I Became a Reader at 26

I was a junior in college when I first realized I wasn’t a reader. I sat in one of my education classes staring at a list of books. I went line by line, searching for something known to me. My mind scrambled. I recognized some of the titles, but not much more. We had to choose one to read independently for an assignment. I heard one girl say, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower was an awesome book, I read it a few times. Well worth it.” Another classmate mentioned something about how much she read in school. Others were discussing books they disliked reading. The more I listened, the more I started to panic. I stared at the list, realizing that I was studying to become an English teacher, but didn’t read. I was mortified, embarrassed and ashamed. How could everyone around me have read so much? Why hadn’t I read anything?

I thought back to my reading experience in high school.

The teacher would choose a book for the class. I had weekly comprehensions questions, some group and whole class discussion, maybe a pop quiz, and typically an ending exam to prove I read and understood. All the while, everyone read the same chapters each night. Except, I never actually read any of those chapters, nor did any of my friends. Instead, we read online summaries. It was easy, simple and less time consuming. Plus, we passed most of the work. All without reading the actual book. A perfect time-saver.

But there I sat, a soon-to-be English teacher, surrounded by readers discussing their love of books. I enjoyed writing, but reading was just something I had to do for school. I couldn’t recall one book that I had actually read, let alone enjoyed. I wasn’t a reader. I wish I could say I just started reading more and more and fell in love with it, but it wasn’t that easy. It took me 6 more years to become a reader.

From that moment on, I stopped fake reading. I tried to get through every book assigned to me. No more online summaries or Googling answers (well, okay, maybe just a few). It was difficult to sit and read. There were so many distractions calling my name. It wasn’t as entertaining as watching a video, movie or TV show. It wasn’t as flashy or hands on as playing video games. It wasn’t as fun as hanging out with friends. It was all mental and I didn’t see a reason to put so much time and effort into it.

Luckily, I fell in love with teaching from day one. My constant desire to grow as an educator led me to books written by other teachers. Suddenly, I didn’t need to find an interest in reading. I wanted to figure teaching out and those books held the answers. I started to understand what it meant read for enjoyment.

I kept at it and discovered that too many students do exactly as I did in school. They fake read because they’re blind to the relevance or importance of reading. It’s just something they’re forced to do for a grade. I had no interest in forcing kids to fake read, I wanted to show students the value of independent reading and how beneficial it is.

Last summer, after my third year of teaching, I became serious about reading. I started reading middle grade appropriate books as fast as I could. I discovered a hidden interest in stories and the words that form them. I built a reading list. I bought as many book as I could afford for a classroom library. I wrote about books in my writer’s notebook. I started collecting lines or sections that stuck with me. I read more education books about reading. Most importantly, I placed independent reading above any and all standards I was required to teach.

And so far, it’s working. My students are reading far more than ever. Recently, while reading through Q2 reflections, one student wrote “I think maybe you could be a little less obsessed with books.” I laughed out loud and felt proud of my obsession. I felt proud that I could finally identify as a reader.

Getting every student to enjoy reading is a true challenge. I don’t have all the answers and I’d be lost if I weren’t constantly reading about what others are doing to promote life-long readers. Week in and week out I struggle to reach the most reluctant readers, but I won’t give up.

As educators, we need to do everything we can to create and foster actual readers. We need to share an enthusiasm for reading. We need to talk about books we read. We need to provide students access to high interest text. We need to keep trying even when a student resists book after book after book. We need to forget about the grades for a second, put down the assessments and show students the joy of reading.

 

Book Clubs – for the sake of reading together with choice

Prior to February vacation, one of my 7th grade classes finished up their book clubs. It’s the first time I’ve ran in-class book clubs. I wanted the format to be very loose and without roles. I’ve used literature circles in the past, but I never liked the idea of forced roles. Nor did I enjoy them myself in school. The main purpose of our book clubs was to read and discuss a book with a group of friends.

I pulled together the few books that I had multiple copies of, and bought a few myself. I wanted a wide range of genres and of course engaging reads. Students read over the choices and used a Google Form to tell me what their top three choices were. From this data, I created groups of 3-5 students each.

The plan was simple (and heavily influenced by this post by Pernille Ripp): Groups would figure out their pacing over the four weeks they had to read their books, how they would hold each other accountable, and then discuss their reading for no more than 10 minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We briefly discussed how to have a meaningful discussion and I provided a list of discussion ideas/topics if they were ever at a lose for what to talk about.

Over the four weeks, I learned that the biggest problem was students not reading or rather not being at the appropriate spot in their book to discuss with the other members. There were a number of reasons: sickness, absences, forgetting their books in school, or simply “I forgot”. In the end, I told the groups to figure it out. Sometimes that meant one group member would read outside quietly during discussion time. Yes they missed out on the discussion but they always caught up for the next one. I can’t expect perfection.

I did ask groups to answer some general questions about their books together. I’m not sure how I liked it. Some were surface-level questions others required deeper thinking. I don’t think I’ll use them next time. Rather, I want to focus on the questions that students have while reading.

Walking around each day, I heard mostly on-topic discussions. Again, I can’t expect perfection. I even told them off-topic discussions should happen as long as it starts from discussing the book.

After reading, groups created a 2-5 minute book-talk. They had complete choice over how with a lists of some discussion points (theme, a small summary, whether they liked it/disliked it and why). I was happy that every group decided to record a video, make a book trailer or put on a play. The process was messy, loud and sometimes off-topic, but it was enjoyable. I love seeing students up and about, working together and creating something.

Overall, I’m pleased with these loose book clubs. Most students asked to do them again. I’m glad we just jumped in rather than me trying to plan out every little step. Next time, I’ll provide a few more things such as discussion guidance and a more structured book-talk. They were much more enjoyable than lit circles. Only one group disliked their book, and maybe 2-3 students didn’t finish reading their books. It’s a lot better than forcing a whole class read that students fake their way through.

I can’t wait to implement book clubs in my other classes and go for round 2 with this particular class.

 

Teaching Can Consume You

Early on in my student teaching, a veteran teacher told me to “be careful”. She said “this job can easily consume you and before you know it, you’ve wasted more time than you should have.” For a while, I kept that in the back of my mind. I approached with some caution. I quickly found out that teaching is much more than a full time job. There’s never enough time and always too much to do. It creates this feeling of inadequacy, never doing enough or being good enough.

Luckily, I’ve learned that these feelings are natural in education. We can’t do it all. Over the years, I’ve dedicated more and more time to becoming a better ELA teacher for my students. I’ve spent summers reading education books, young adult novels, articles/blogs from other educators, and even trying to gamify my class. Needless to say, I spend a lot of time trying to grow/learn, but is it too much time? Some nights I spend close to 3 hours on school related things, outside of school. I frequently return back to what that teacher told me almost 5 years ago. Am I letting this job consume me? Is it getting in the way of other things in my life?

For now, the answer is no. I thoroughly enjoy being an educator, more so than anything else in my life. We live in a world in which too many people dislike/hate their jobs. Whether they get into their career for the money or because of carelessness, most people get “stuck” doing something they don’t enjoy. I look forward to going into work every day. I look forward to creating learning experiences for my students and then trying them out.

So much of my prep as an ELA teacher involves reading books and sharing out to my students, or writing a story/poem/essay/etc and using it in class. I view my planning as a puzzle. How can I make class more engaging? How can I give students more choice? How can I make sure they are actually learning? How can I show they the importance of reading and writing? With time constraints and the unpredictable environment, things become frustrating at times. Some days, I want to quit and give up, but I don’t. I can’t. I’m an educator. I’m in a position to give back every single day. I’m able to learn with a group of awesome students for 180 (ish) days.

Student Reflections

I’ve told my students that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to appeal to every student, every single day. There will be some days they enjoy more than others. It’s natural. As I’m reading through their quarter 2 reflections, they’re showing me just how diverse they are.

I asked them for feedback about my teaching, what they enjoy most/least, what they wish we did more of/less of, and to describe this class to someone not in it. Just like quarter 1, this is some of the most meaningful feedback I receive. Sure some of it is random or I can tell a student didn’t put much thought into it but there are obvious patterns.

When asked what we should do more of/less of or what they liked/disliked, I’m noticing that for every student that wants more of something, there is another student that wants less of it. One student loves writing blog posts, while another hates it. As much as I’d love all the responses to be the same and say I love everything and dislike nothing, that would be boring and make things too easy.

As I continue to read, I realize just how important is it that I provide students with choice in now only how they learn but what they learn.