English teacher Katie Sluiter’s Wyoming Junior High classroom is a testament to the power of words, in the books eighth-graders eagerly grab from her library and in the writing she did to get those 1,000 popular works onto her shelves.
Through blogging and writing for an educational website, Sluiter connects with fellow teachers worldwide. Five years ago, feeling inspired after attending a workshop led by renowned educator Penny Kittle, she posted to her blog, Sluiter Nation, about a transformation she envisioned.
“I have this new dream that I want to change my classroom from making kids read books that either they don’t care about, they don’t relate to or they can’t even read because they are below grade level, into a place where kids are reading voraciously,” she wrote.
Sluiter created an Amazon Wish List of popular Young Adult books so people could donate to her classroom. She was intent on morphing her library, which contained titles like “Moby Dick” (“No kid is going to check out ‘Moby Dick'”), into a sought-after collection of titles and genres.
“Books started coming in like crazy from all over the world,” Sluiter said. “I went from 104 lame books to a few hundred higher-interest books in a matter of months.”
It opened up a new world of reading to her students — and a new world of teaching to Sluiter.
“Creating the classroom library is definitely the best thing I’ve ever done as a teacher. It definitely brings joy to my students and obviously to me,” said the 15-year Wyoming Public Schools educator.
She recently presented on several topics and led a roundtable discussion on creating choice with a curriculum in place at the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Matching Teens with Books
As Sluiter’s classroom library grew by way of continued donations, a grant and Sluiter’s second job writing for The Educator’s Room, she enhanced her teaching to include strategies students respond to with enthusiasm.
They are given ample time to read books of their choice in class; they form book clubs; they listen to “Tuesdaaaay…Book Talks!,” during which Sluiter introduces popular new books with quick summaries. Her students have even gone Book Speed Dating, checking out an array of books quickly, circling yes, no or maybe, junior high-style, on paper, to decide which books are perfect matches.
Those matches are sometimes just what a student needs, she said. She’s seen students find books they can relate to because they are finally reading about their culture or shared experiences, or they learn about people different from them and developing new perspectives.
Sluiter recently brought in a brand new stack of 60 books, sorted according to genre. After class, students lined up to check them out, eager to get their hands on new fantasies, historical fiction, teen dramas and thrillers.
Eighth-grader Maddy Roosa checked out “Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson. “I’m a lot more interest in reading now,” Maddy said. “I usually don’t like books, but the Tuesday Book Talks make them more interesting.” “A Child Called ‘It’,” by Dave Pelzer, is her favorite read so far this year.
Sluiter’s overarching mission is to help students succeed in school and life, and to reach even reluctant readers, like Maddy.
“If we value reading we need to give our kids time to read,” Sluiter said. “All the research says that reading and becoming better readers is the key to success in high school, college, career.
“The more you read and the better reader you are is really the measure of where you are going to go.”
To help students at every level including special education, Sluiter has graphic novels and audiobooks for listening to while reading.
A Buffet of Choices
Once Sluiter saw the effect of choice reading on her classroom, she realized an even larger potential. “I started meshing the idea of choice and writing with choice in reading. What if my classroom was a big choice fest?”
Since then, students have been given freedom to choose writing topics while still meeting eighth-grade English standards.
‘If we value reading we need to give our kids time to read.’ — English teacher Katie Sluiter
Student Sadie Duron said she loves the freedom, while knowing “we still learn what we need to learn.”
“I really love it because not everybody likes the same topics,” Sadie said. “Everybody gets to choose what they want to read and the topic. I feel like I’ve been writing more. After I read a good book I want to write about it.”
Wyoming Junior High teachers say Sluiter’s enthusiasm and creativity have caught on.
“Katie Sluiter creates such excitement about books and reading that I’ve had a student of mine ask to go check out a book she had in her classroom library,” said eighth-grade English teacher Shantel VanderGalien. “She is a wonderful teaching partner and I love to brainstorm with her about creative ideas we can incorporate into our curriculum.”
Eighth-grade teacher Melissa Janz said Sluiter connects with students who have great difficulty reading and writing.
“She does such a great job with developing a love of reading even with our most reluctant readers,” Janz said. “She is always ready to learn and try various reading strategies in the classroom that would possibly reach the students who might not ‘get it’ the traditional way.”
Reading Inspires Writing
Sluiter has seen stronger readers become stronger writers, and she sees the impact of sharing her own hopes, dreams and vulnerabilities in writing. When she started blogging in 2007, she soon identified as a “mom blogger.” Now a mother of three, she wrote about parenting issues and personal struggles, including pregnancy loss and postpartum depression.
Over the years, she stretched her focus to include education in writing for fellow teachers.
“I started writing quite a bit more openly about myself, and realized my process for writing was very similar to what I could be teaching my students. That’s about when I started writing along with my students and showing them a little more of my vulnerable side as a writer. It got much better writing out of them.”
She also was inspired to write about her craft and how she works to meet the needs of her students. “I really enjoyed writing about my job, what I do here, and what goes on in my classroom — the stuff that fills my heart and why I love education even though it’s hard.”
A full heart and full bookshelves: Sluiter shares both with her students every day, proving again and again that the power of words can help fill and refill both.
Sluiter’s Book Talk Tuesday blog