May 2016 Issue
June 02, 2016

Educators engage readers one book at a time

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Schenectady FT member Walter Mahoski has built a library of 8,000 books in his art classroom. Photo by Liza Frenette
Caption: Schenectady FT member Walter Mahoski has built a library of 8,000 books in his art classroom. Photo by Liza Frenette.

If you're looking for a standard manual on how to get students to pick up books and read them, this isn't it. Rather, this is a melting pot of ideas from seasoned teachers who are not only getting students to read — but also getting them enthralled with reading. To love books.

Not once upon a time. Now.

Their ideas?

Share a modern-day Romeo and Juliet novel.

Read out loud to students. It doesn't matter how old they are.

Take students on a field trip to the public library to get a library card.

Start book clubs. Make diverse books available.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show as many as 32 million adults in the U.S. cannot read, and 19 percent of high school students graduate without being able to read. The problem of illiteracy is too large to be ignored.

And educators across the state are taking it on — and winning.

For Schenectady art teacher Walter Mahoski, all it takes is a "super" imagination.

When Mahoski had to develop a project to improve literacy while working on a professional development certificate, he went back to his childhood — and his comic books.

"When I was a kid, that's how I learned to read. And I still had my old boxes." He brought in 300 comics, and the response was lightning fast.

"I couldn't keep them on the shelf. It was out of control," said the Schenectady Federation of Teachers member.

Through his own funds and some donations, Mahoski built a library of 8,000 books at Van Corlaer Elementary School. The comics are arranged in his art room according to superhero and age appropriateness. The 210 members of the Comic Book Club check out the books themselves.

"The whole idea is to make them want to read. There's no greater skill to hand on to somebody than wanting to read," he said. He averages 150 students per week; 1,783 had been through the library by April.

He shares his own artistic talents by writing and illustrating The Raccoon of Schenectady, a comic book about a mischievous critter.

A new Ms. Marvel comic about an Islamic teenage superhero shows how the comic book industry has recognized the diversity among young readers.

"It's been a huge hit. We have a lot of Islamic kids here," he said.

"I had one dad who came to me in tears. His daughter had taken a liking to the Avengers. She ran through the whole box — 150. He was able to share his childhood hobby with his daughter. There's a lot of sharing."

Like Mahoski, educators are using every trick in the book to change their students' mindset from approaching reading as a chore to an adventure.

To hook students who are at a lower reading level than their grade suggests, reading teacher Michele Zavadil of the Gloversville Teachers Association realized if she uses books at the appropriate level, then "the topics don't match what they really know. They're so much smarter than that."

So she reads to them from books with characters who are more their age, and face similar situations.

"They hit these topics and they get most excited," she said. "Some of the reading may be a struggle, but we do a lot more with conversation. Struggling is good because it's about thinking and using strategies. We add in videos and facts from online to expand on the book." Then, they are all about the book.

Gloversville students also compete in teams against students from five other districts in their region's annual Battle of the Books. Competitors have to read 20 books from September to March, and then are quizzed as a team on a quote or statement from the books, requiring them to reply with the book title and author.

In Binghamton, elementary school librarian and literary specialist Amy Merrill focuses on sharing the importance of reading with families. She invites families in for a meal and a story. In the library, she reads out loud to students in every grade.

Binghamton TA member Merrill favors the term "novice reader" over the commonly used tags "reluctant" or "struggling," which can make students feel less confident. She makes sure the books she selects respect the diversity of her students and their stories. Often students "feel like outsiders and books are able to give them that connection," Merrill said. "We learn how to find ourselves in books."

She chooses books such as Be A Friend by Celina Yun, who was unable to speak English when she first arrived in the U.S.; A Fish in a Tree about a student who finds out she is dyslexic after years spent avoiding reading; and Last Stop on Market Street, about a struggling family that relies on a soup kitchen to eat.

English teacher and young adult (YA) author Eric Devine of the Burnt Hills TA finds beauty in getting students to read for pleasure.

Testing and standards, he said, force students to "dissect, analyze, whip and beat the details out of the text. It's not even stories anymore!"

Students, he said, are overscheduled and overmanaged. So he puts YA books in their hands.

"The takeaway from any story is always what can be gained — perspective, historical knowledge, empathy, working through difficult topics or themes," he said.

YA books, he maintains, are great conversation starters for "that kid you can't reach." They are also timely, often gritty, bold, open and unabashed.

For Devine and others, the ultimate goal is to make lifelong readers.

As the saying goes:

The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.


  • In six minutes of reading, stress levels begin lowering
  • Reading boosts imagination, creativity and empathy
  • Reading before bed improves the quality of sleep
  • Books encourage responsible citizens

To experience these and other benefits of reading, you first need access to books. NYSUT has distributed hundreds of thousands of books to needy students through its partnership with the nonprofit First Book and our affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers. For more information, visit

What's old is new again:

To engage teen readers, English teacher Eric Devine chooses modern young adult books to compare to classic literature:

Romeo and Juliet
The Adventures of Huck Finn
The Scarlett Letter

The Fault in Our Stars
Beautiful Creatures
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
The Boyfriend List