“Children should learn that reading is pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school.”
― Beverly Cleary
If you ask most middle school children whether they like to read, the answer is usually no.
However, for the last few weeks, my 7th graders have been coming into my class and remarking about the 8th grade books they find left on their desks.
“Oh! The Outsiders! I hear that’s a really good book!”
“When are we going to read this, Mr. Singer?”
“Can I take this home?”
That’s what you get when you pique a student’s interest – even a reluctant reader.
The problem is one of speed and instant gratification.
Today’s children have a multitude competing for their attention.
Video games, social media, TikTok videos – they haven’t the time to sit down with a book.
Doing so seems like something an old person would do or at least something too hard for them to enjoy.
I remember when I was growing up, my father always read Stephen King paperbacks. I still remember the covers of some of those books. The snarling Saint Bernard of “Cujo.” The empty boy’s face of “The Shining.” And “Night Shift” with its creepy bandaged hand slowly coming unraveled to reveal eyes growing under a knuckle…
I wanted nothing more than to read these books and understand what it was that lurked inside the covers.
But today a lot of novels are eBooks. If they have covers, they aren’t visible in the hands of those reading them. They aren’t left on display on a shelf. They’re nearly invisible.
The very idea of books seems like something beyond the reach of many adolescents.
That’s where teachers come in.
We need to dispel these myths, to help our students overcome them.
That means (1) reading books together in class, and (2) allowing kids self-selected reading.
First, we have to actively show kids that reading can be fun.
This means picking the right books to read as a class and trying to make the experience pleasurable.
Luckily there are some classics of young adult literature that rarely disappoint – S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”, Lois Lowery’s “The Giver”, Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game”, Louis Sachar’s “Holes”, etc.
If you can catch a child’s imagination and place it in a community of learners, the result is both an individual and a social phenomenon.
Each child has his or her own experience, but it is enhanced by the thoughts and comments of others. Trying to solve the secrets of the society in “The Giver” isn’t just something you do alone – it’s a shared endeavor with your peers. Trying to decide what you’d do in the place of Ponyboy from “The Outsiders” isn’t just an academic thought experiment – it’s a way of expressing your thoughts and values and seeing them reflected, absorbed or enhanced by those around you.
However, this can’t always be done in a group setting. And the teacher can’t be the only person guiding the experience.
You have to give students the respect to make their own choices about what they read, too.
Let them choose books from the library and read them silently in class. There can be a culminating assignment like a book report or a book circle at the end of the month, but it has to be driven by individual curiosity.
This is all easier said than done.
Some years the books I pick for my students are a hit. Some years they aren’t.
Things are especially difficult now as we’re just healing from the Covid-19 pandemic. Students are just starting to get back on track and relearn all the social and academic skills they lost in years of quarantine and uncertainty.
I’m finding “The Giver” to be a harder sell this year than in most previous years. Many students want a more immediate and personal story. But some are entranced by the mystery and way the society deals with budding adolescence.
“The Outsiders”, though, is a raging success. My students don’t want to put it down or stop discussing the story. In fact, their enthusiasm is turning into rumors that have spread from grade-to-grade. However, they also aren’t as interested in racing through it toward the end as students from others years have been.
The biggest challenge is always silent reading.
The very idea of sitting down with a book and quietly reading it is entirely alien to some kids. They look around the room or try to sneak their cell phones out of their pockets – anything but turn their eyes to the pages in front of them.
It comes down to (1) finding a book that will interest the individual, and (2) one that they can easily read.
Unless you’re a librarian, it can be really hard to match students and books. As a classroom teacher I know some books that other students have enjoyed in the past and even have a few handy. For example, “Tears of a Tiger” by Sharon Draper is a story a lot of my more mature readers have gotten into – especially children of color. It tells the story of a boy who is dealing with the death of a friend who was riding in the boy’s car while he was driving drunk.
However, I don’t know the entire spectrum of children’s literature as well as a dedicated middle school librarian would. My school used to have one of those and she was brilliant at accomplishing the goal of suggesting books to students. These days, though, we have one librarian for the middle school and high school. That’s just too much ground to cover for any individual. Moreover, when you don’t dedicate your library to reading or research, you lose an incredible resource. There is far too much time when the library is closed for standardized testing or the librarian is asked to teach a class or proctor a study hall.
When it comes to matching a student to a book with a proper reading level, there are tools like Accelerated Reader which gives each book a level and tests students to find out their ability. However, the last thing we need is more standardized testing and computer software. An actual living, breathing librarian who has the time to know students and the literature is better than any technology in the world.
The point, though, is that no matter the challenges, we, as teachers, have to try.
It isn’t our job to simply teach children HOW to read. We have to encourage them TO read. We have to SHOW them that reading can be one of the most enjoyable pastimes in the world.
It may be out of touch with our modern society, but that is why it is so valuable.
Through books we can access any place – even places that never existed. Through books, we can talk with anyone in the entire history of time – even people who were never born.
And in doing so we gain access to that secret part of our own mind – our imagination – and build it into something strong and vibrant.
Few things are more important.
Creating lifelong readers – not a bad way to spend a teaching career.
“One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.”
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