By Gregory Walters, Children's Literature Blogger
Growing up I was not a reader.
I could; just didn’t. Some researchers refer to my breed as “aliterate”. The word is succinctly defined by Dictionary.com as “a person who is able to read but disinclined to do so.”
Today we curse videogames, iPods, newer gadgetry that I still don’t know by name. We claim that, without these distractions, children would be reading. But when I was growing, there were thirteen television channels (two of them French) and the fanciest plug-in device was Lite-Brite. Odd kid that I was, daytime reruns of Ironside had more appeal than the latest volume of The Hardy Boys, Hissing Serpent or Melted Coins be damned. You’d think the black and white on the tube would make me want to turn it off, but after watching Raymond Burr, I’d stay tuned for Hazel and The Dick Van Dyke Show before the color onslaught of Match Game, Password and The Brady Bunch. In time, I varied my routine, discovering scratchy singles and LPs. (They weren’t initially so battered, but my shaky hand could never get the needle to make a perfect landing.)
I wasn’t a total couch potato. There were the hockey years, the bike rides to the convenience store to buy hockey cards and, whenever our pool opened for the season, I’d spend hours perfecting my belly flop or rescuing hapless ladybugs that had their own landing challenges. There was always something more interesting than reading.
I do remember going to the library for awhile. A school project on Sweden or coin collecting or the duck-billed platypus made the local branch a must-visit in the pre-Google world. But the library never felt welcoming. Grownups would shush me with terrifying glares to shoo me. And here I’d thought I had an infectious laugh. No, reading was serious business. Like golf, like Sunday sermons. Blech.
The overdue notices didn’t help either. If a book went unreturned for so long, some librarian would mail a notice home. My mom would express dismay and stand in front of the television so I’d miss Gilligan causing the Skipper to fall out of the hammock again. “I’ll look later” was a worthless plea. No, I was guilty, plain and simple. Irresponsible, unorganized...a mess. Having to stay in my room and search until dinner proved fruitless. I’d find a lone sock, a rock-hard chocolate chip cookie I’d smuggled for a sneak-snack and, alas, forgotten, but no book. I had to get a newspaper route to pay for my lost books. Slave labor at ten. (And I swear the papers were much thicker. Classified sections mattered back then.) Lugging seventy newspapers around every day after school sure didn’t make me a more motivated reader.
Even if I’d been a responsible, quiet library user, reading still would not have enticed me. “There aren’t any good books!” I’d protest whenever my mother would stand by the checkout with a stack of romance novels (Blech, exponentially!), waiting, demanding that I get something. Bob and Sue Bake Cookies, The Adventures of Polly the Parakeet, Unraveling the Secrets of Knots. The random grab never led to a wondrous reading find.
You get the picture. I did not identify as a reader. I keep these memories in mind when I work with children, parents and educators today as an author, a teacher and a principal. Reading attitudes are often overlooked as so much focus centers on comprehension and, more specifically, test scores. I did fine on the tests of the day although not as well on anything that was timed. I still don’t see the point of timing reading, making it a race. Are we striving to raise a crop of kids who can speed through To Kill a Mockingbird? Don’t think, just read. Now mush! What matters is that we foster a love of reading, a collection of positive memories, the skill and desire to be lifelong readers.
When I began my second foray into teaching, I put my high school social studies background aside and settled into elementary school. I had a grade seven class of students who either read the not-too-stimulating Goosebumps books or flipped pages of an upside down book while planning the quickest exit to claim the basketball court at lunch. Initially I tried policing silent reading periods, watching over students, demanding book reports and reading logs. They just got better at faking it.
There wasn’t an easy solution. To change them, I had to change myself. I had to read what they were reading—or what they should have been reading. And to my surprise, there were amazing books hiding on library bookshelves. Kids’ books gave me as much as I cared to know about mummies, the ice man and detective science. I ventured beyond the stuffy prescribed reading list and found newer fiction that portrayed realistic characters who made me laugh, incensed me, even felt like the childhood friend I never had.
I started caring about my read-alouds. I picked them based on interests the students had. They were interested in mythology so I read The Odyssey. They wondered why Shakespeare had to wait until high school so I read and then we read abridged versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew, both of which they decided to perform in productions that lacked refinement but made them identify as a group of readers, undaunted by fancy old words. As tweens with their own budding hormonal urges, they found humor in Puck’s shenanigans and in the thorny interplay between Katherina and Petruchio.
I started amassing a classroom library collection from school book orders, second-hand sales and an awful lot of new books from a wonderful children’s book store. Some of my colleagues chastised me for spending out of my own pocket, but I wasn’t interested in the politics of school budgets. I was paid back with enthusiastic conversations with my students about these books. In time, even my most resistant, basketball-obsessed boys could name favorite books and wanted to find more by the same author.
I supplemented my class library with armloads of books from the public library, which I rotated through each month, renewing the ones that proved especially popular (or were momentarily misplaced). I mastered the book talk, never faking my enthusiasm, always expressing curiosity over titles I could not find the time to cram into my own reading schedule. There were always students eager to give them a first-read to provide a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
When I started literature circles, I tossed out the constricting roles after the first two weeks. Did adult book clubs have Passage Pickers and Word Hunters? Oh, why do educators have to take a pleasurable activity and load it down with artificial, momentum-sucking structures? Why limit kids’ thinking? (This week Johnny is the Connector. No, Fred. You look for the hard vocabulary. Stay focused!) It was a group of underachieving boys reading Iain Lawrence’s gripping The Wreckers who first mastered authentic conversation about books. Their pride was palpable when I hauled in a couple of boxy school sofas and asked them to conduct their next book talk in front of a live audience (i.e., the rest of the class). Oprah would have been duly impressed.
Moving down a few grade levels made book promotion even easier. Many of the books were shorter, allowing me to have more firsthand knowledge of what I offered my class. And I learned that a good read-aloud could help a class come together. Students delighted when I’d switch to a high-pitched squeaky voice for Norbert, the alien living somewhere up Alan Dingwell’s nostrils in Richard Scrimger’s The Nose from Jupiter. They’d laugh as I’d try to recall the voices I’d concocted for the many vivid characters in Polly Horvath’s Everything on a Waffle. I am an introverted individual so I felt especially proud when Kevin told another teacher, “Mr. Walters is the best reader ever. His voices make everything real.” Jason announced to a classroom visitor, “Mr. Walters is OBSESSED with reading.” He added, “And now I am, too.”
Yes, if you are genuinely passionate, if you look beyond the Good-for-You reading list and seek titles that fit the young readers around you, the rewards are immeasurable.
I wrote the novel Fouling Out with my first aliterate grade seven students in mind. The basketball-obsessed Tom Hanrahan was not a stretch to create. Neither was the eager, earnest teacher, Miss Chang, who truly believed typecast students could change.
I bought a newspaper subscription for my class. One copy only. Students would have to share. I had an exit door in my classroom and opened it an hour before class. Students would arrive early to check in with me and each other. They always let Gary have the first glance at the paper. Gary was a gentle giant, a boy who struggled as a reader, who never read the books he checked out. But when he discovered the newspaper, first the sports and the comics and then other sections, he identified as a reader. The settings made sense. Reading had purpose. Students took his cue on which articles were the must-reads of the day.
Somehow I ended up being a school principal. It was never a goal. My master’s degree is in literacy, not school administration. But I read a book called The Gift of Reading by David Bouchard, a teacher and children’s author who became a principal. His message was that we need school leaders who are deeply committed to making reading exciting to students, staff and parents. I have modeled my office on what he described in the book. The curricular binders and regulation handbooks are stuffed on the bottom shelves in the periphery. My desk is covered in files and memos that I struggle to get to. I always apologize to adults about the clutter, but kids notice none of this. They are drawn to the books and toys prominently displayed.
If students are sent down because of some sort of trouble, I give them time to calm down before we talk. Even if they seem perfectly composed, I find a letter to review or an email to answer while saying, “I’ll be right with you. Help yourself to a book.” We then start our talk based on whatever book the student browses through. We end the visit with most of them wanting to borrow a book that they spotted or one that I recommend.
At lunch and recess, I have many students who stop by, asking if they can hang out in my office. It is a safe, welcoming place. I am not just a rule enforcer. Hallelujah!
I visit classes, always coming with a stack of picture books. It doesn’t matter what grade. Everyone likes to be read to. Everyone enjoys sitting back and enjoying the artistic masterpieces hidden in children’s books. They just need the opportunity. I do a book talk about each title I’ve brought and we always vote. I tell them how much I value student choice, how important voting is, not based on what your best friend likes, but what truly appeals to you. We laugh, we question, we connect to the books. The readings usually end with applause. (And my surprise visits often begin with cheers, especially in the younger grades where exuberance remains unchecked by peer pressure.)
This is the most exhilarating part of my job. How do I find the time? How could I not?! I also begin monthly staff meetings and parent meetings by reading a picture book which I connect to a current focus. Feedback from both groups: “Keep reading to us.”
Through my own practice, I have learned that, just as students do not get much out of fake reading, teachers do not inspire students as false literary proponents. Educators have to dig into books and explore magazines, blogs and online sites that students recommend or that can be recommended. There is always a stack of papers waiting to be graded, an overdue report, our own interests and obligations. But we can expand our reading knowledge over time and establish a two-way exchange regarding what is worthwhile reading.
There will continue to be reading distractions. Sometimes an online game or even a blank wall with a mysterious smudge on it will win out. Still, if we preserve and strengthen reading attitudes, we will do wonders. We will create motivated learners and, yes, lifelong readers.