Confession time. Who is with me?
Not long ago, only a few years I’m ashamed to say, I was not the reader I once had been.
I was not really a reader at all.
In that respect, I think I was much like many of our students. A formerly voracious reader with vague intentions of spending more time with good books, but I never quite found that time. I found excuses instead.
I didn’t want to read because “I read all day. All I do is read. Paper after paper after paper. I don’t want to read one more word.”
I didn’t want to read because “There are far more important things I need to do now. Plan, grade, have a life. If I get half a second to myself, reading isn’t top on my list.”
I didn’t want to read because “I have plenty of time to read over the summer.”
I was burned out by work. I was betrayed by years of being told what was important for me to read. I was shackled to loving the books I was teaching.
I had become a reluctant reader.
In this way, it would seem, I was also a complete fraud.
Every day, I would walk into my classroom with genuine passion for my role as an educator. I wanted my students to learn. I wanted them to be inspired by great stories and turns of phrase. If only they would connect with language in the way that made my heart flutter, they too would see the great romantic quest that is English.
A noble pursuit, to be sure…if one is aiming to enlist 200 some students per year into the ranks of English teachers, the chances of which are as dismal as they are ridiculous.
It wasn’t until I pulled my head out of my well meaning behind that I looked around and really saw what I was creating:
A classroom set to run on my love of a select number of texts. A failing endeavor for countless kids in my classroom.
Trust me. If enthusiasm and/or passion for certain texts was capable of making life long lovers of the written word, I humbly submit that I would have been able to do it.
Daisy’s love of Gatsby’s beautiful shirts, pales in comparison to my love of the irony presented in Nick’s claims not to judge.
Pip’s love of Estella pales in comparison to my love of the tragedy that is Miss Havisham’s crushed soul and engulfed bridal gown.
Two roads diverging in a yellow wood present endless possibilities…to me.
The Lady of Shallot is my patroness.
But which kids does this really hook? The students who are likewise entertained and thereby worthy of my continued energy? The students who will “become something” because they “get it”? The students who are compliant? The students who can successfully fake compliance?
I love the books I taught, year in and year out, but you can’t make someone love you, I mean the books you teach (flashback to college there, please excuse me), you can only share your love and encourage your passion for the texts. My passion for the whole class novels we worked with was legitimate, palpable, and just not enough to reach all of my students.
Not unless I helped them see themselves as readers first.
I was far too narrowly focused on the texts I had been told were important and had set about making it my job to make students believed in the importance of those texts too.
And along the way, I stopped reading everything else. Well, not completely. Of course, I still read, but I was no longer a reader. I talked with my students about the difference in those two terms, but I was no longer living it.
I wasn’t until workshop and choice became a big part of my daily practice, that I really returned to my life as a reader. Students would need recommendations for books, which meant I needed to have a lot more under my belt that The Scarlet Letter.
However, this is only part of what it means to improve your teaching by reading.
Our students deserve teachers who understand and live the belief that teaching students to read is vitally important, but so is living the life of a reader and being that model of just how many books, genres, conflicts, poems, and symbolic representations of universal themes (sometimes old school dies hard) can be found beyond the canon.
And that making time to read changes who you are in so many powerful and meaningful ways.
These days, the books I know, love, and share are still classic, in some respects, but they are far more broad than that as well.
I’ve learned the following:
Taking time to read is not cheating
If you are grading so many papers that you can’t imagine picking up a book in your freetime, you are grading far too many papers. Small changes in practice can lift that burden and provide much needed time to connect with texts that you can then share with students.
The tried and true are a springboard
Workshop does not mean abandoning all of the texts you’ve worked with over the years. It means making pointed decisions about your belief in the value of whole class novel work, selecting authors to study for craft through mentor text work instead of reading the whole text together, and moving students to some of the more challenging and classic pieces when they are ready. Build readers and then lay the likes of Bronte, Tennyson, and Plath on them. As options. As texts to achieve, rather than endure.
Without a book(s) in your hand and heart, you are cheating
You are cheating yourself and you are cheating your students. I get so excited to book talk new texts, share audiobook snippets with my students, sit down and read next to them, and even to tell them their summative essays will be returned one day later, because I couldn’t put down The Underground Railroad. Students get excited to then share their own reading, in a way that is only really ever achieved because it’s their reading.
When we share our vast and varied reading life, as opposed to saying these are the few books that matter, we are giving students the opportunity to build the love of reading that captures their hearts and minds with high interest material. Yes, we English teachers find Keats to be a master. Many students, with little reading background, find him infuriating and a reason to suggest that “reading is stupid.”
We must give our students time to read every day.
We must talk about books every day.
We must talk with our students about books everyday.
We must read alongside our students.
We must be readers…otherwise, we are in the business of false advertising.
Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She is currently reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, listening to At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen, and regretting never having read 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher. She’ll be taking care of that later this week. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum