Let Them Read!

I laughed out loud on Saturday morning at NCTE when Donalyn Miller said that Gary Paulsen didn't write Hatchet so teachers could do a camping unit.  You mean authors' sole purpose, hours pouring over drafts, revising and editing, and finally publishing their books, is not so that teachers can have units?

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying we shouldn't use books in our classrooms.  We absolutely, 100% should use books in our classrooms.  I'm not even saying that we shouldn't create units of study in our classrooms. However, I think we need to consider the crazy notion that sometimes books just need to be books, so that readers can just be readers.

After all, it is readers we teach, not books.

So, what might a classroom that allows books to be books and readers to be readers look like?  Here are four ideas:

1.  Classrooms would be places where students have lots of choice in books.  A student could select a book that's just right at that moment - maybe something full of drama and romance. Maybe something light and funny.  Maybe something that stretches their brains to imagine realities far different from their own.

With choice, students could read right where they need to be, both intellectually and emotionally.  It's like going to the gym and being able to choose the workout that fits that day - some days I need the challenge of a sweat-drenching cardio workout; other days I need strength; and still others a yoga class is calling.  If I had to do high-intensity workouts of someone else's choosing everyday, I'd probably hate working out. Or get injured. Or avoid it altogether. Sound familiar?

2.  Classrooms would have shelves full of interesting books to meet the needs of diverse readers. Strong readers often have lots of book resources.  They might have books at home, make regular trips to the school and public library, or even be able to buy the books they like at a local bookstore or online. Our struggling readers, however, don't have this.  They don't have a plan; they don't have resources; and they don't even know they should. This is where a classroom library comes in.

Your classroom library doesn't have to be a huge, hard-to-manage, all-consuming entity.  With free apps, like the Classroom Organizer, you can easily scan in books, and kids can check them out themselves.  The ease of having books right there in your safe environment for reluctant readers, eliminates a lot of excuses and, honestly, a lot of fear. Once kids realize that the books in your room are good ones, they'll keep coming back...sometimes for years!  They'll also develop a sense of themselves as readers and eventually will feel more confident venturing into bigger venues like the school or public library.

3.  Classrooms would have teachers who are passionate YA readers  Relationships are huge in the classroom, and relationships begin with knowing each of your students.  When you know what Austin in 1st block has been through, and what Faith in 2nd block worries about, and what Aya in 3rd block aspires to, you have the foundation for relationships.  But often kids are not forthcoming with the details of their lives. They don't want to talk about problems, worries, nightmares.  But when they find that just right book, they suddenly know they are not alone. This gives hope.

Image result for winter girls
So, one of our biggest relationship builders is connecting kids with books.  We must read Crank by Ellen Hopkins, Winter Girls by Laurie Halse Anderson, and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, just to name a few.  We must be avid readers who get pulled deeply into the world these authors create so that we feel what our high school kids are feeling.  Reading Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park made me look at kids who come to school with no materials totally differently.  Reading Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon made me feel the raw desire to be an independent, full human being that high school students feel. And when I'm passionate about books, I can do honest, meaningful books talks that kids will listen to.  They begin to trust that I do know good books and will help them, not only to find a book, but to find books they love.  They also begin to see that I care who they really are as human beings.

4.  Classroom instruction would be based on kids' needs.  When I think about my own growth as a reader, I realize it happened over a lot of years, decades even.  I didn't love reading as a young child. I loved writing stories and being read to (especially by Mrs. Kessler, my 2nd grade teacher, who has the best Ramona Quimby voice ever).  But real book love didn't start until middle school and Judy Blume. I then spent the next six years of my education reading everything I could get my hands on outside of school (especially adult books by authors like Jackie Collins and V.C. Andrews) and just enough to get by in school, where a steady diet of no choice and classic literature seemed to leave me out.  It wasn't until college that I was ready to read and think about challenging literature.  Then I devoured them all, spending hours reading everything for my classes.

Readers grow at their own pace.  I was ready and deeply wanted to read all that "good stuff" and the heavy load of assignments because I had read volumes of books, pages and pages, day after day, that were just right for me for years.

What if our kids had that freedom available to them too?  What if our instruction allowed them choice, instead of leaving them to read books they love on their own, outside of school, where we know most of our kids won't read?  What if, as we planned units of study, we allowed choices within the unit, so our students felt invested and valued?

We might just create readers, that's what.  We'd have kids who find joy in reading and grow into the kind of people who can read anything put in front of them, can think critically, and are truly ready for college and making decisions that matter in a democratic society.


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