The book dervish, on a mission to get kids reading

Connie Leuenberger loves to read and to encourage young readers. — Photo courtesy of Connie Leuenberger

Connie Leuenberger read 25 books this summer, the equivalent of reading the King James Bible 10 times in 90 days.

The Edgartown School’s seventh- and eighth-grade language arts teacher read 25 young adult books, because she knows that kids who read well generally do better in all their schoolwork, she explains. And, she added, kids can tell when the teacher is shining them on.

“Kids can smell a rat right away: they know whether you’ve actually read the book you are recommending that they read,” Ms. Leuenberger said. “I never recommend a book that I haven’t read. I want to know that it’s well-written and has a message and content that is appropriate for my kids.”

Ms. Leuenberger writes to parents also, asking them to monitor what their kids are reading. “There is so much out there, and it’s easily accessible,” she said.

As the 23-year veteran classroom teacher described her approach to engaging kids in reading, a listener hears echoes of the ceaseless teaching style detailed in “Class Warfare,” Steven Brill’s 2011 book about committed teachers who have remade education in new charter schools and academies created in the shambles of wheezy, failing urban education bureaucracies.

Unlike urban guerilla educators, Ms. Leuenberger works in a community that values and supports education. Parents here participate in significant numbers in the education of their kids, compared with some urban school system, where few parents attend their children’s parent-teacher conference, according to the professional journal EducationNews. Nationally, just over half of all parents participate in parent-teacher sessions, according to other published reports.

“We have a very positive environment for reading and learning here right now,” Ms. Leuenberger said. “Look at the recent Island seventh grade state reading test scores. I think we were 22 out of more than 500 schools. That’s really good.”

An author of five books on education with Scholastic publishing company and a former college instructor, Ms. Leuenberger has experience teaching elementary school in Michigan, Vermont, and Colorado. “We have a broader view of looking at things and a high standard for educating,” she said. “We tested more than we taught in Colorado, for example.”

She is also aware of the state of readership in the U.S. “The average American reads four books a year. But 18- to 24-year olds do not read. They read no books at all. What will happen to our culture if we don’t read? I worry about that.”

As Ms. Leuenberger sees it, her challenge is to make readers out of a generation of kids rooted in electronic communication devices. She gets a lot of her own inspiration and approach from “The Book Whisperer,” by Donalyn Miller, a nationally-recognized sixth grade reading teacher and blogger in Texas who terms non-readers as “dormant” readers and sees her job as helping them to become readers.

Mostly, Ms. Leuenberger is driven by a passion for books and reading. “I still remember the day the ability to read clicked for me,” she saide. “I was reading Pinocchio and it just came together, reading entire words and connecting them to other words. I could do it. I could read.”

Her personal favorites are realistic and historic novels, and instructional books. “I’m not crazy about fantasy or sci-fi,” she said. “I don’t get time to read my own stuff. I feel like I should be reading books for the kids.”

Ms. Leuenberger has borrowed strategies from reading advocates like Ms. Miller to develop a strong reading culture in her young readership community. Certainly, books that are compelling reads can inspire a love of reading. She ticks off several great summer reads: “The Fault In Our Stars” by John Green; “Peak” by Roland Smith for adventure readers; “Out of My Mind” by Sharon Draper; and “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio.

“11/22/63” by Stephen King is another recent favorite. “This is not his normal, scary writing, she said. “It has time travel and romance, it’s a little drama-rama, but kids, girls particularly, will love it.”

Now in her fourth year at the Edgartown School, Ms. Leuenberger creates “booktalk” sessions with students that enable her to understand the tastes of specific groups and of individual students. “Racing In The Rain” by Garth Stein is a book that appeals to all students.

“Kids love that book,” she said. “It’s a recast of an adult book, “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” remade as a young adult story, told from a dog’s point of view.”

“I’m a maniac,” she laughed. “I read in line at Stop & Shop and this summer I read on my i Phone in atrocious lines at Disney World and I have an audio Kindle in my car. I read a lot for different kids and different reasons. Sometimes I don’t think it’s the best book I’ve read, but I know the kids will love it, so if they’ll read it, then it’s worth it.”

Stimulating reading through a variety of reading options and peer discussion works, Ms. Leuenberger has found. Peer approval is another great motivator.

“Kids want to do cool things,” she said. “If their friends are reading something, they are more likely to read that book.”

While students are assigned summer reading lists, Ms. Leuenberger is not a fan of lockstep assignments during the school year. “We encourage students to read different books, then to discuss them with peers during booktalk sessions,” she said.