“One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a star.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
“Things fall apart…” -William Butler Yeats
There’s a story I’d like to tell you, one of failure and defeat, but ultimately of triumph. My students have taught me a great deal in these first six weeks of school, especially about the conditions necessary for engaging reluctant readers. In previous years, the number of readers greatly outweighed the nonreaders, and with time, I was able to pull students without reading lives into the world of literacy. They gave me a sense of the engaging books, poems, and mentor texts I could use to build and enhance reading habits. As a result, reluctant readers developed a passion for books and came to my room each day itching to read more. They read voluminously and were devotees of compelling authors and genres. They spoke eloquently about themes and characters they encountered. Naivete, my misleading muse, made me feel that my work would always be this seamless, and I expected the same results this year.
On the first day, my optimism soared as students rushed to the bookshelves to seize their first reads. They scrambled for titles that had piqued their interest, trying to snatch them before anyone else could. Coworkers told me that this group despised reading and writing. According to them, my work was cut out for me, and when I mentioned the successes I had last year, they scoffed. “Not all students will be readers,” several fellow teachers said. And yet, I believed they would.
On the second day, a surge of panic rose in my heart. Student after student complained that the books they had chosen were not the right fit for them. The books were boring, difficult, or slow. I helped them find different books, certain that this time, they were matched with the right one. Satisfied, they returned to their seats; but the next day, droves of them returned to class with the same complaint. Once again, we found other books. The following day, however, was the same story. So was the next day. And the next.
Two weeks into the year, I was wading in a sea of despair. Stacks of abandoned books were testimonies to my failure. Sam slouched in his seat while he read, sedated by the book in his hands. Colson wriggled on the floor, more interested in his hoodie strings than his novel. Annie stared at the pages of her book, unable (unwilling?) to immerse herself in the story. I adjusted my instruction to discuss book selection and different genres, but my efforts felt pointless. In my heart, I knew I was doing what was best, but I didn’t feel that I was reaching them. Last year, students flourished in an environment with reading choices and were constantly seeking for book recommendations. This year’s group was markedly different. Books I thought they would love were cast aside. Free choice independent reading was just not of interest to them.
I repeatedly heard them complain about being slow readers. “I’m just not fast at reading,” Jacob said. And he wasn’t alone. Multiple conferences unearthed the same complaint: they weren’t quick readers, and they believed reading pace was a requirement for effective reading. One afternoon, several students explained that former teachers had bemoaned their slow reading abilities, proclaiming them deficient readers. Even though I assured them that there was no shame in slow reading, my words could not assuage the frustration.
Despair feasts on hope and turns ambition to insignificance. Honestly, I felt that I was losing a battle with my students. So, I turned to books, to professionals, to mentors. I returned to writers, ones I had read many times before, seeking inspiration that would help me diminish the dissonance in my teaching life. Tom Newkirk’s The Art of Slow Reading helped me understand the importance of slowing the reading process down, of stepping into the story, of greeting the characters as we encounter them, of falling in love with them. His wisdom gave me ways to describe the benefits of slow reading, something several of my students saw as inferior. I used his beautiful words to explain how important slow reading is, how it helps us enter the story and experience it. Using his words encouraged them and I noticed a difference in Jacob’s reading habits. Instead of shaming his reading rate, I embraced it and used it to capitalize on something significant: immersion in the story. Since then, his reading abilities have increased and he has finished two books. Thank you, Mr. Newkirk.
I also had to dismantle negative associations with books and reading. Most of my students had been subjected to reading passages with accompanying multiple choice questions, described by Makenna as “papers with paragraphs on them.” Each day, I began reading workshop with a read aloud from a book I knew specific students, or groups of them, would enjoy. Hearing the narrative and getting the feel of the books was essential, and slowly, more and more students picked up these books that I read aloud to them. This was a practice I had used last year, but not each day. This year’s students helped me learn that it was an essential practice and needed to be in place as often as possible. In turn, they read these books, passed them to other students, talked about them, and spoke eloquently about them during reading conferences.
Because I am a voracious reader, I am always talking about books with students (and teachers, too). I am connected to life through the fabric of literacy. My reading life is interwoven with my professional and personal life and the books I’ve read help me tell my story. When I speak to students about reading, I so often talk about the books I’ve loved, never showing them how I deal with book selection, reading slumps, and less interesting passages. In Passionate Readers, Pernille Ripp discusses how she compartmentalized her teaching and reading lives, never converging the two parts until she realized that bringing her reading life into the classroom would benefit her students. I was willing to talk about good experiences with books, but the less-than-stellar experiences were redacted completely. From their perspective, it must have appeared that I loved every book I started reading and never abandoned anything. Our students need to see the issues we face as readers. I recently finished Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith. The book is exquisite. Since finishing it, I haven’t been able to settle into another book, haunted by the unique quality of Smith’s writing. I keep thinking about the sentences, the imagery, the passage I used as a mentor text (pages 79-80, by the way), and the relationship I built with the characters. I’ve started and cast aside several books, and only recently began The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz. When I was honest with them about my own struggles with reading selection, and how I floundered until I found this one, I know it helped them see that even proficient readers grapple with selecting books to read. And I know because they have brought it up in reading conferences.
I know I can be impatient. I am guilty of wanting immediate results, and I base my efficacy as a teacher on how many students fall in love with books and reading immediately. But establishing a reading and writing workshop takes time. Even when students are used to joyful reading and writing, workshop procedure is a paradigm shift. Kids need time to explore reading, to meander, as my friend Mary Howard so often reminds me. They need adults who care about books, who talk about them frequently, and who are patient with them as they begin forming their own unique reading identities. Penny Kittle, in a video found here, explains that to get kids reading, we have to talk with them, help them set goals, and give them lots of choice. Today, I crouched beside Michael’s seat as he read I’ll Give you the Sun. He’s had this book for almost a week and has only read twenty-five pages. Instead of focusing on typical, expected conference questions, I focused on something else. “Where would you like to be in this book by next Monday?” I asked. “Far into the book,” he replied. “What does far mean to you when you think about this book?” I responded. He flipped through the book and said, “Right here,” as he pointed to page 150. “Only you can do that,” I said. “I want you to think about the barriers that stand between you and getting to page 150 by the beginning of next week.” He smiled, returned to his book, and was finished with it by Monday. Talking with children about books and helping them set goals is such important work. When they envision success, they will challenge themselves. But we have to sit beside them, guide them, and trust that the meandering will lead to readership. Because it does.
As a teacher, I am still learning to embrace the chaos that is part of this work. (Do we ever accept it?) Teaching and learning are messy processes, and I have to remember that time, patience, talk, and choice help channel that chaos into beauty. In just six weeks of school, these kids have taught me a tremendous amount. They’ve helped me realize that the most reluctant readers will pick up a book and give it a try eventually. They’ve taught me that they need a teacher who will bring his reading life into the classroom and show them the polished as well as complicated pieces. I can do that.
Right now, I’ll admit that things aren’t perfect. I’m still waiting on Annie to find the book that will grip her heart. I’m still waiting for Sam to find the one book that will change his mind about reading. And I’m still waiting for David, Cesia, Caleb, Oshey, Dylan, and several others to read outside of class. I encourage them daily because I believe it will happen eventually.
In the meantime, I’m going to love the fact that Justin said he didn’t like to read when he walked into my class, but now has a to-read list that grows each week. That Deanna, a student who fake-read her way through sixth grade, has read four books by Ellen Hopkins, and has now decided to abandon poetry for the prose of Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. That Jay, whose frustration with reading was evident from the first day, has read three books, and today, during a reading conference, explained the structural similarities between two of the books he read. That Juan, who read four books last year, has now read fifteen and is seeking more challenging books. In the meantime, I am going to celebrate these victories while continuing to encourage every reading life, no matter how developed or fragile.
I don’t know the end of this story, but I do know that the chaos is beginning to break, and beauty is emanating from those fissures. I hear fragments of conversations as students get ready for class, and I take note of the student-led book talks that are happening around the bookshelves, the small reading communities that are burgeoning, and the reading recommendations that students seek from me and their peers. I do not have the ease of last year, but I have deeper satisfaction. Our students need us. They need adults who read, who talk about books, who are honest about their reading lives. With time and patience, chaos dissipates, but it takes patience.
So I’ll wait, watching the chaos break into beauty.