I love reading. One of my goals as a teacher is to help my students find their own joy in the act of reading. I hear talk about kids who “won’t read” and how we can’t change that. But I disagree. When I have my high schoolers trace their personal reading histories, they are always amazed to find that once upon a time they actually liked to read. But somewhere on their journey through school, that joy was lost. For my most reticent readers, it seems to happen early in their school career. For my less ambivalent readers, the drop off occurs somewhere around upper elementary or middle school. How can I create a space in our classroom to rediscover that joy? While I don’t have all the answers, I have had the opportunity in my last two jobs to challenge and test what I believe and have been granted the privilege of watching kids grow in their, if not love, appreciation for reading. That is the “IT”. An environment that values, supports and expects literate lives. An environment where it is “cool” to read and to be seen reading. An environment where literacy is a natural part of the daily flow, not an after thought. “IT” does not happen accidentally. “IT” takes work to create. And when you build “IT” amazing things happen.
My most recent job has brought challenge in many ways to building “IT”. But challenge is not bad. In fact, the challenge has only served to strengthen my belief in the importance of building a literate environment for kids. I was hired this year to teach at an alternative high school. I walked in to a classroom I share with another teacher (at the same time, different subject!) and a small collection of hand me down books that were not of much interest to the mostly male population of our school. How could I preach the importance of literacy without the tools or setting to support it? This would take some work!
My first goal was to gather books and reading material. I started bringing in the daily newspaper. I cleaned out the storage shed and gathered books from my former class library. I used my teacher’s discount at Borders and found thift stores and garage sales. Then someone told me about Donors Choose. So I wrote a proposal for books and audiobooks. It was filled. I shared the project with members of the community. People dropped books off at school. My church raised money and purchased a list of books for us from Amazon. Currently there are about 300 titles available for kids. We were also able to purchase 4 magazine subscriptions. And for the first time, library funds became a line item in our school budget. Kids have choice now.
Does this make a difference? I truly believe it does. Of the students enrolled at various times first semester, 15 were enrolled for a fair enough amount of time to consider their data. Those 15 students read 61 books the first semester. One 16 year old student told me when he arrived and I informed him we read daily, “Uh, I don’t really read, so, you know, maybe you could give me something else to do.” Ha, welcome to our “IT” my friend. Grab a book and read. And he did (reluctantly at first). He read 5 books this semester. It got to the point where he begged each day for a “few more minutes to read, please?!” Was it important to provide access to books? Yep.
But access to books isn’t enough. There needs to be a daily dose of time to read. I liken it to building up stamina. If kids have not been readers, then they will not develop the habit of reading on their own. You can’t decide to run a marathon and train in one day. So, we start our day every day with reading. It’s to the point now that even if I haven’t written our daily agenda on the board, my kids pick up their books and read. Another teacher looked around one morning after we had a hectic start to our day. There were kids sitting quietly, reading, with almost no prompting. He looked at me and said “What are they doing?” I smiled, “We call it reading. It’s how we start our day.” One morning due to a late start to the school day because of weather, I suggested that perhaps we pass on our reading time so we could get to the other things. “WHAT?!” my students exclaimed. Needless to say, we read before moving on.
You know you have built “IT” when students not enrolled in English for the semester ask if they can check out books. You know you have built “IT” when students lining up for lunch turn to one another and say “Hey, what book are you reading?” You know you have built “IT” when students ask if you have a certain book title and are excited when you get it for them. You know you have built “IT” when district office personnel stop by the school and ask to see the “new ” library and offer resources to support the endeavor. You know you have built “IT” when other teachers bemoan that kids won’t put their books away. And when you have built “IT” kids read.