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By Pete Wurdock

The world is full of inspiring teachers and all of them have their own unique style of instruction. There isn’t a “one size fits all” teaching method, and teachers find their own voice through a trial-and-error process. It is this philosophy that prompted Tahquamenon Area Schools (TAS) sixth grade teacher Lynn Evans to reach a little farther for the 2022-23 school year.

As students and parents entered her room in August during enrollment, Evans set clear expectations. She put rules of social conduct on the walls along with expectations that were clearly defined. But this year she presented a new experiment to her students: the 40 Book Challenge.

When school started, all of her students signed a contract for the 40 Book Challenge. The contract was an agreement with each student to read 40 books (one a week) throughout the school year. The agreement stipulates the students will read daily at school and at home, and they must have a book with them at all times.

It is not a contest and there is no special prize for finishing. It was a brave experiment that so far is not meeting her expectations.

That’s because it is exceeding them.

Some parents were hesitant about it as were some of her students. “I was kind of surprised when Mrs. Evans told us about the challenge because I didn’t think I could read 40 books, but here I am halfway there already,” said TAS student Ethan Papist. His classmate Braedyn Bruno balances time between school and hockey and is also halfway through the challenge. As a hockey player, Braedyn can understand the similarity between sports and the 40 Book Challenge. Now, when his team is getting outplayed, he sees that the challenge can sharpen his team’s skills and helps them elevate to a higher level of play.

Mrs. Evans’s classes hit the ground running when the school year began. She took them to the library on the second day of school. Evans is one of two teachers who makes visiting the TAS Public Library a regular practice during school hours.

The 40 Book Challenge reading list includes a variety of genres. They consist of Poetry, Traditional Literature, Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mystery, Informational, and Autobiography, Biography or Memoir. They can also choose their own books, and they regularly discuss their progress one-on-one with Mrs. Evans.

With the school year not even half over, one student, Brayden Thomasson, already completed the challenge. A couple other students are closing in.

“There’s no grade attached to the 40 book challenge. It’s not going to make you or break you. This is really an accountability piece,” Evans said. “I’ve always believed in possibility and have always been a big dreamer.”

Evans strives for success with each pupil, but she is her own harshest critic. Fifteen years into her teaching career she is content with her students’ outcomes. She is proud of her students, past and present, but was not completely satisfied with her own accomplishments. She needed inspiration, and found it on Instagram as she started following other teachers.

She planned the challenge over the summer and gave her classroom a complete makeover. Room 131 is a nurturing environment with a variety of inspirational signs and phrases. Although she is an English teacher, she also implements rules for success in life. She emphasizes things like self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision making. Evans teaches things like how to face challenges and how to deal with anger.

Her class also abides by a “social contract” that requires things like being respectful, not bullying, not putting anybody down, not spreading rumors, and above all, giving it their best shot.

“If we give them high expectations, they will rise,” she said.

The social contract is not just a sixth-grade skill; it’s a life skill.

She lovingly calls her students by a variety of names, like “kiddos”, “lovelies”, “cherubs”, and “darlings”. Some days they tap dance on her last nerve, but they are still her babies. By the end of each day, she knows her students gave her something special and it motivates her.

Everything Evans assigns to her students, she takes on as well. She had to become a book expert. All summer and into the fall she read books that were age-specific to sixth grade, allowing her to confidently recommend books of every genre to her students.

“I’ve been in classes with challenges before but this time everyone is actually trying,” said sixth grade student Lyla Sharrett. “In the past, we were told about the different genres of books, but were never introduced to them. Now we are given those books and it is making a big difference.”

Everyone’s reading level is different. The top readers in the class recognize some of the students who aren’t as far along as they are and they encourage them and recommend books that might be more their speed. By trying the different genres and finding something they like, eventually it connects them to other genres making their yearning for words on a page even greater.

The students have “book talks,” where everyone shares the books they enjoyed the most and then recommends them to their classmates. This process allows the students to keep track of it in their book journal so when they complete their current book, they will have others waiting.

Evans struggled with reading as a child. She was placed in a reading support group at her school from first to third grade. But then one day things came together and suddenly, all those little black squiggly lines on the page made sense.

Student Preston Collins can relate.

“When I was in kindergarten, I might read the cover and the first couple of pages of a book,” he said. “I didn’t even finish Cat in the Hat, and I had it the entire year. Now I am reading bigger, more challenging books. I’ve gone from books that were fun to read into books with a heavier content.”

Each of her classes get 30 minutes of classroom reading every day. That’s a considerable amount of time taken away from direct teaching. But research proves this will benefit the students far more than just traditional classroom teaching.

Evans collects data from her students through a survey in Google Forms which helps her see which students need more guidance. “Some of my students are also utilizing Hoopla [a streaming audio book service] and taking the initiative to check out the hard copy of the book so while they’re listening they can follow along. Because when your ears hear it and your eyes see it, your brain will retain it better,” she said.

During parent/teacher conferences the universal conclusion was that this year, students were showing more confidence, studying more, and working harder than they ever have.

How does one measure a student’s success other than through the standardized test scores? One teary eyed parent exemplified it when they told Mrs. Evans that their child has read more books in the first three months of school than they have in their entire life.

Another surprise is how now, at week 15, many of the students utilize every idle moment to read. Now instead of just standing in line waiting for their name to be called to go home, they are opening books in the hallway, even if it is just for a couple of minutes.

Some students don’t like the rigidity of having to read a specific number of pages each day, and Evans doesn’t set page-per-day requirements. With the 40 Book Challenge, they can read at a pace that is comfortable for them and every month is reading month in Mrs. Evans’s classroom.

Word around school is that Mrs. Evans that she is very strict and very firm. That’s because she is. Kids have called her “the warden” or “the dragon lady”, but those become terms of endearment when students realize how fun school can be. Being able to laugh, joke and even having occasional dance parties makes room 131 a place students want to be. They will remember it.

Lynn Evans took a chance by raising the learning bar with her 40 Book Challenge.

It’s working; and each day she is keeping the bar as high as she can.