and hope that is enough.  We have to monitor their lives as readers and help students reach for more difficult texts they can comprehend and enjoy independently.  It is real work day after day, but the payoff is huge.

One of my favorite chapters is chapter four, “Opening Doors into Reading.”  Maybe it’s all the arches… maybe it’s because I’ve worked hard to develop my own classroom library.  
What do you do to nudge teachers to fill their classroom shelves with books?

Building classroom libraries is a passion of mine.  I make a lot of lists (with students) to recommend to teachers and then I book talk wonderful books everywhere I go.  When I guest teach in a classroom I almost always leave a book behind.  This year I have been building classroom libraries with content teachers.  We have ordered hundreds of books connected to science, math, social studies, marketing, etc.  Now we're booktalking those and kids are reading them.

The last thing I've done is establish a non-profit foundation ( that will provide classroom libraries of 500 books to teachers who apply and are chosen to receive the books by the Board of Directors.  I have big dreams, but it is hard work to pull together.  We are still figuring out lists of books (I have some great helpers there) and shipping and soliciting donations, so it will be a challenge to get our first sets of books out this August as planned, but I'm determined.  I will post updates on Twitter.

Ahh… conferring.  What’s your favorite part of a reading conference?   As you confer, what runs through your mind?

Conferring is the best teaching I do.  It is a daily joy.  It is the opportunity to really listen to what a student is trying to say or what he thinks about a book and then just sharing in that thinking and figuring out how I can move the student a little farther.  As I'm conferring I'm always thinking two things, "Stop talking, Kittle--listen," and "What does this student need?"  Conferring keeps me on the edge because I can't anticipate what will come up and I sometimes don't know the answer--it pushes me as a teacher.  And as Katie Wood Ray said, "It is one of teaching's greatest joys."

I love the term “interdependent readers.”  You clearly have high expectations for learners.  How has your thinking continued to evolve around this idea since you finished writing Book Love?

I love this question... How has my thinking about readers continued to evolve since I sent Book Love to publication?  Right now I am in the midst of two projects in two different classrooms--mine and my colleague's (who teaches 6th grade at one of our elementary schools).  In my classrooms we called it the non-fiction Q3 challenge.  I brought in copies of non-fiction books--about 20 titles in all--and students previewed them and talked about them and gathered in small groups to figure out a title they wanted to read together.  Then I set them up like literature circles with time to create a schedule for reading and time to talk.  It has been marvelous to watch how it unfolds.  In one group they read about 75 pages in and two of the group members were miserable with the book, so they all agreed to change and start over. The students are dependent on each other in ways I hadn't seen yet this year.  It is exciting to be in my room on a book discussion day.

In 6th grade, my colleague got 40 copies of one title so she gave one to each student and just told them to read as far as they wanted to that night.  The next day she organized kids into groups based on where they were in the book and those groups created their own schedules for the rest of the reading.  As they've finished (at different times) they've explored projects they want to do in connection to the book and most are researching things they thought about in connection to the reading.  I love how in both cases how fast or slowly you read is not stopping students from enjoying the reading and learning with other students.

Lastly, we're on year three of challenging my district policy banning goodreads and other social networking sites that revolve around books.  My students have written some compelling letters and this year we're going to break through... I'm sure of it.  My students need connections to readers to feed them during the summer and after high school, interdependent in a larger community of readers.

What’s your greatest hope for the readers of Book Love?

My greatest hope for the readers of Book Love is that they will find ways to open up reading to students--to invite them into a relationship with books that will last for the rest of their lives.  Some of my readers are parents and I hope they will find ways to talk with their children about books beyond just what is required reading at school.  My greatest hope is that more young people will find themselves in books.

What are you most proud of as a reader and writer yourself?  As a teacher?

It's hard to answer this question, Patrick.  I feel blessed, not proud.  Blessed to be a teacher and to still be so inspired by the students I meet each year.  I love that I find books that teach me every month.  I find knew ways to see and understand because a writer had the courage to put it on paper.

As a writer, I just feel grateful that anyone reads what I write.  My writing has brought me wonderful friends and experiences I'll never forget.  I am continually humbled by how hard it is to write.  I am proud that I've been willing to send my words out into the world, though. It has never been easy.  Writing has taught me how to teach, and I know I'm a better teacher because I struggle beside my students.

What’s your current passion, both personally and professionally?

I am working on personal essays--although I'm not sure that's what they're called.  I've been reading Joan Didion and Eula Biss and John Jeremiah Sullivan and David Foster Wallace and studying how they make their essays work.  I've got quite a list in my notebook of big things I want to write about (none about education) and I'm slowly working my way through them in a rambling narrative essay form.  I've found some pretty interesting threads and some real surprises.  I don't have an audience, although I've shared one essay with four people and the others with my husband.  It's writing for me--and it is filled with risk.  I like it.  I feel free of deadlines and expectations.  Sometimes I write things I didn't know I knew.

Professionally, I've made improving my conferences with students a goal of mine this year.  I am filming conferences all the time and trying to learn from what I see and hear.  My students have been very patient.  Conferring is at the center of differentiation in a reading and writing workshop, so it is the right place for me to work.

Why read professionally?  Pick up Book Love or any other professional book and read... think about your own teaching, contemplate the changes that are occurring in education and make a decision about your core beliefs, think about ways to questions the status quo, talk to a friend, blog!  That's why I do it.  And, thank you Penny for helping us better make sense of this wonderful world we call teaching!


  1. Patrick, once again thanks for putting together a great interview. I loved reading about the Dons and Penny's thoughts about writing. I can see how these ideas carry across grade levels.