I love pop-psych self-help books. I love books written by professors. This book, by University of California professor Sonia Lyubormisky, happens to be both. I love this book so much I bought a second copy because my first copy had too many post-it notes on it.
Lyubomirsky claims that happy people often achieve a state of “flow” and understand how to make flow happen. We are in flow when we are absorbed in an activity that is not too challenging and not too easy for us. In flow, we lose our sense of time completely: we are not bored, we are not anxious, we are not thinking about whether Trader Joe’s will have our preferred frozen meal in stock by the time we get there.
If you’re like me, you read this description of flow and thought, “Oh, that’s just another word for the reading zone, only made more general for activities that aren’t reading.”
It’s easy to assume that flow experiences are reserved for avid tennis players, chess enthusiasts, artists, musicians, doctors, athletes, and others who have been able to live a lifestyle that caters to their interests. However, research shows that even janitors can experience flow at work.
“Other [janitors], in contrast, transformed the job into something grander and more significant. This second group of hospital cleaners described their work as bettering the daily lives of patients, visitors, and nurses. They engaged in a great deal of social interaction (eg. showing a visitor around, brightening a patient’s day), reported liking cleaning, and judged the work as highly skilled. It’s not surprising that these hospital cleaners found flow in their work. They set forth challenges for themselves– for example, how to get the job accomplished in a maximally efficient way or how to help patients heal faster by making them more comfortable” (Lyubomirsky 188-189). Original research here.
Lyubomirsky believes that habits of mind like these are teachable and trainable. Here’s what developing them can look like during a reading conference:
The conference move: Critical Shopper
How I do it: I’ll ask a student if she would recommend the book she is reading for a classroom library or book club set purchase.
How it supports “flow” or “reading zone”: It gives readers a reminder that reading can have a larger social purpose, and the more engaged they are in their reading lives, the better they can improve the reading lives of their classmates.
What I learn about the reader: I learn about how a reader can engage critically with a text and can provide text-based evidence for a claim about whether a book would or would not make a suitable classroom library investment.
The conference move: Younger Sibling/Cousin
How I do it: I ask a student what their younger sibling or cousin would say the book is about were he or she to read the book that the student’s currently reading. Then I ask the student what he or she thinks the book is really about.
How it supports “flow” or “reading zone”: It reminds readers that there are more ways than one to read a story, and that good stories beg to be shared with family, friends, and loved ones.
What I learn about the reader: I learn about a reader’s ability to grasp themes and ideas in a text. When I start off with, “What would your younger sibling say?” I expect the reader to give me plot summary and basic character traits. Then, when I ask them for what they think the book is really about, it subtly lets the reader know that there are additional ways to answer this question.
The conference move: Goal-setting
How I do it: I ask students to set a goal, and I ask how I can help the student achieve that goal.
How it supports “flow” or “reading zone”: Just as the janitors who experience flow play an active role in setting their own goals, allowing a reader to set his goal gives him an additional purpose and meaning to his reading.
What I learn about the reader: I learn about a reader’s assessment of her own reading strengths and weaknesses. Often the goal a student sets for herself is the same goal I would have chosen for her were I asked to make one.
The conference move: Remember when?
How I do it: I ask students to recollect a time when they were in “the reading zone.” Sometimes I will use their reading log or my memory of their reading to jump-start this conversation.
How it supports “flow” or “reading zone”: By noticing and naming the characteristics that are associated with the reading zone — everything from body positioning while reading, the feeling of “Just one more chapter!”, the sensation of the pages flying by — we can celebrate the reading zone and try to make it happen more often.
What I learn about the reader: I learn about a reader’ self-awareness, and I learn what books got them in the zone, so I can recommend more books just like them!
Amy Estersohn teaches in New York. Her classroom overlooks the parking lot where she learned how to drive. She tweets about books at @HMX_MsE.