I wish the library had a door that had one of those big misting foggers. You know, the ones at Six Flags in the summer where the water gently washes over all the sweat and grime of a hot day at the park? I’d like a mister to wash away all the negative feelings my students have about books–or at least dilute it, so I have a chance to baptize the kiddos into the wonder of the written word. So far they fight me like they are scared of water.
I don’t get it. My students are 14 years old. When have they ever been exposed to books enough to know that they hate them? Couldn’t be those evil slacking middle school teachers, could it? The ones some of my colleagues complain about: “What do they DO in middle school? These kids don’t know a thing!” Or, maybe the problem goes back to elementary: “If we don’t get this book read, we won’t get to play outside.” Hmmm.
Now, before teachers in lower grades than me get in a tizzy, let me be clear: I KNOW you work your tired feet to the achy-breaky bone. I am sure at the end of the day, you are as weeping weary as I am. I am quite simply trying to figure this reading thing out. There has to be a reason why my freshmen hate books.
I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and here’s what I think:
1. My kids only think they hate books. They don’t really hate them because they haven’t read enough to know if they like to read or not.
2. My kids think that reading is not cool. The experiences that they’ve had with books in the past have not been positive enough to make them risk the “nerd” factor in high school.
3. My kids will never love books if I (and teachers like me) don’t show them that there’s something to love between the pages.
4. My kids are lacking reading role models. Few in their families are readers, so they have no idea of what a reader does, or what she says.
This is where my job gets real. Real life can change for my kids, if I can get them to read.
How do I present scenarios that show the advantages readers have over non-readers? How do I introduce them to stories that mirror life and non-fiction that expands their world? Because their world is often the 10 square blocks in which they go to school, shop, play, and live.
First, I have to talk about books. I have to talk about books ALL THE TIME. Seems like for the past two years I’ve started off the year quite well. I line my whiteboard shelves with new YA titles and hold one up for a book talk every day for the first two weeks. Without exception, every book I’ve introduced is in a kid’s hand by the end of the day. Why do I stop? Why do I let the testing trolls make me think that practicing other skills is more important that independent reading? I must stop their incessant mutterings.
Next, I have to hold students accountable for their reading. I’ve tried Let’s Read the Most Books Contests between classes. They don’t care. I’ve tried threatening “If you don’t read, you’ll fail.’ They don’t care. I have to somehow change my idea of accountability. It’s not like I ever have to record a grade because a kid read a book. Wouldn’t it be better if I just found out that a child enjoyed reading it?
A teacher friend suggested I conduct Book Chats like she does. While the majority of the class reads silently, she asks one student at a time to come sit in the “blue” chair where she asks specific questions about the book they are reading. She says students clamor for the opportunity to have one-on-one time with her. I see the value in this. In my classes of 30 plus students, the teacher-to-student ratio prohibits much individualized talk. I bet I can learn a great deal about my students if I sit and talk with them. Maybe saying we’re talking about books is how I’ll give myself permission to take the time. And maybe through these conversations, kids will come to know that reading is cool because if you can talk about a book with a teacher, you’re not just an average kid.
Finally, I need to read more. Seems funny because I read ALL THE TIME. Ask anyone who knows me. I just don’t read the kinds of books that my students will get lost in: those urban settings with real-life teen scenarios. I work with teens all day, I don’t really want to read about their [drug, sex, gang, crime] lives outside of school.
But I will.
I will if it will help me match books to students’ interests. I will if it will help me show kids that books can help them solve their problems. I will if I can get kids to stop saying they hate books.
Honestly, I wish I would have had a teacher who loved books as much as I do. Maybe I did, but she never invited me to have a chat about reading. She never showered me with book ideas or helped me see myself through the voice of a character. I would have camped out in that blue chair and counted the minutes until we could talk.
Who knows? Maybe my plans are too simplistic. Maybe the classroom library I’ve built will continue to gather dust, and my head will get mushy with too many teen stories, but guess what? There is no magical misting device that’s going to wash away students’ negative feelings towards books. There’s nothing that’s going to convince them that books contain knowledge and learning and friends. If my students are going to have a chance at all of learning to love books, it’s going to have to be me talking about titles and chatting about characters.
I am up for the challenge, and it begins now: I’ve got 55 new YA books in the trunk of my car. It’s time to get reading!