Cultivating a “culture of reading” at Harmony ALC

Shannon Bluhm, a student at Harmony, has immersed herself in books. She read a total of 100 novels this school year. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

One student read 100 novels this school year

How many books have you read in the last nine months?

Probably not as many as Harmony Alternative Learning Center student Shannon Bluhm.

Bluhm, a senior at Harmony ALC, recently completed her goal of reading 100 books over the course of this school year. And though Harmony reading specialist Dennis Fendt notes her accomplishment is a school record by far, he added that Bluhm isn’t the only student with reading fever.

Over the last several years, teachers at Harmony have worked hard to establish a “culture of reading” in the building, Fendt said, and the strategy to encourage reading at Harmony is different from strategies employed by most other schools.

Students at Harmony are able to select any book they’d like to read rather than choosing from a pre-set list -- which means students are free to choose books on topics that appeal to them.

It’s important to encourage students to be excited about reading, especially since many may have never even read an entire book  before coming to Harmony, Fendt explained. “We’ve worked hard to change that here,” he said, adding that some students who have never read a book cover to cover might complete as many as 20 or 30 a year once they get to Harmony.

The school sets aside time for reading in students’ English classes, but that’s not the only time students are opening their books. They can be seen reading in the school’s recreation room and cafeteria before school and during their lunch hour.

Teachers, on occasion, will now even have to ask students to stop reading, Fendt said with a chuckle -- only when they’re doing it in their other classes, like math.

“The students have really latched onto it,” Fendt said. “We have students leave here that leave as lifelong readers.”

A busy library

Another popular reading spot for Harmony students is Fendt’s classroom, which has a wall stocked full of books for students to borrow.

The expansive collection was started by Michelle Dzik, a former Harmony teacher who now teaches English at Tartan High School. Fendt said when Dzik still worked at Harmony, she would request books when funding was available in the school’s budget, and that she would even collect some on her own dime.

The library now features multiple copies of books from popular series -- like Twilight or the Hunger Games -- as well as a wide selection of other, lesser-known titles.

Students are welcome to browse the collection and borrow books by signing them out in a three-ring binder, and unlike most library-type systems, students aren’t required to bring the books back within a certain amount of time. However, Fendt said students generally bring the books back in a timely fashion because they keep on turning the pages of books that interest them.

All students keep track of how many books they read in individual notebooks stored in Fendt’s classroom, and though they’re not required to answer specific questions on the books’ content, they regularly journal about the books they’re reading so teachers can make sure they’re comprehending the information.

Because students keep track of the books they read in a journal, Fendt can reference those journals to help other students choose a new book to read. If one of their friends has read something that the student hasn’t, Fendt can direct the student to that particular title. Even if a student ends up choosing a book they don’t like, they’re not pressured to finish it, Fendt adds, and they can simply exchange it for another book.

Because of its unique structure, the program isn’t just fostering a love for reading, Fendt said, noting that it has also helped improve students’ test-taking skills for standardized reading tests as well.

Page, after page, after page...

Fendt said he was so impressed with the speed in which Bluhm was reading at the beginning of this school year that he helped her set her goal of reading 100 books before summer break.

Ever since, Bluhm has been flipping pages upon pages and completing several books every month.

Bluhm, who didn’t take much interest in reading until this year, said she decided to start doing it more simply to pass the time. Now, however, she’s developed such a fondness for reading that she wakes up at 5 a.m. -- an hour earlier than she has to each day -- to read before she catches the bus to school.

Bluhm said some of her favorite books have come from the series of “House of Night” by P.C. and Kristin Cast, and from the series of “Hush Hush” by Becca Fitzpatrick. The topics of the novels Bluhm has read vary drastically, she said, adding that she enjoys learning about a wide variety of subjects.

Fendt noted that even most adults tend to stick with books that have similar subject matter -- but not Bluhm. Bluhm said in general, she would randomly selected books from the shelves and take a quick look at the book’s jacket to see if it’s something she might enjoy. She would also often get ideas from her classmates as to which books might be worth reading -- and Fendt added that “word of mouth” referrals are a popular way that many students at Harmony get ideas of what books to check out.

“Most of the books are kind of all over the place,” Bluhm explained.

After this school year, Bluhm said she plans to take a short break from her hardcore reading habits, but that she knows she ultimately catch the reading bug again. And though she started working towards her 100-book goal simply because it was “something to do,” Bluhm said looking back now she’s proud she was able to meet it.

“I feel like I’ve accomplished something that I really wanted to accomplish,” she said.

Alex Holmquist can be reached at or 651-748-7822.

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