Why Are So Many Adults Threatened by Students Choosing Books?

  • Flowers in the Attic
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • As I Lay Dying
  • Mists of Avalon
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • The Hobbit
  • Little Women
  • Anne of Avonlea
  • the Bible
  • Cold Mountain
  • Angela’s Ashes
  • The Celestine Prophecy
  • Dreamland
  • Speak
  • The Hot Zone

A list of books you can find at garage sales or friends of the library sales?  Probably.  But the above-named books are also just some of the books I chose to read in high school.  They weren’t assigned books but instead were books that friends and I passed around.  Of course we read Hemingway, Salinger, Achebe, and Shakespeare in school.  Well, we “read” those.  I can tell you exactly which assigned books I read and which ones I “read”.  But the books I picked on my own and the ones my friends were all talking about?  Those I didn’t put down until I turned that last page.

I was a voracious reader in middle school but in high school I just didn’t have as much time to read.  The books we were reading in school, inevitably written by dead white men, didn’t interest me most of the time.  But a friend handed me Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland and another couldn’t stop talking about this kid named Harry Potter after a trip to the UK.  Another friend was reading Mists of Avalon so a few of us picked it up at the library.  My aunt, a middle school English teacher, gave me a copy of Speak. I was reading even if the books weren’t those that most adults would choose.

I was lucky, because no one in my life judged me or the books I chose to read.  (I’m not sure my mom knew I was reading Flowers in the Attic!). But not all kids are that lucky. This week The New Yorker published a column by Rebecca Mead entitled “The Percy Jackson Problem”.  In the column, Ms. Mead warns that while gateway books like Riordan’s best-selling myth adventures might lead children to the classics they can also pull them away from great literature.


Discussing Rick Riordan’s newest book, Ms. Mead laments “What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them…away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?”

But what if it doesn’t?  What if those middle school students who pick up Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods also pick up D’Aulaires famous mythology classic?  What if they read The Hunger Games after finishing the Percy Jackson series and then that leads to reading 1984? They might find their way to The Handmaid’s Tale a few years after that, just as some of my students have.  Reading begets reading, no matter where you start.  Forced reading begets fake reading or no reading at all in most cases.

You know what?  Ms. Mead might even be right in her assertion that gateway books don’t always lead to reading more rigorous texts on the same topic. Maybe some of those readers will never pick up another mythology-based book again after finishing Riordan’s books.  But if we allow students to choose their own reading and we model a culture of literacy in our schools and homes they will pick up other books.  Maybe one of those students will decide to read more science fiction.  Another might read every informational or nonfiction book about primates that they can get their hands on.  Still another might move through their favorite poetry anthology. Readers read, and we create readers when we allow them to choose their reading outside of class.

Right now I am reading Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewcz and Kalahari by Jessica Khoury.  I am enjoying both but they are wildly different books.  Over the summer I read The Goldfinch: A Novel and The King In Yellow.  Like most readers, I read rigorous books and less rigorous books.  I have beach reads, quick reads, and fun reads.  I also have professional reads, longer reads, and intense reads.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Most of my colleagues and friends fall into similar patterns.  We read, but certainly not just classics or rigorous literature!

Earlier this year the Pew Research  Foundation released its reading survey for 2014 and they found that the typical American adult read five books in the previous twelve months.  Looking at my students’ current reading record I can see that most of mine have read between 3-5 books since September.  Some have read 10-20 books.  They are already way ahead of most adults! So here’s my proposal-  leave the decisions about independent reading to teachers and parents.  If you promise not to judge children and teens for their book choices I promise not to judge most American adults for the five or fewer books they read in the last year.  Readers read, and we won’t create readers if we don’t allow them to read what they want to read on their own time.

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As the always brilliant Donalyn Miller reminds us, “Reading belongs to readers, not to teachers. If we want children to see reading as anything more than a school job, we must give them the chance to choose their own books and develop personal connections to reading, or they never will.”  I’d add that reading also doesn’t belong to parents, adult relatives, or journalists. If you provide the books and the time to read, students will read.  Stop spending money on CCSS initiatives, textbooks, and standardized tests.  Take that money and spend it on books, librarians, and author visits.  Bringing Rick Riordan or John Green or any author into a school is going to create a lot more readers than any of Pearson’s tests.  And those readers will move on to more books.

Check out my work on The NYTimes Learning Network Blog!

In case you haven’t seen my tweets, my co-teacher and I have been contributing weekly writing prompts to The NYTimes Learning Network blog this year.  As we said on the blog earlier in the school year,

By reading the newspaper daily and writing in response to the paper’s content, our students greatly improved both their critical thinking and writing ability. Using The Times to teach history and literacy this past year forever changed our approach to education.

We are now able to meet all Common Core State Standards for writing and reading informational text, while preserving the literature curriculum already studied in English class. As a result of our daily inclusion of The Times, our redesigned classroom is now filled with topical writing, lively debate and students making connections between what they are learning in their classrooms with what is happening throughout the world around them.

And the best part?  Our kids LOVE reading the paper.  They really enjoy it and beg to read more.  Our former students, now sophomores, stop by during lunch and at the end of the day to pick up papers to bring home.  The engagement is above and beyond anything we could have imagined.

It’s been AWESOME so far.  Seriously.  We have to be flexible, because we choose the articles each morning when we get to school.  Then, those articles sometimes lead to us throwing out our plans for the rest of the week as new projects and ideas rise organically from the work with the newspaper.  Just last week we read a fabulous science article, Finding  Zen in a Patch of Nature, and it led to an amazing project that we will be working on over the next few weeks.  That project included a Skype chat with the subject of the article, Dr. David Haskell.  He spent about 25 minutes with each of our classes on Friday and it was wonderful.  You will learn more about our project in the coming weeks, as we will be chronicling it on the Learning Network blog.

You can see all of the prompts to date at this link.

How to Save Money in Education

Jay Mathew’s column in the Washington Post today lists seven ways that schools can save money without spending a dime.  Three of those reasons are directly related to reading and I love them.  But the best of ideas is #1 on the list:

Replace elementary school homework with free reading. Throw away the expensive take-home textbooks, the boring worksheets and the fiendish make-a-log-cabin-out-of-Tootsie-Rolls projects. One of the clearest (and most ignored) findings of educational research is that elementary students who do lots of homework don’t learn more than students who do none. Eliminating traditional homework for this age group will save paper, reduce textbook losses and sweeten home life. Students should be asked instead to read something, maybe with their parents — at least 10 minutes a night for first-graders, 20 minutes for second-graders and so on. Teachers can ask a few kids each day what they learned from their reading to discourage shirkers.


Yes!  Yes!  Yes!  This would be absolutely invaluable for our students.  And I can take it one step further- instead of questioning a few students each day, run reading workshop.  Conference with students, have them complete letter essays in the upper grades, and otherwise engage them with their reading.  If only this would actually happen….

Parent-Teacher Conferences

We had Parent-Teacher Conferences this week and they went well.  But the most amazing part?  99% of my parents told me that their children have never enjoyed reading as much as they are this year!  How awesome is that?  One parent even asked me to talk to her daughter, because she is refusing to do her homework.  Instead, she is reading Twilight.  Her mom didn’t know what to do, because she wants her to read but she also has to do her homework. Haha!  I did speak to her daughter today, and I think we straightened her out.  But how awesome is that?!

Slice of Life #20


I love reading. If you told me I could do absolutely anything I want for an entire day, I would choose reading. I love sitting on my couch, with its chaise lounge, stretching out with a good book.

I have spent the majority of today reading the conclusion to my favorite trilogy, The Sweet Far Thing (The Gemma Doyle Trilogy), by Libba Bray. Hours have flown by as I have delved deeper into this almost-800 page tome. I have had it on my nightstand for over a month, but I held off on reading it until spring break, when I knew I would be able to give it the attention it deserved. How right I was! I have been pulled into Gemma’s world and am almost done with the book.

Granted, I haven’t left my house yet today. But who needs to leave when you have a good book?


Ruth, over at Inspiring Readers and Writers, has posted some though-provoking questions on her blog. I’ve been mulling them over for the last few hours and decided to share some of my thinking here on The Reading Zone.

-Do teachers have time to write & read for personal reasons? If we don’t have time for it, then why would we think our students have time for it? Plus, in reality, it’s not about having time, but making time.
This question immediately hits home for me. As an avid reader, I do see my time for reading sometimes diminishing. I choose to watch TV or even nap instead of reading. Every so often, 2-3 days will go by and I will realize I haven’t been reading. When I don’t read, though, it’s almost like there is a dull ache deep down inside of me. Reading is such a huge part of my life that its absence is noted almost immediately. In all honesty, I really do make as much time as possible for reading, specifically reading for pleasure. I may not review every book I read on the blog, but I am constantly reading. This is something I am always bringing up with my students.

I try to discuss my own reading on a daily basis in my classroom. In my booktalks, while helping readers choose their next book, and when having conversations with students- I will talk about the books I have read lately. I know they keep track, because they will frequently respond with “Ms. M., you were just reading another book! You are already on a new one?” or “Wow, you read a lot!” This always makes me smile, because I know they are paying attention to my reading life. I also share my experiences with abandoning books and why I choose to read certain books over other books. It validates the choices that my students make when they see their teacher making similar decisions. By this point in the year, my students are even comfortable disagreeing with me and telling me that I should give a book “another chance”. Sometimes, when I abandon a book I think it serves as a better advertisement than my book talks! Certain students flock to my abandoned books list because they know they enjoy books I usually dislike.

In the classroom, I advertise my reading life on a bulletin board. It’s actually not a real bulletin board….it’s just the front of my desk covered in butcher paper and surrounded by a border. Every month, I tape my reading log to the front of the desk so my students can see the list of books I completed that month. By the end of the year, I will have 9-10 lists on my desk. This matches the reading logs my students keep in their reading binders, again validating the work they are doing in their reading lives.

As for writing, I admit I am guilty in letting that slide. I want to write. I want to be published. I want to be an author. But I suffer from the same confidence problems that my students do. I am not confident in my abilities and tend to put my writing to the side, choosing other hobbies instead. However, blogging has been a new outlet for my writing, forcing me to reflect on my teaching practices while also writing daily (or almost daily)! Plus, Writer’s Notebook Wednesdays force me to publish something on my blog every Wednesday. It’s great motivation!

-What about teachers who “don’t like” writing or reading? Yet, everything academic revolves around reading and writing.

This statement is all too true, and all too annoying! Everytime we have a grade-wide language arts meeting at school, I am surrounded by groans. As most of our teams are departmental, not everyone teaches language arts in our district. This means many teachers are quite vocal about their hatred of the humanities. I frequently hear how much this teacher hates reading or that one hates to write. How can you be a teacher and dislike reading? Regardless of the subject, you must read in order to teach, study the latest pedagogy, and be an informed citizen for your students. The same goes for writing!

I do think that when teachers say they hate reading and writing, they are referring to reading and writing for pleasure. I can name on one hand the adults I know who read and write on a daily basis (not related to work). It is an unfortunate effect of living in the digital age. I do my part though, constantly making book recommendations and passing on books I have enjoyed. Sometimes, I think my books are the only books some adults around me read all year! Yet, as I said above, I can’t imagine not reading 100-150 books each year, personally.

-Is it a realistic expectation for teachers to read and write for their own personal reasons, outside of teaching?

This question forced me to really sit down and think. Is it unrealistic to expect our teachers to read and write for pleasure? The language arts teacher, writer, and reader in me says “No!” Reading and writing should be a part of daily life for all adults. But another part of me says that’s wrong. I would be highly offended if someone told me that I needed to study history and math for my own personal reasons, outside of school. I don’t teach those subjects and they very rarely come up in my own classes. I can understand a math teacher saying that they never have an opportunity or reason to share their reading/writing (or lack thereof) with students, thus rendering it useless as a model for them. In that same vein, I can’t recall ever discussing math with my students, other than the occasional reminder of how to figure out their averages. While I surely use math in my own life, it’s just not something that would come up in my lessons at school. If I don’t enjoy doing math problems in my spare time, and it wouldn’t be useful in my classroom, why should I force myself to do it?

Wow, what great questions, Ruth! As I was answering them, I came up with even more questions of my own. Is departmentalizing the right thing to do for our students? When we compartmentalize each subject into its own sepatate niche, are we doing our students a disservice? Should they be immersed in reading and writing in all subjects? Obviously, I have a lot more thinking to do. In the meantime, check out this post from the The Book Whisperer. She has some similar thoughts.


Today I eavesdropped on two of my boys as they walked out of class. Both had their novels on top of their (large) pile of books, binders, and more. One is reading the first book in James Patterson’s “Maximum Ride” series and the other is reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”. They were telling each other about their books, why they liked them, and if they thought the other would like it. I have never felt so proud! No one was making them read the novels and no one was making them share. They did it on their own, because they generally like the books they are reading. 🙂

I love to read!

There is no better feeling than having a student run up to you the moment they get to school, clenching a book to their chest that you recommended. Here is how I began my day:

“Oh my gosh!!! **** DIED! I couldn’t stop reading last night! This is the best book ever! I read 50 pages just last night! I can’t believe how good this book is!!!”

For those interested, she is reading the first book in Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Shadow Children series. Actually, she is probably finishing it right now. She made sure to grab the second book from my library before going home, so that she could start it the minute she finishes the first book. 😀