Today was one of those days. You know those days that start off completely wrong and only continue to increase in frustration as the hours tick by? That was my day. When I got home (after a long day at school followed by home instruction), I sat down to relax. I decide to peruse the latest issue of NCTE’s Voices in the Middle. When I turned to Penny Kittle’s contribution to the journal, I breathed a sigh of relief. There are lots of people out there who believe what I believe about reading and writing instruction. Recently, I’ve been feeling like I am floundering, like there are too many people who think tweens and teens can’t become readers. That those who don’t read by age 10 or so are doomed to never read for pleasure and we should just move on to helping them pass the test. So thank you Penny Kittle.
Penny Kittle’s article, Mission Possible, can be found on the NCTE website (if you are a member of NCTE). For those who aren’t members, I am going to share a few of the lines that really brought a smile to my face and firmed up my resolve to help my students morph into lifelong readers. But I strongly urge you to go seek it out and read it for yourself. I’ve printed out a copy to hang in my room as a daily reminder that I’m not fighting this fight alone.
This is the most important work you will do as a teacher.
You get one year to make a mark.
You get one year to infect each child with a need to read, with a belief that it matters, with the desire to turn off the Celtics and pick up a book.
YES! We can turn our students into lifelong readers when we show them the power of choice. Empowering students to choose their own books, their own genres, their own authors opens up new doors. How do I know? It happens every.single.day in my classroom. Today I helped students find new books. One student just finished his first book since 4th grade. Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Among the Hidden hooked him. Now he is moving on to the entire series. But when he came crashing through my door this morning, waving the book over his head and shouting, “I finished it, Ms. M.! I did it! And it was awesome! You were right! Can I have the next book?!” I just wanted to hug him. He left today with a list of books he wants to read this year and I couldn’t be prouder. Are we there yet? Not completely. But the door has been opened. And when he completes his 40 book genre requirement in June he will be prouder than he can even imagine right now. And I will smile.
Alan stopped reading in eighth grade. He remembers he used to read, but now he doesn’t have time for it. He loved war books because he was curious about his father’s service in Vietnam, but there weren’t any war books in English class. Novels and poetry and Shakespeare took over in high school, and it was all so far outside of his interests at 14 that he refused to try anymore. And really, who at 14 has the maturity to choose differently? It was book after book, month af- ter month, nothing that he wanted to read. He skimmed SparkNotes to pass his classes, but by 11th grade, he’d dropped to the lowest level in English. He wouldn’t read the classics, so they were read to him. Alan no longer saw himself as a reader because he wasn’t motivated to read within the narrow space we allowed.
We can not give up on these students. Just because they don’t enjoy reading for pleasure, don’t pick up a book instead of “Call of Duty”, and would rather text than read doesn’t mean we can’t turn them on to books. But if we want them to be readers we need to respect them and give them the credit they deserve! A student who tells us they hate reading deserves to be heard. Why do they hate it? Could it be for the litany of reasons my students list every year? Things like being forced to read only novels an adult chooses. Or being told they can’t be trusted to choose their own book (usually they realize this through the actions of adults rather than their words). Maybe it’s because they read below grade level and no one tells them they can do it. No one works them. Or maybe it’s because they are overwhelmed and don’t know where to even begin when trying to choose a book. I hear all of this and more each year. Yet in June, every student leaves my room having discovered something they like to read. And most of them are readers who walk out the door grasping a list of books they can’t wait to read over the summer and following year. So we can make them into readers. If we see them as readers and provide them with authentic motivation.
As Kittle states in her article, providing a classroom library that is vibrant and static, ever-changing, is a tangible reminder that I expect my students to be readers and will accept nothing less. They may not all read on the same level, and some may never reach grade level during the 180 days I have with them, but they will read and they will improve.
We need to give students time to read. Yes, in class. This means sharing read-alouds and allowing students time to read their independent reading novels without being forced to write inane summaries all the time and without being forced to constantly answer basic recall questions to “prove” to us they are reading. Instead, when we show students that we value reading then they will value it. Does that mean working even harder to make time for everything we are responsible for in English? Sure it does. But nothing else will make students readers. And making them into lifelong readers is the greatest gift we can give them- academically, culturally, and in life.
Nancie Atwell (2007) said, “For students of every ability and background, it’s the simple mi- raculous act of reading a good book that turns them into readers, because even for the least experienced, most reluctant reader, it’s the one good book that changes everything. The job of adults who care about reading is to move heaven and earth to put that book into a child’s hands.”
I believe you can make it happen.
Atwell says it better than I ever can. She and Penny Kittle have helped relight a fuse that was beginning to flicker out after a frustrating day. All it takes is getting to know our students as readers and then helping them find that one book. THE book. The one that will change their life forever. I’d say that’s the most important standard we can cover, regardless of our curriculum.