I have written about my own love for reading and described my implementation of middle school reading workshops. Those workshops were designed to give my students the same experiences with books that fueled my own love of reading: choosing what I wanted to read and making reading a priority in my day.
Two recent blog entries show that my values continue in contemporary classrooms. Former high school teacher Julia Franks describes making a change in her AP English classroom when she moved away from communal reading and analysis of the classics to choosing their own reading. Her practice arose from her belief that readers make better citizens as they are able to construct more sophisticated narratives around events in the world around them:
As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.
Given the option of reading the books on the syllabus or reading twice as many books from a list of 300 titles, all students chose the latter and, by the end of the year, had read nearly twice as many pages as mandated on the original plan. And those AP exam scores that seem to dictate the analysis that eats up so much class time? They did not suffer at all.
We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading. (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.
Middle school teacher and founder of The Global Read Aloud, Pernille Ripp, describes her own “horror” when, at the beginning of the year, her students reported how little they enjoyed reading. She was determined to change that and she did it with books:
Books, and plenty of them. Books that were accessible through audio and text. Books that were not there to push them in a certain direction. That were not forced on them. Picture books for the days where chapter books seemed to be too much work. Free verse for those who had lost their connection with the magic of reading. Graphic novels meant to teach, entice, and enthrall. Everywhere they looked there were books and the books called to them. Without judgment. Without restriction. Without one path to being a reader.
We also took time. Ten minutes every day to read. To find books. To have conversations about the texts we chose. To find something worthy of our time, that we perhaps would want to read later as well. Ten minutes that were the expectation coupled with the idea that one should only read good books, not waste our time on books that would make us dislike reading more. To abandon when needed, to book shop when desired.
The two priorities: the ability to choose your own books and the time to read them.
This message has also been part of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, the book I am reading right now. Sara Lindqvist is a reader who uses books to change a small, dying Iowa town. As she organizes the books in her shop, she put “every unreadable book she could find” on a shelf. These mostly included the award winners that everyone talked about but never read. Sara had tried to by systematic about reading these classics:
She had thrown herself into one ambitious reading project after another, but things had rarely gone according to plan. It was boring to think of books as something you should read just because others had, and besides, she was much too easily distracted. There were far too many books out there to stick to any kind of theme.
Lots of the teachers I follow on Twitter are busy planning their summer reading. I applaud their desire to dive into professional reading, and I have a few of those books on my own list. But, I also would encourage them to let themselves be distracted and see where it leads.