Yesterday, a group of eighth graders on a college campus visit were guests in my Children’s Literature class. It’s perhaps not the best class to choose to visit if you want a sense of what college is really like. They walked in the room to find Elephant & Piggie titles on display all over the room and a giant stack of Leslie Patricelli’s baby board books, which a couple of us are currently obsessed with. The eighth-graders probably thought they were in for a lecture and a PowerPoint, but instead they got a read-aloud. (The Pigeon Needs a Bath, if you’re curious.) It was clearly a little weird for them, as they struggled to laugh at the right spots. (Which made my college students self-conscious and hesitant to laugh at the right spots. So it was pretty much me reading aloud and snickering to myself.)
But then it was time for the eighth-graders to become the experts and teach my preservice teachers all they know—and they know a lot—about how to teach reading so that kids will want to read.
I always say that if you want to know what’s wrong in your classroom, ask the experts: the students. These eighth-graders were ready to fix everything that’s wrong with education. My preservice teachers got an earful!
We broke into groups, and the preservice teachers interviewed the students about their reading lives, their reading likes and dislikes, and the teaching practices that either support readers or turn readers off books entirely.
The common thread for every single group was CHOICE. They really want to choose their own books.
When asked what’s one thing school does to make kids hate to read, this was the answer across the board: “They force us.”
That was the word that came up most often. FORCE. They feel forced to read, forced to read books they don’t like or understand, forced to read books chosen by someone else who hasn’t taken them or their interests or needs into account, forced to listen to books they don’t like read aloud, forced to read passages in a textbook that don’t make sense and don’t relate to them.
When asked what teachers could do to make kids love to read, every group gave the same answer: “Let us pick our books and help us find good ones.”
This is a school where independent reading and time to read are part of daily reading instruction, which is wonderful.
But these are students who aren’t self-identifying as readers, who are full of complaints about reading, who feel forced to read, who don’t know how to find books, and who hate how long they are “forced” to spend reading each day. Fifteen whole minutes!
“Don’t make us read for so long,” most of them said.
My preservice teachers made quick work of that problem: “They aren’t reading books they like. They’d want to read for longer than 15 minutes if they were reading the right books.”
Several eighth-graders were ardent readers who have taken their reading lives underground because school doesn’t support it. A group of girls talked about their love of manga and anime. Their school library doesn’t have any manga, and their teachers won’t let them read manga during independent reading time.
Other students had interests that could easily be tapped into for book recommendations. When a group of boys was asked what their perfect book would be about, they said “Fortnite.” Their teacher and I were standing there. I asked, “What’s Fortnite?” and she said, “I don’t want to know.”
That’s a moment I’m going to be thinking about for awhile. I know this teacher loves her students and wants them to read. I know she puts a lot of time and effort into designing her lessons and trying to figure out how to motivate her students and get them hooked on reading.
But we also have to be willing to follow our kids where they want to go and, as Donalyn Miller says, bless the books they want to read. This means blessing their interests and hobbies and inner lives too.
I did want to know what Fornite was, and the boys were eager to show me. It’s a video game. I don’t know if there are any books about Fortnite—but I know there are books about other video games, and I know there are books about gamers and gaming culture, and I know those boys would read if a teacher would put those books into their hands.
Every single student could remember a book he or she had loved, even if they’d read it a few years ago. One boy described his love of The Crossover. He’s not currently reading anything. He hasn’t read anything he likes in a long time. He also hasn’t read Booked. He hadn’t even heard of Booked. One of his friends said he’d read Booked and really liked it. Why aren’t they talking about the books they read and sharing? He doesn’t know about Walter Dean Myers’s basketball books or Matt de la Pena’s basketball books. He hasn’t read Jason Reynolds’s track series.
There were so many loose threads in their reading lives that only need to be gathered and stitched together.
The foundation is there. They have classroom libraries and time in class to read. But they desperately need teachers to help them grow their reading identities, to help them discover books they love, to connect their interests outside of school to books they are invited to read inside of school. They need daily book talks and a teacher who reads voraciously and shares her reading life with them. They need a teacher to notice that they’re almost finished with The Crossover and to pull Booked off the shelf and bring it to them. They need fewer mixed messages. Fifteen minutes of independent reading time followed by forty minutes of traditional reading curriculum (worksheets, graphic organizers, textbooks, comprehension questions, assigned reading) doesn’t support readers. They need to talk about books and share what they’re reading with their teacher and with each other.
Most of all, they need to be asked what they know and what they need and how we can do better.
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