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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