I don't know about you, but...
- I did not become a reader because someone held me accountable for reading.
- I did not become a reader because someone offered me "points" or other incentives for the quantity of books or pages I read.
- I did not become a reader because someone limited my reading selections to only to those titles on a certain reading level or within a specific lexile band.
- And I did not become a reader because someone forced me to complete reading logs, write book reports or create (and then reuse) the occasional diorama.
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I became a reader because a kind librarian, whose name I do not remember, at McDermoth Elementary School, (in Aberdeen, Washington), found me hiding under a table in the library on my first day at that school. But instead of forcing me to go out to recess, where the traditional "new kid" bullying, (that I was all too familiar with), awaited, she chose to pass me a book under the table: Judy Blume's Blubber. And then she let me sit there until I was finished reading it. (An act that I would attempt to repeat, often successfully, at many, many other new schools to follow).
I became a reader because one of my 4th grade teachers, Miss Lynch at Madison Elementary School, (in Olympia, Washington), read Wilson Rawls' Where The Red Fern Grows aloud to our class. And I was so taken by its magic, I begged my mother to take me to the public library in order to get my very first library card - which I then used to check out a dusty copy of the book, so that I could read along, reread and, yes, read ahead. As it turns out, this would also prove to be my first (but not last!) overdue library book and my first (but not last!) library fine. But I digress.
I became a reader because my 10th grade English teacher, Sharron Coontz, at Olympia High School (in Olympia, Washington), tossed out the idea of the "whole class novel" (one of many instructional strategies that I have since come to realize put Ms. Coontz WAY before her time) and instead let me choose every book I read for her class. I'd never had this freedom before, and it lead me to discover works by Upton Sinclair, Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck and VC Andrews (lest you think me a literary snob), all of which would change my life in varying ways and help me see reading as a necessary part of living.
Call me Captain Obvious, but I feel the need to point something out: none of the instances that I can identify as having made a difference in my life as a reader involve reading instruction. I can't point to the teacher who helped me master consonant blends. I have no idea who taught me to recognize (or indeed spell) onomatopoeia. I'm not sure in what grade I finally figured out how to identify the main idea of a reading selection. And I have no idea when I discovered the glory of non-fiction text features. Clearly. I did learn those things. But I've also learned this:
Learning to read alone is not enough.
Reading instruction and developing the habit of reading are two very different, but equally important instructional goals. However, in recent years, a greater emphasis has been placed on the former, relegating "the love of reading" to fluff status: something that is nice but not necessary. And, in my estimation, we've paid a heavy price for it. For all our emphasis on reading interventions and "research based programs" that are "guaranteed to improve test scores," those pesky test scores don't seem to have gotten the memo. Further, students who have endured this particular swing of the pedagogical pendulum are, and at alarming rates, leaving school as nonreaders. Even those who can read, simply choose not to once they leave school.
That said, I wrote this post, in part, to thank those people who, by chance or by choice, helped me develop a love of reading. I will be forever grateful and shudder to think what my life might have looked like otherwise. However, this post is also for all those classroom teachers and school librarians (along with the people who support and evaluate them) who are (like it or not) getting ready to head back to school for another year. To them I say this:
I hope you'll consider the following fundamental truths as you plan lessons and activities for the young (potential) readers you serve:
- Our most successful students tend to have one thing in common: they are readers. And by successful I don't just mean that they perform well on standardized tests (although they do) I also mean that they are better at doing other things that actually matter. Time and time again, studies have shown that students who are readers out perform their non-reading counterparts in multiple subject areas. But recent studies also suggest that students who read for pleasure also develop stronger senses of empathy and personal wellbeing. In short, readers win at school and they also win at life. That said...
- Our students are most likely to become readers when:
- they are given choice in what they read,
- they have teachers who also read for pleasure,
- they see reading as an essential part of their lives and not just something they have to do for school, and...
- they develop a habit of reading grown out of having made authentic and meaningful connections with books.
Then, think about your own life as a reader. Can you, as I have above, identify one or two pivot points in your development as a reader? That is to say, can you locate some crucial moments that helped transform you from a non-reader to a reader? If you can, I'm absolutely convinced that they will look a lot like mine, insomuch as they'll have nothing to do with incentives or accountability, but will instead have everything to do with one (or more) exceptional teacher, librarian or some other adult and one (or more) exceptional book. If you are really lucky, and are still in contact with that person, take a moment to thank them. But even if you're not, hold onto those memories and make this the year that you become (or continue to be) that person for someone else. Your students need a reading champion now, more than ever. Let that person be you.