How to Enjoy Reading: Slice of Life

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Photo CC-By Bob

I’m a relentless tinkerer in my classes and rarely start a semester the same way twice. But there is one thing I do on the first day of Children’s Literature that never changes. I show this video of third-grade teacher Colby Sharp on his first day of school:

This video is absolute magic in my classroom. My students think Children’s Literature is going to be about one thing (stodgy analysis of dusty old classics), but this video makes them realize it’s probably going to be about something very different. More importantly, my students come into Children’s Literature with a certain set of goals for themselves, but this video makes them realize how much more is possible for them, for their classrooms, for their students.

I show this video, and I’ve got 25 pre-service teachers who want to grow up and be like Mr. Sharp.

I follow up “Mr. Sharp Loves Reading” with this gem from January in Mr. Sharp’s classroom, “Reaction to the Schu Jonker Top Three”:

We love watching the girl in the right front corner in the striped shirt. She’s barely paying attention at first, but once it’s time for the announcement of Number 1, she’s all “Ivan? Ivan? Ivan? Ivan?”. She’s so excited she can barely stay in her own skin. And all because a couple of school librarians are listing their top books of the year. It’s not even a big prize that’s being announced! These kids are overjoyed when their favorite book is also someone else’s favorite book.

My pre-service teachers sit there shaking their heads.

“How does he do that?!” they ask.

“That’s what this class is all about,” I promise. “You too can be like Mr. Sharp.”

And they can. Getting kids to love books is not rocket science. But there is a prerequisite to the work Mr. Sharp does, and this is the sticking point for so many of my Elementary Ed pre-service teachers. Mr. Sharp genuinely loves to read. And they don’t.

Last week, I asked them to write about their goals for the class, and I was struck by their nearly unanimous number one goal: “I want to learn how to enjoy reading.” It’s great! Week Three of the semester, and we’re all on the same page, because that’s my number one goal for them too.

If they can enjoy reading–if they can love reading–my work is done.

Because teachers who love reading will do all of the things that lead to classrooms where kids love to read. They will fill their classrooms with books. They will book talk. They will book match make. They will read aloud. They will give kids time in class to read. They will dispense with busywork homework and prioritize reading. They will believe with all their souls that there is a right book out there for every child and they will not rest until they find it. None of this “some kids just don’t like to read and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

It’s the teachers who don’t love reading that I worry about. I have seen the difference in my son’s classrooms. In five years of school, he has had only one teacher who truly loved reading. For the rest, reading is simply another subject in school. Maybe the most important subject, but still just another subject. And treating reading like just another subject in school doesn’t cut it. That’s not the way to create lifelong readers.

It’s the “learn how to” that really gets me in the goals my students wrote. That language showed up again and again.

Learn how to.

How do you learn how to enjoy reading? To me, that makes about as much sense as learning how to enjoy ice cream. Reading is inherently enjoyable. There is no learning how. There is only doing. You read. You enjoy. The end.

That’s not at all my students’ experience of reading. Years of school have turned reading into a chore, an assignment, something they “have” to do when they’d rather be doing something else. Many of them can’t remember the last time reading was enjoyable. Some can’t remember the last time they read a book. Many have memories of humiliation and judgment connected to reading. Being placed in the low-level reading group. Getting laughed at when they were forced to read aloud during popcorn reading. Failing an AR test for a book they’d actually read. Reading comes with a lot of baggage, and they have to let go of that first.

But even when the baggage is processed and left at the door, it’s not so simple for many of my students as picking up a great book, settling down to read, and getting hooked.

I do the same things with my college students that I would do in any K-12 classroom. I read aloud great books. I book match make. I make time in class for reading. I don’t assign books. I book talk. I bring stacks of books to class. I buy books they request. I model the voracious reading I hope to see in them. I am always reading, always talking about reading. This is how it worked in my classroom when I taught high school. Slowly but surely, my students became readers. And that’s how it sort of works now. But it doesn’t work quite as well with my college students as it did with my high school students.

In fifteen weeks, most of my students will at least begin to find reading more pleasant than not, and I know for many of my students, that’s success.

But finding reading more pleasant than not isn’t exactly what I’m looking for. I want these pre-service teachers reading like the wolf eats, to borrow Gary Paulsen’s memorable metaphor. I want them reading like I read. I want them reading like Mr. Sharp reads. I want them making reading plans and buying books and making lists of books and reading book websites and telling their friends about books and–most of all–reading. And I want them to do that for a lot longer than just this one semester.

I don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle figured out yet. It’s not as simple as time + choice + great books + model/mentor who loves to read and book pushes = voracious readers.

But when I think about what I actually did in my high school classroom, I realize it was never as simple as that. There’s one thing missing in my college classroom that I did have in my high school classroom, and that’s relationship. I don’t know my college students nearly as well as I knew my high school students.

Mostly, I think that’s a result of time. I see my college students two days a week for an hour and fifteen minutes each day. A far cry from the five days a week for an hour each day I saw my high schoolers–plus before school, during lunch, after school, at events. My book matchmaking was much more precise when I taught high school, even though I didn’t know books as well then as I do now. I knew my kids.

I think about what I believe about learning. Relationships are the X factor.

And I think about what made me a reader. My mother. Yes, she provided time and choice and great books and she herself was and still is a voracious reader who made it clear to me that reading was more important than most things in life. But it was more than that. It was also something intangible, something I can’t quite express in words but know for certain. It was about relationship. Our relationship was the context in which I learned how to enjoy reading. It wouldn’t have been enough to have time and choice and great books and a mom who sat on her blue chair and read a lot. I needed to grow and do and learn in the context of that relationship.

I think again about Mr. Sharp’s classroom, the relationships he builds with his students, the relationships his students have with Mr. Schu and Mr. Jonker through social media and technology and through Mr. Sharp. I think about two of the teachers I admire most, Katherine Sokolowski and Carrie Gelson, and all they do to prioritize relationships in their classrooms. I think about Linda Baie reading with her granddaughters. I think about Myra Garces-Bacsal reading with her daughter.

I think about why my son, who is dyslexic AND an English language learner and pretty much always detests his Reading class at school, loves books. Because of me. Because reading takes place in the context of our relationship. Because the characters and words and stories become part of the shared narrative of our lives. It’s about the books. But it’s also about so much more than the books.

And I realize I’ve got a lot more thinking to do about my Children’s Literature class.

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16 thoughts on “How to Enjoy Reading: Slice of Life

  1. You are a great first step for those students who do not come in with the “I love reading” mantra. They get a taste for what a literate life might look like if they choose books. It breaks my heart when teachers say “I don’t like to read.” That cannot be an option if you are an educator. You are opening their eyes to the possibilities of a reading life.

  2. So, so, so, much truth here, I don’t even know where to begin…There’s not one piece of it that is not important- the knowing books, loving books, sharing our own reading lives… But the RELATIONSHIP piece is most important of all, I think!

  3. “Because teachers who love reading will do all of the things that lead to classrooms where kids love to read.” I’ve been booktalking a lot of non-fiction lately and I’m converting my 6th graders to see the joys of nonfiction. Ther’s a lot of really good NF out there for young people.

  4. And when go to school to see that one teacher I’m working with, it makes me smile and smile that some of the former students run up to me to see if I know of the “latest” good books, and what I’ve been reading. So how do you find that with the college class, that “here we are all together and have you heard about this one, and do you know how Jim love dystopian, and Mary loves the ones in verse, and Jackie loves the new graphic novels because she loves art”. I understand what you mean, and thanks for the mention. My granddaughters do know that I love books! But I also knew that my grandparents did, and read to me, and a dear aunt and I traded and discussed when I grew older, into adult books, and on. What if you tried little book groups or pairs who got to know each other? I think you already have your students do book talks, but if not, what if they get to share their enthusiasm? Would that break the barrier? Love the post, and how very thoughtful you are always in your teaching, Elisabeth.

  5. I found your post very relevant. I am teaching an online course and was dismayed by the number of students who indicated in an introductory survey that they have little or no interest in reading. In fact, many of them indicated that they used to love reading but that all the testing and AR, etc. in school turned them off to reading. I will have to think about how to approximate the read aloud experience in an online environment. Hmmmm….

  6. Iv’e often considered signing up for a similar course simply so I can talk to other adults about kid books as much as I want. 🙂 Maybe I should be looking for a job teaching one! Thank you for saying this: “It’s not as simple as time + choice + great books + model/mentor who loves to read and book pushes = voracious readers.” I agree that it is something intangible that makes reading a passion for some and an enjoyable past time for others. But I’ll settle for enjoyment over chore any day!

  7. I find students who CAN read but who choose not to be as daunting as those who don’t like to read. How can you not like to read! Reading is as necessary as breathing! Too many instructional practices (and some assessments) are counter-intuitive! Thanks for sharing how you work on this!!!

  8. Oh, oh, oh. I love this post. I love that you show your students this video and let them dream about growing up to be Colby Sharp. The kind of superhero we want teachers to aspire to be! And yes, you have got it – it is relationships. It is a reading community. A reading community that exists smack dab in the middle (like Lowry’s Gooney Bird Greene likes to be) of a classroom community. People who are students together, learners together, readers together, lovers of stories together. The contagion factor is high in such a place. Infecting others with the reading bug not as easy in other circumstances. But we need to always, always try!

  9. Children are made readers in the laps of their parents. That’s what this post made me think of. I often think about how our bedtime ritual of reading before bed isn’t as much about the books as it is about the time we spend together reading and laughing and thinking and talking. It’s all about relationships. And books. 🙂

  10. This is the bottom line (well close to it on your post): “Because reading takes place in the context of our relationship.” I mean isn’t it? If we can build those relationships in our classrooms and books alongside them.

  11. More than pre-service teachers, I wish administrators accepted and took action on what you’re preaching here. So many don’t care if kids love to read–don’t see the connection between that and a performance on one test on one day (or, sadly now, one test 3-4 days a year). The connection is there, but moreover, it’s just a side benefit of the true benefits of loving to read. Relationships, yes. Empathy, yes. Desire to make ours a better world, yes.

  12. I love this. I love, love, love it.

    My daughter reads less novels, but she reads a lot more online manga, so we’ve talked about how she does actually still read, but the medium has changed. She’s trying to get back into reading actual books. I wonder if some of your students may have had the same experience.

  13. WOW definitely enjoy this blog. Obviously it does take time to learn to read and to learn how to actually enjoy what you are reading. I think its totally different when you read a book for pleasure, than when you are told what to read. The fact that you show the video of Mr. Sharp at the beginning of class, does give us students something to look up to, to learn how to enjoy reading, in order to teach our future students how to read to enjoy…

  14. Pingback: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? #imwayr 2/8/16 | the dirigible plum

  15. I love how you are cultivating that love of reading for college students. I’m constantly “reworking” my approach to cultivating a love of reading in my classroom. Many middle school and high school students are labeling themselves as people who hate to read or are “bad” readers. It’s time to try to thwart that attitude. Today, as I introduced a book bingo concept into one of my classes and encouraged students to read as many books as they could by the end of the quarter, I had a boy say, “well, I’m a slow reader,” so I said, if you want to read more books, read shorter books to start…. He said, “I can?…” You bet, I want you to want to read more…. We’ll see how it works out. It’s all about building stamina, right?

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