- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

HENRICO, Va. (AP) - Students in Amanda Drinnon’s 11th-grade English class walked in one recent morning, put down their backpacks and pulled out a book.

It wasn’t an unusual sight. Kids take out books at their desks a million times in a million classrooms every year.

What was unusual was what happened next.

The kids began reading and kept reading for the next half-hour. They weren’t going to be tested on the material, they didn’t get extra credit, and nobody told them what book to pick up.

They were reading for the same reason people have read for a millennium: because they enjoyed it.

Drinnon’s class is one of dozens in Henrico County that have implemented a new program this school year that’s designed to get students more interested in reading.

The program works under the basic concept that if kids have access to books, a choice in what they read and the time to read, they’ll develop as students and possibly become lifelong readers.

“You give them the intrinsic motivation to want to read more, because you give them things they like and they want to do it again,” Drinnon said.

Drinnon teaches ninth- and 11th-grade English at Highland Springs High School on the county’s east side.

This is the second year she’s participated in the program. The first, last year, was a pilot that she and another teacher at Highland Springs were a part of.

The pilots were so successful that the county expanded it to five middle schools and Henrico High School for this school year.

Students in every English class at the middle schools and Highland Springs and ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade English classes at Henrico High now spend the first 30 minutes of each period reading quietly at their desks.

Each of the classrooms has a library of about 250 books the students can choose from and take with them every day. In Drinnon’s classroom, books range from graphic novels and books for lower-level readers to nonfiction books on economics and titles on the adult best-sellers lists. There are classics as well as modern books.

What the kids are reading doesn’t matter, Drinnon said. What’s important is that they find something they like and pick it up. This, she said, engages them better and allows them to gain confidence.

Teachers do make suggestions when a student asks, but the kids are left to discover books that make them happy.

Jan Collins, Henrico’s K-12 literacy specialist, said the district’s aim is simply to make the students better readers and writers.

She said the program helps student achievement because it teaches them to be better readers and in turn better students.

“We have an overarching philosophy that we want to send the most literate students out into the world when they leave us,” Collins said.

“We feel strongly that being a literate person who is able to gather information from text and share ideas through writing is what makes someone successful.”

Drinnon and other school officials rave about the program, saying that it’s getting kids who otherwise might not have been exposed to books reading on a regular basis. Many, she said, have never read a book or had a book read to them.

The proof that the program is working, they say, is the number of books students go through and that they’re actively reading once they leave class.

Collins said it’s too early in the school year to have data on how every participating school is doing, but two middle schools have each reported that 14 days into the school year, students had already gone through 700 books.

The students themselves back up these sentiments.

Amya James, an 11th-grader at Highland Springs who likes urban fiction, was on her third book of the year last week. She finished one of those in a single day.

Like other students, Amya keeps in a notebook a wish list of the books she hopes to read this year.

“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I read at home and in different classes. When I’m not doing my work, I’m reading my book.”

Amya’s classmate Roland Scott is reading “I Suck at Girls” by Justin Halpern.

What led him to the book was his father. Roland said that his father is similar to Halpern’s, who was featured in the writer’s previous book “Sh(asterisk)t My Dad Says.”

“His father reminds me of my dad, who says random things as well,” Roland said. “A week ago, I asked, ‘Is anyone going to use the bathroom? I want to take a shower.’ My dad looked at me and said, ‘Don’t use all the cold water, I need to flush the toilet later.’ “

“My dad makes hilarious comments. His dad makes hilarious comments. I have a connection to it. That’s why I chose this book.”

Stories like that, where a student found a book that touches him or her for whatever reason, are what Drinnon loves to hear.

“As a I teacher I wondered, ‘How do I get kids to like reading?’ I struggled for years. I started as a teacher here in 2008, and it was like, there’s something that I’m missing,” she said.

“That was the thing; how do I get kids to do that? This program made it so easy. The simplicity of how it’s implemented is so easy.”

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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