Sunday, August 5, 2012

No, my Class is NOT Filled with Book Lovers -- at the Beginning of the Semester

I tell my students on our first day I'm aware that not everyone here loves to read. I know there are lots of reasons they're enrolled in my class, and then I tick off some of those reasons: they love to read and want to get credit for what they love; they remember loving to read as a child and would like to find some new books; they're heading off to college, and they know they'll be required to read much more, much faster; they want to practice reading so they can improve their test scores; a friend told them it was an easy class. Many times students who are learning English or are foreign exchange students enroll in my class. All legitimate reasons. Then there's the dreaded ones: their counselor or special education teacher told them to take it; their mother saw it in the course catalog and thought it would be good for them; they haven't a clue -- they were 'dumped' here. Those kids come to my class with a chip on their shoulder that I try to respectfully hand back to them for another day.

I don't promise to change their attitudes about books, but I do steadfastly promise I will help them find ONE book they will like. That's all. In the nearly 15 years I've taught this class, I can only think of one student who only read one book...all the other (300 a year for the past six years) find many more.

I acknowledge the different reasons right up front. There's no sense in ignoring it. Some kids are happy to be in my room, some are frightened and resentful. They're afraid I'm going to hold them up to ridicule because they can't read as fluently or as fast as their friends. They're afraid I'm going to require them to read out loud and expose their secret fear of reading.They're afraid I will display their weaknesses to the world. I know I have a lot of negative baggage to help them shed before we can get down to the business of reading for PLEASURE.

My first step is to talk about book one has to read the same book here, unless you want to. No one will tell you this book is too easy -- or too hard -- for you. No one's going to tell you it's too young or too old. I have a disclaimer in my syllabus that explains I will not censor books. I leave that up to their parents. I might check with a parent to make sure she knows what her student is reading (have only done it once), but the job of censoring books in my class is the parents' responsibility. My room has probably 2000 books randomly stuffed in the shelves, so it's hard for any student to tell me he can't find a book. But the right book? That's going to take some time.

I share books I've read over the summer, and I share some of the 'old reliables.' Within a week, most students have settled into a book -- maybe not THE book, but a book. Habits are forming. They're sitting still and focusing on their books. They're thinking about new books and hearing about new books. They're surrounded every day by books. That begins to set the tone, to create our climate.

In that time, I begin to learn more about my students. I'm at my best when I know my kids, know their tastes and abilities. I give them lots of surveys, I begin to require them to write about their books, I watch what they choose, what they abandon. I don't just suggest one book when they ask; I suggest three at least.  I give them the freedom to sample, choose, un-choose. But every day we DO read, and we DO write. I get to know my students best by reading what they think about books. I teach them how to write personal reflections, not dry summaries. I begin to cultivate that community of readers by being an audience for their thoughts about books.

For some who brought a book to class the first day, my job is to give them the freedom to read and someone with whom to bounce ideas back and forth. For others, I start at the beginning, trying to find that first easy book to invite them into the community of readers. For others, I have to endure lots of pickiness, which isn't so much pickiness as it is anxiety about failing again.I'm patient. I know about thousands of books. I'm great friends with our librarians who know even more books. I work with the special education teachers to differentiate for my disabled students. We use headphones and books on tape. We use books written at very elementary levels; we do whatever it takes.

I ask my students to write about their books and I provide an authentic, supportive audience for their thoughts. Some are dumbfounded that I actually will read every word and respond to every entry. But that's my job! I must show them reading is not the solitary, anti-social activity many people believe. Reading is very social...when we find a great book we must share it. I know kids 'get it' when I have to shush them from talking about their books, sharing with each other.

The writing, as the reading, is easy to individualize for all my students. We all write for five minutes. I have had students who could only write one sentence in that time, and others who can write half-a-page. Everyone who does write for the five minutes earns his or her grade for the assignment. And, as they become stronger readers by reading, so they become stronger writers by writing.

Every student finds a book to love. Every student improves. Every student leaves, if he or she has given me an honest effort, a stronger student.

I want to end my thoughts by sharing three reflections from the final exam from last spring. Give students the respect to choose their own books, the expectation they have something profound to say about their books, and a teacher who loves to read their work, and you can get this!

Books can help you find yourself. Due to having a certain number of classes and requirements, one can’t learn from every teacher. But in R4P there are thousands of teachers in every book willing to teach lessons of life. When one starts doing that, they will see they’ve been teaching themselves all along, which is a huge step to becoming the individual they want to be.

Reading means everything. It’s how we communicate to the past and future. There’s a reason why it’s still alive…I love stories, I just never loved books. I’ve always been a slow readier and I know I’ve improved, but I still like to read slow because in reality, why rush? I like to read, not to have read.

Reading has and always will mean the world to me. As a writer, reading is just as important as writing. I have gained a new respect for all books this semester, and I’m always improving my attention to detail. I did improve my reading speed slightly, which is always exciting for me.


  1. Yes, yes, yes! Every student walks into R4P for a different reason, but everyone walks out with something in common...they've experienced being immersed in a community of readers.

  2. Exactly. Every student has had a measure of success...and every student has grown in confidence. I'm hoping they will share that success and confidence with their own children!