Penny Kittle: Teachers Have The Gifts To Make A Difference (Sept Update)

Educators must be curious, engaged and critical thinkers

Penny Kittle lit a flame across Montgomery County in 2019 with the release of her book 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents that she co-authored with Kelly Gallagher. For the last two years, English language arts teachers and literacy leaders have  grown in their thinking around literacy instructional design and practices. Penny Kittle returned this summer for two virtual workshops with MCIU and school districts to deepen their understanding around the role of book clubs, independent reading and writing in the classroom. Over 150 educators from across the region participated in June and August to learn with and from Penny. We look forward to continuing our learning journey with Penny in the 21-22 school year. 

Penny Kittle

In June, two big ideas asserted from Kittle included:

  • Adolescent engagement depends on making choices and the power of social interactions. 
  • Adolescent engagement is sustained through the power of social interactions outside of our classrooms.

Educators deepened their understanding of why book clubs leverage engagement and deeper learning, the essential roles discourse and writing play in book clubs, and the teacher moves and design elements of book clubs. Penny painted the big picture we should have for all readers– increase joy, interest and volume, increase complexity, develop an allegiance to authors and genres, and expand an understanding of race, class and the world. “Book Clubs can help us move kids out of their lanes,” said Kittle.  Her claim supports the windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors metaphor asserted by Rudine Sims Bishop and makes space for imagination and self- examination for readers. Colonial School District Librarian and Instructional Coach Brooke Carpenter shared her learning from the workshop, “I love the idea of building reading relationships with students so we can find what engages them and then capitalize on it. Helping readers (and those who consider themselves non-readers) find something they enjoy and using it to build their reading skills and broaden their understanding of the world is an important goal for educators”. Carpenter said she is currently working with teachers to revamp book club units of study that honor student voice and choice and meet academic goals.

Kittle pointed out that discourse and writing opportunities in our learning communities are equally important to the reading instruction we plan for our students. We need not look farther than our own students to know how to be responsive and relevant. Take it from two student writers and contributors from Young Black Poets, Alora Young and Madison Petaway, who both say that they found inspiration from what they read and found their voice from what they wrote. 

Gaining Back Stamina, Fluency and Joy

In August, Kittle presented bold ideas related to launching the school year with independent reading. The workshop goals included:

  • Cultivating habits of reading through in-class reading time from a range of genres
  • Supporting readers to build stamina and fluency
  • Supporting students in developing their identity as readers
  • Creating discussion and writing experiences in response to reading a variety of texts and voices

Kittle built on her ideas from June including how to encourage students to move “out of their lanes” when they read.  Penny reinforced the importance of book talks and introduced additional strategies to help students read from a range of texts and ways to increase the complexity of their book choices over time, which sends the message to students that it’s important to invest in their own growth as readers.  Penny wants all students to experience book love and isn’t asking us to take steps any bolder than she takes herself.  She thinks it’s important for readers to be challenged to build their stamina to read, have sustained engagement with a text over time and support their independence in order to set goals, search for their next read, or pursue a passion.

Kittle shared her experiences and strategies for conferring with readers in order to help participants understand the value and importance of protecting this time in their lesson design.  Through regular conferring we can learn more about our students as readers and writers, provide 1:1 teaching, assess what our students know, and differentiate our supports.  Conferring can open so many conversations with students and help us lean in just a little bit more to who students are and how we can best support them. Cheree Atwood, English teacher from Cheltenham School District tried Penny’s multi-modal Padlet activity with her students during the first week of school.  Cheree said, “ I want my students to understand that they are readers, writers and consumers of information, which in turn influences their thinking. Ultimately, I am hopeful that this will begin to open their minds about other perspectives and points of view that we can feed through classroom conversations and books throughout the year. This will also give me an indication of their interests which I can use to suggest books, especially to my reluctant readers.” The addition of the multi-modal activity is a great segue into the course’s narrative writing unit, Why does my story matter? where students will be asked to write an experienced based piece.  

I take a lot of inspiration from history. Science inspires me a lot as well. I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” a couple of days ago and that has inspired me a lot because wow, brilliant man. During the summer, I read Plato’s “The Republic” and that gave me some really great inspiration. I read a lot of books this summer, so I wrote a lot of poetry. As a matter of fact, I wrote an entire book of poetry this summer. And then I finished my musical. And then I finished my novel at the very beginning of quarantine.

Alora Young

High School Senior, Nashville’s 2020 Youth Poet Laureate

NYT Young Black Poets Link

How can we re-engage students in order to build a collaborative community of learners?

Penny Kittle

There is genius waiting within the students and communities we serve and teachers must answer the call to create the learning conditions that allow our students to create and explore. We can honor the experiences that our students have (including in the pandemic) and create opportunities for students to share those experiences with us, each other and our communities. As a designer and facilitator of learning, teachers know that building the capacities of students to stay curious, engaged, and be critical thinkers beyond our courses and classrooms is at the heart of teaching and learning. Implementing book clubs and integrating independent reading can cultivate social learning opportunities.

Students must then be given space to have critical and courageous conversations about what they read and about the personal impact the literature has on them. Educators must move away from traditional assessment models that neither serve the students nor showcase the expansiveness of what a student gains from the reading experience. Lastly, students gain more from the experience of reading if they are part of a community working toward the same goal—self-discovery through literature.

Avril Somerville

English Teacher, Cheltenham SD

Flexible Learning Opportunities

Looking for something to dip on your own timeline?  

BOOK CLUB Introduction

New! Book Club 21-22

Never joined a book club before? That’s okay, these books celebrate the power of words and connect you with other humans who want to learn and grow together. A book club to read and discuss books that help us create equitable classrooms where all students feel seen, know they belong and own their desire to read and write. This is a call for passionate educators and literacy leaders to come together to support one another as we learn and grow. 

This year we will read and discuss diverse and inclusive texts at the upper elementary, middle and high school levels. Our virtual book club will utilize the core principles of #Disrupttexts to guide the work of building diverse and inclusive teaching and learning practices and pedagogies.  Registration is now open and you can learn more about the Educator’s Book Club here.  Our conversations begin on October 12, 2021.

Books are something social—a writer speaking to a reader—so I think making the reading of a book the center of a social event, the meeting of a book club, is a brilliant idea.

Yann Martel

On Your Own Timeline


Explore the OPL Literacy Playlist

Time, Choice, and Access to Read (and Write) available here, which is a collection of resources that center around independent reading.


30+ Conversations on Teaching and Learning

Listen to 30+ Conversations on Teaching and Learning with Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle and friends. This series explores ideas that have emerged from the challenges and changes since the start of the pandemic.  It includes a Padlet with resources and recorded conversations. It’s the kind of conversations that are accessible to everyone and keep you coming back for more!


Not sure where to start? Try Day 30

Day 30 Big Ideas

  • How are you continually growing and thinking as a learner and how do you dip back into what you are learning about your craft?
  • What is the tension between reflecting on the teaching year you had and the teaching year you hope to have next year?
  • What are the implications of weaponizing the learning loss narrative?