The Power of Teachers, Reading
Michelle Bulla • September 2017
I know you. You became an English / ELA teacher – most likely – because you love to read, and because reading opened the whole world to you. You’re a reader first, teacher second. At least, that’s what you were when you were taking those first education courses. That’s the identity you return to in the summer and boy, you can hardly wait for it! Or maybe you’re one of those teachers who came to the concept of nerd-dom late in life, after you finished high school and realized somewhere along the college path that you actually could like learning and reading and you wanted to become a teacher so you could shorten that path for future little yous out there who could maybe become readers before age 20.
I’ve been working with you for decades now. You’re in the classroom next door to me. Or down the hall. Or on another floor, in another building / district / county / state / country…but you’re here. You had fire in you, maybe you still do. Maybe you’re reading this because you’re frustrated, or maybe because you always work hard, looking to professional resources to keep you inspired.
If you’re plugged into the work of the big pedagogues on the circuit of our education conferences these days, you’ve been inundated with the philosophy / need to / pressure to get the right book in students’ hands so they can be the strong, resourceful, resilient, and growing readers you know they can be. And the idea of those successes – your successes – well, this really keeps your fire burning.
You won’t hear any dissension from me. As a 20+ year veteran of high school English teaching, I’m also entering my 15th year of chairing our high school English Department. Based on my experiences both in and out of the classroom with students of all levels and teachers of all types, I completely agree with the pedagogues. Our students do need the right book. In fact, we even know that they need lots of “right” books. But putting the right book in the right hands is about more than knowing our students; it’s also about who we are as their teachers. Everyone’s talking about books and student readers; I want to talk about your development as a teacher as a necessary and integral component of aiding our students’ development as readers and learners.
You see, in order to have the ability to place a number of potentially appealing and appropriate books in any student’s hands so she can make choices and feel empowered, you – her teacher – must be a voracious reader.
There are three moving parts here, so let’s break this down.
First is the idea of “a number of potentially appealing and appropriate books.” Both before you know your students well and then again after you do, you need to be able to put a volume of books in front of them so they can choose something to read. That pile you put on their desks – especially if they are reluctant readers (and we know chances are pretty good they are if they need a pile from you to get going) needs to be diverse enough to do the following:
- mirror various aspects of his or her identity – age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, family / social constructs, geographical experience, interests and passions, pets, aspirations, race, etc.;
- represent a range of levels of complexity (language, length, topic, style, etc.);
- be written in a variety of genres (especially if you don’t know his or her preferences yet, or are looking to challenge or inspire him to stretch);
- be a door/window to a world he or she might be interested in.
Nothing is more powerful than sitting down with a student and a pile of books and saying, “I wonder if you’d take a look at this stack here. I think you might find a few of them intriguing enough to help you make a choice for your next read.” And if you’re the kind of teacher I hope to inspire you to be, you have read all or most of that pile, and can help students navigate your curated collection. Maybe they’ll reject them all, but if so, you’ll have a really good idea what to pull next to capture their interests.
The second idea is the ability to “make choices” about what to read. Readers needs agency. If we really want students to read, to read a lot, to read with motivation and inspiration and to want to read more, we’ve got to give them some authority in their reading lives.
Ever been to a buffet with only one dish? If so, you might be lucky enough to meet your nutritional needs, but you’re unlikely to be excited enough to want more or to come back for another meal, especially if you’re given no other options. It is equally unreasonable for teachers to distribute a whole class text and expect all students to love it, be happy reading it, find it inspirational, use it as a springboard for further learning, see themselves in it, and be eager to come back for more.
Might you use that whole-class text precisely because they could see some new aspect of the world in it, using it as a doorway / window? Of course. But this text then should not be the only one students are reading at the moment. If it is, you run the risk of them associating all reading with whatever effort is expected / needed to slog through your choice book. I’m not saying you should never ask students to persevere, to be uncomfortable, to stretch, to grow. I’m saying that students are impressionable, which means they’re still developing identities and goals and potential passions for what of this great, wide world is interesting enough to pursue further. As a result, students need to be both challenged by you and empowered by you to become engaged, starting the process of participatory citizenship. Specifically, it is our job to ensure they be turned on, not off, to learning and thus, to reading.
Let me explain further by sharing a bit of my story with reading. After being placed in the slowest reading group in first grade (I didn’t know I had a problem until someone labeled me as such), I fortunately found motivation in that labeling to improve. But I had a lot of things going for me: I loved school, loved pleasing my teacher, and most importantly, I came from a reading-rich household. Did we have the requisite 150+ books at home? No. But my stay-at-home mom was a voracious reader, she brought us to the library every single week, and she gave us free reign when we got there. I had watched her consume books my whole life, and luckily it wasn’t long before I caught up and then blew the top off the incentive contests future teachers put in place. For me, the right books came with Charlotte’s Web, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Little House on the Prairie series, and later with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, The Secret Garden, and Watership Down. But these aren’t necessarily going to do it for today’s readers, and many of our students don’t come from reading-rich households where they might be predisposed to become future readers.
Today’s students are diverse, savvy, simultaneously both exposed and insulated, interested in and apathetic about the world. And we have a lot of them, in most cases. Their backgrounds – their literacy histories – are as diverse as they are. Plus, they are products of a school environment focused on testing when we, their teachers, were not. And because they have more power in their lives than we ever might have craved, they want it and thrive on it in school. It makes sense. I know this from my classroom experience and my evolution as a teacher. Testaments like these from this past June, “…you let us run freely in whatever direction we want! Being granted this freedom allows us so much mobility to explore areas we have never been allowed to before,” and “Thank you for guiding us through class without controlling our creative ideas, it really allows ideas and thoughts to be free in your classroom,” speak to the inspiration, motivation, authority, learning and growth that came from situations where I gave some or full choice and power. These testaments encourage me to continue on this path. This feedback came from my AP Lit & Comp seniors where I am currently running about a 50/50 ratio of whole-class texts to individual and small group texts. Each year I move further toward student independence in full-length works.
When students have agency in their reading lives, they feel ownership, empowerment, are more likely to remain engaged, more likely to recommend that book to other students, and in general, are happier readers and learners. This is the environment, the culture we want to create, right?
So let’s get to the heart of this discussion, the third point: “you must be a voracious reader.”
I don’t mean that you re-read your whole class text each year, gleaning more and more from your cherished text. I don’t mean that you read all the spin-offs of your whole class text whenever they pop into your media feeds, nor all the topically / thematically / historically connected texts. I don’t mean that you read the one book your adult book club has chosen for the quarter (though this is a good place to start). And I don’t mean that you collect lists of titles that kids might enjoy (though this is another good starting point).
I mean you must actively and overtly, eagerly and with zest for the task, read A LOT. Let me define “a lot,” since many will start looking for quantitative recommendations here, looking for data. I’m not offering data, just my experiential advice: I’m recommending a minimum of two books per month. If you can manage more, even better. Less is just too few for you to constantly be in your students’ faces with titles they just have to check out. And we need to be in their faces about what we’re reading, what is new and great, and what we recommend and why, modeling reading behavior as well as enthusiasm about learning and growth via reading. Hopefully you’ve already read a lot, so this gives you two new titles to combine with two previous titles so you can promote at least one book per week. That’s getting in students’ faces with reading. I know you’re busy. All teachers who approach their careers with integrity and passion are busy. English teachers are for sure, busy, but I also know plenty of content-area teachers who are embracing literacy strategies in their teaching and boy, are they busy working hard by stepping out of their comfort zones! Let’s commit to being busy for a great cause!
Here are some ways to become a voracious reader, one who can thus inspire a myriad of future readers:
- read widely;
- read out of your comfort zone (i.e., preferred genres);
- seek out discussions with all manner of people about books;
- buy books to read that you then bring to class, talk up, put on a child’s desk each period of that day, and add to your classroom library if – on the off chance (I’ve tried this and it rarely fails) – no one asks to claim it as the first reader;
- actively participate in at least one book club, and preferably more, especially if your first one is likely to always read titles you’d pick for yourself anyway;
- keep a list on your phone / in your datebook of titles you come across and the sources, and titles you’ve read, with dates;
- publish lists on your whiteboard / SmartBoard / bulletin board / giant post-it of what you’re personally reading and what’s on your “to read” list;
- ask your students to recommend titles to you that can be publicly posted (another great use of those boards!);
- follow your favorite professional organizations, authors, pedagogues, news outlets – they are constantly publishing “top title” lists of all sorts;
- join social media geared toward title sharing to increase your exposure to what’s hot and to take advantage of features like, “If you liked X, you might like Y” types of promotions.
I’ve been a teacher in NYS for over 20 years, and I’m working even harder now at being a voracious reader than I did years ago. I’ve watched students skate through school not really reading, listened to them complain about whole-class texts, and overheard them brag to their friends or other teachers that they made it through high school without reading. And all this was before the glorious, current days of the internet where – you know what’s coming – they can look anything and everything up, including such deliciously-deviant sounding topics as “how to fool your teacher into thinking you’ve done my homework / reading / are prepared for X.”
I’ve also listened to teachers make the same complaints over and over again: “Students just aren’t reading;” “They’re not interested anymore;” “They don’t read anything I give them;” “They haven’t read a single book since 6th grade;” “Nothing I do to make these books interesting seems to work.” These teachers mean well. They’re frustrated and they’re doing what people naturally do when faced with obstacles: continue to try the same strategy with some tweaking. But the time has come to make bigger changes. And if we’re going to get serious about effecting real change in our classrooms, we have to step up our game.
If you’re still with me, boy do I ever know you WELL. You’re a life-long learner, like me: you’re engaged, committed, eager, open-minded, a once-upon-a-time or back-at-it reader, and most of all – you care deeply about your students and about making a real difference in their lives. You’re willing to dig deep, to go the extra mile, and are happy to do it because you know that if you read more, you’re not only benefiting yourself, but you’re also going to have a better chance at meeting your students where they are so you can lead them to where they need to go. And that, my dear colleague, is power. That’s the power of teachers, reading.