Who Else Have I Been Failing?

Among the countless ideas borrowed from the inimitable Penny Kittle are quarterly reading reflections (although by the time I got around to it with my sophomores, they wrote quarter(ish) reading reflections). I offered students a collection of reflective questions, generated from Penny’s work:

  • What has worked well for you so far in your independent reading?
  • What was challenging for you?
  • What might be helpful to overcome those challenges?
  • What reading goals will you set for next quarter/semester?

I love this work for the way it asks students to focus on themselves as readers, not just as students earning a grade. It also informs my plans, especially for students who are still meandering through workshop: fake readers and serial abandoners and the like. Much of what I found was unsurprising:

Students can be hard on themselves …

At home I read fairly inconsistently and met the goal of 2 hours a week infrequently. Looking back at this that is pretty pathetic; I did the math and figured out that reading that reasonable amount every week for me is the same as if I were to read just one minute for every waking hour.   — Robert P.

… and on their authors.

I have to say that Big Little Man was the most challenging because its story was quite confusing to me  … I had to piece events in order and figure out if it was a flashback or not. This confusing puzzle kept me up nights. I understand that he is adapting to the American life as a Filipino Man, but please explain it in order from Day 1.   — Dylan L.

Learning happened …

Even though I read only 2 books this quarter I feel that my habits are disappearing and that I’m becoming a better reader with each book. I feel that I am reading a lot faster and not stumbling on lines as much as I did all my life.  — Jacob V.

… and choice is emphatically good …

I’M NOT READING THE BOOK BECAUSE I HAVE TO. I’M READING THE BOOK BECAUSE I ENJOY IT AND WANT TO. [emphasis NOT added]        — Maluboo D.

… except when it’s not. 

Because I no longer have a criteria for choosing books, I no longer feel the desire to choose a book.   — Darielle W.

KeepCalmReadOn

Growing up in Delaware, Darielle had always chosen books by authors of color, “not because of their past, but because of their color, sadly. Although my past relates a lot more to an author of Caucasian, and privileged descent.” When she moved to Chicago seven years ago, her experience — and her understanding of her own identity — became more complicated. Reading books by African American authors became a way for her to “learn to be more like the people who looked like me … to appear more black, to fit in with them so that I could rid myself of the title ‘the whitest black girl I know.’ To understand how I am really seen by others.” Darielle’s book choices became even more fraught when she developed a relationship with a white boy.

I began to feel as if I was no longer black enough to read about these things. I’d suddenly felt guilty and unworthy of reading anything that had to do with the African American experience … which is very unfortunate because [these] books are all I’ve read or wanted to read since I moved here 7 years ago.

For all her reading life, Darielle had been trying to find a mirror. Amy Rasmussen deconstructs this reading metaphor in this post. Don’t we all search for mirrors in books, especially as young readers? What we read is about who we are. What others observe us reading tells them about who we are.

I thought about my past conversations with Darielle and realized how I had been failing her. Every time I asked her if she was still reading How It Went Down. Every time I asked her why it was hard for her to remember to bring her independent reading to class. Every time I playfully called her “the book sampler.”

Who else have I been failing? What is really behind the avoidance behavior of my other “fake readers” and “serial abandoners”? The answer, I see now, is far more complicated than finding the right book for them. The answer is about who they are, how they see themselves, and how they fear others will see them. 

In our RWW classrooms, students “get to” choose what they read. Shana examines the complexity of choice in this post. For some (read: many?) students, this freedom is heavy. What we choose to read sends a message about who we (think we) are. And what we choose not to read, or what we cannot decide to read, sends another message loud and clear. And now I’m listening. 

 

Kathleen Maguire teaches Sophomore English, Senior Advanced Writing, and AP Language & Composition in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago. When she’s not grading papers or reading books to recommend to students, she tries to keep up with her yoga and her 10-year-old son, Jude (not in that order). She tweets at @maguireteach.

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One thought on “Who Else Have I Been Failing?

  1. Amy Rasmussen February 11, 2018 at 1:29 pm Reply

    Love love love this post. I, too, recently asked my students to complete a self reflection. Like you, I learned some startling truths about their identities, not just as readers but as individuals. I also learned some hard truths about how some view me and my teaching. It takes courage to ask students to reflect, for them and for us. Thank you for the reminder to stay vulnerable. It is in that place I think we learn the most about how we can improve.

    Like

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