What do we hope for our student readers?

I‘ve been thinking and writing a lot lately about how our beliefs about students, learning, and teaching influence our practices. Part of this reflection has stemmed from my own instructional practice and how it has shifted—in subtle but also dramatic ways. How, for example, the nagging questions I’ve had about the 5-paragraph essay template have been pushing me toward more authentic writing. Or how seeing my students experience joy and independence with choice reading has pushed me to build a classroom library. As I’ve posted elsewhere, my reflection on the connection between my beliefs and practices has also been fueled by some recent professional development experiences, like hearing Will Richardson challenge us to make schools relevant to the students sitting in our classrooms today and reading Heidi Mills and Tim O’Keefe’s essay “Why Beliefs Matter” in The Teacher You Want to Be.

Of course, I am just one person—one teacher who, at the end of each day, is doing what she believes is best for her students. I’m not unique in this. I think most teachers are the same—we do what we believe is best for children.

And yet if we’re really honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sometimes we believe is best is not what’s reflected in our classrooms. For example, we may believe—no, we know—that standardized tests aren’t authentic or meaningful reflections of learning, but we find ourselves knee deep in test prep in our classrooms. In my own classroom, I believe students need to become independent thinkers, but I may not always allow them time and room to find their own ideas. After all, as nearly all teachers can attest, there is just never enough time, and telling students what they need to know is much more efficient than giving them the time to discover that knowledge themselves.

Before we know it, what we practice in our classrooms becomes habit, and habits can be hard to break. Our beliefs, no matter how well-intentioned, get relegated to the sidelines.

So what to do? We can start with articulating our beliefs and then doing the necessary but hard work of reflecting on how our practices may not actually reflect those beliefs (a colleague has called these her “Come to Jesus” moments). Of course, that’s easier said than done. But starting with our beliefs—articulating them, claiming them—is a first step.

With that in mind, at the end of the school year, our English department took that first step. After some pockets of discussion among teachers here and there, one of my colleagues decided to send out a Google survey to everyone with three simple questions:

  • By graduation, what are your expectations and hopes for our students in regards to reading? (Think big picture—attitude, relationship, approach, practices, skills, etc.)
  • By graduation, what are your expectations and hopes for our students in regards to writing? (Think big picture—attitude, relationship, approach, practices, skills, etc.)
  • What do you think is the relationship between reading and writing?

Of course, at first glance, these “simple” questions seem complex and messy and too big. But as I was reading through my colleagues’ responses, I realized that things weren’t as complex as I thought they were. When asked to articulate their beliefs about reading, for example, my colleagues’ answers generally came down to the same thing—creating lifelong readers. If we can agree on the “simple” belief, that’s a start. It’s how we make that belief resonate in our classrooms which is the messy part. But at least we have our beliefs to guide us.

In addition to recognizing our shared beliefs, my other takeaway after reading through the responses was how smart and thoughtful and passionate my colleagues are. I’ve always known that, of course, but there was something about seeing their ideas articulated with such clarity and grace that reaffirmed my belief that I am lucky to be working with just really good people. And because paraphrasing their responses couldn’t do them justice, here are three responses that stood out to me.

As much as I value analysis, and honing related skills, my most basic goal is that students leave seeing the value and pleasure reading can offer. The battle is won or lost here. I know so many bright adults that hate reading because of their experiences in high school, and that’s heartbreaking. — Richard

“The battle is won or lost here.” Too often in our conversations about reading, we might focus on content and comprehension. But when it comes down to it, reading can be a powerful aesthetic experience. (Richard’s comment also reminds me to keep in mind Jeff Wilhelm and Michael Smith’s research on dimensions of pleasure reading, as I’ve written a little bit about here.)

My hope is that they will always have a book going. — Trevor

“Always have a book going.” Yes. And finally, though his response is lengthy, my friend Ben’s response to Trevor’s simple hope is worth reading.

I’ve had the advantage of reading many survey responses while I thought about my own. I just read Trevor’s simple one-sentence answer to this question and want to second and third it—”to always have a book going.” It’s all right there. To be a reader. I don’t need them to be an English major, or quote Shakespeare, or bore people at garden parties about Joyce—even though, personally I’d like to go that party.

These possible future readers could be: beach readers, readers of fanfiction, a kid who follows and reads dozens of reddit threads, fantasy fanatics, excited readers of bodice-rippers, news junkies, theater snobs, inspired self-help book readers, Twilight/Divergent/Hunger Games series followers, readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, etc.

I just want them to enjoy and value reading. I think that’s one of our most important goals as teachers. Someone who reads is someone who cares about the world around them—or the world inside them, and hopefully, both. In the best case scenario, they realize that those interests are the same. Seems to me there’s two ways to do this: creating interest in books and creating opportunities so that they may find their own interests. Let’s do lots of both.

So let’s assume we’ve got the “creating interest” part down. We can do all those snazzy things we like to do in the classroom to get kids to read deeply and well. So how do we create opportunities for interest? It’s choice. Choice, choice, choice. It’s what informs our own reading. Our 248-table conversations reveal that. We value our own independent reading, so we need to find ways to make time and opportunity for that in our classroom.

Books have more competition than ever. But how about this for a more modest goal? Having kids that don’t hate reading, kids that don’t boast, “I haven’t read a book since 8th grade.” Or, “I’ve spark-noted every book in high school.” I hear a variation of that same thing from AP kids, too, but they say it a little more shamefully—and often more wistfully. “I don’t have time to read for pleasure,” was the number one declaration from my junior and senior students when asked about their reading history. How about an assignment where students have to physically carry a book around for a week?? That way they’ll always have a book going. — Ben

And because it deserves repeating—

Someone Who Reads

As I look around and watch the news today, it’s hard not to feel discouraged by the level of anger, ignorance, and social injustice out there. And I can’t help wonder how different things could be if we read a little bit more—and developed the kind of empathy and compassion for others that reading can inspire.