To teach a love of reading, Corrina Reamer starts by writing.
Each fall, she pens a letter to her 11th grade English class at T.C. Williams High School International Academy in northern Virginia. She tells the students who she is: where she's from, the jobs she has held, which TV shows she favors. Then, she asks for a reply.
"I read all of those letters," Reamer said. Over the next few weeks, "I think about it. I come up with three to five books for each kid, and we sit down, face-to-face, to read the jackets."
She picks the possibilities from a meticulously curated library of almost 1,000 books she houses on shelves painted turquoise and burnt-orange in her third-floor classroom — a library she paid for through online fundraisers and grants. Reamer, 45, offers the teens texts meant to feel familiar: The characters might resemble her students, practice their religion, speak their language.
Reamer knows she has found the right book, she said, "when the kid just lights up — there should be an 'Ooooooh!' noise."
She is seeing early success, which she attributes both to the personalized selections and to her habit of reading aloud to students. In the four years since Reamer began teaching at the Alexandria, Virginia, campus, her students — all immigrant or international students with limited English — have on average achieved two years' worth of reading progress each year.
Reamer is a rare bright spot at a moment when children's reading proficiency is plunging nationwide. A study released last year by the National Center for Education Statistics found that two-thirds of fourth- and eighth-graders in the United States do not meet basic federal standards for reading proficiency, capping a decade's worth of poor performance.
In Virginia, students' reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — an exam widely known as "the nation's report card" — have declined since 2017.
Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said lackluster literacy levels contribute to a larger disaffection with learning. He pointed to a 2016 Gallup survey that found just one-third of 11th- and 12th-graders nationally report feeling "engaged" by what they study in school. Although Reamer is teaching to students who come from abroad, Farrace said, her methods offer a path for educators everywhere.
"She's clearly empowering kids to take control of their reading and thus, their learning," Farrace said. "Allowing for that kind of choice needs to become a schoolwide culture."
Farrace said it's troubling — if typical — that Reamer had to raise money to make it possible. Federal data show that nine in 10 educators spend almost $500 each year on school supplies. The Washington Post reported that teachers often go to extreme lengths to find classroom resources, begging friends for help, visiting Goodwill or scouring garage sales.
Reamer estimates she garnered roughly $10,000 over the past three years by soliciting donations on the website DonorsChoose, while $5,000 more came from grants and from an Alexandria parent-teacher group.
This month, she's hosting two DonorsChoose fundraisers: one for paperbacks and magazines "that should fit in any teen's back pockets" and one for "a selection of classics."
It takes time — hours every week — to stay on top of her grant applications and fundraisers, Reamer said. She often works on both late into the night, a level of devotion she acknowledged may be impossible for some teachers.
"I don't mind sitting on the couch with a cocktail and writing a grant, but if you have kids you might not have time," she said.
For the most part, Reamer said, she feels well supported by Alexandria City Public Schools. T.C. Williams boasts a well-stocked library, she said, staffed by knowledgeable librarians — and she knows that is not the case for many schools.
"In some places, entire school libraries are in the situation where they have to do fundraising to receive books," said Audrey Church, director of the School Librarianship graduate program at Longwood University.
Reamer started her first fundraiser three years ago because she wanted to build a book collection tailored to her students, one boasting texts at every reading level. She also hoped to collect stories featuring diverse characters.
"When a student named Meena from Afghanistan can come in, and I can hand her a book with a main character named 'Meena,' " Reamer said, "you can bet she's going to read that whole book."
Nationally, the push for diverse books gained serious momentum about a half-decade ago, Church said, with the founding of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. The movement is built around a three-part theory, Church said: that texts should serve as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors.
Children must see themselves in what they read — that's the mirror piece, Church said. But they should also read about people who are different — the window. And they must "make that connection that we're all different, but we're all alike, and we should be accepting of all," Church said. That's the sliding door.
Over the past two years, Alexandria City Public Schools — where 72% of students are black, Hispanic or Asian — has moved to diversify its library and textbook offerings. In 2018, the school system set aside $1.2 million to purchase more than 70,000 "diverse and culturally sensitive" books and related materials for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
In the fall, Alexandria City schools won $60,000 from the nonprofit First Book, which gives books to disadvantaged children nationwide. That money will allow more than 10,000 children to take home between one and three books over the next few months, said Shanna Samson, the administrator who applied for the grant.
At each school in Alexandria, educators will work to select books — often, bilingual texts — that match the demographics of their classrooms.
"As our nation becomes more and more diverse, we just need to be more representative of our students," Samson said. "Our content must be representative of our country."
At the start of the year, Reamer used a small percentage of the money she has received to purchase furniture for Reamer's Reading Retreat, set up in a cozy corner.
Nearly every morning, students arrive before school starts, grab a book and settle down in one of three canvas chairs — and a rocking chair — to snatch a blissful 15 minutes cocooned among colorful pillows and patterned blankets. Reamer estimates roughly three-fourths of her current and former students read books on their own, in their free time.
Spaced around Reamer's classroom, at least four separate signs bear the same verb: "READ."
Shekofa Hussaini, 18, needs no instruction.
Hussaini, a student in Reamer's Honors English class, packs the book she's reading — David Levithan's "Some Day" — into her school bag each morning. Even if she doesn't find time to open it, Hussaini said, she likes to have the novel nearby.
It's the second installment in a four-part saga centered on "A," the protagonist who is cursed to awaken in a different body every morning. Reamer recommended the series after Hussaini — who emigrated from Afghanistan three years ago — confided she likes to "get to know a lot of different people."
The books resonated for another reason.
In childhood, after watching a medical drama on television, Hussaini decided she wanted to be a doctor. In Afghanistan, that felt impossible. Even after moving to the United States, it still seems daunting.
But then she thinks about A's never-failing determination to court love interest Rhiannon — no matter the protagonist's inability to remain in one body.
A's "perseverance reminds me of my own," Hussaini said. "I read, and know that I will not give up."