If We Let Them

“Student choice is synonymous with student engagement, in both reading and writing. It’s my responsibility as an educator to invite, nurture, and sustain every student’s engagement with literature.” -Nancie Atwell

I am not the same teacher I was at the beginning of this school year. Changing from a traditional method of teaching to a workshop model remains the largest paradigm shift I have ever implemented, and ultimately, it has proven to be the most successful. After this year, I am convinced that a workshop classroom is the only way to fully engage students in conversations about books and writing and to enhance their abilities to analyze and evaluate writing craft and literature. Engagement has increased exponentially as students have chosen their own reading materials, selected topics about which they wished to write, and collaborated with their classmates to enhance their writing abilities and expand their horizons as readers.  But this year, I was more of a student than the teenagers who filled my classes each day. They taught me a lot about teaching and the conditions necessary for a successful learning environment.

I had to listen to my students, though, before I learned this unique distinction. I had read widely and voluminously, including both professional and young adult literature. These readings formed my pedagogical knowledge and guided my thinking about books students will be interested in, as well as the best practices for reaching my kids. I’ve read about brain development, reading research, writing strategies, and problem-based learning in education, but none of that will ever supersede the knowledge I gain from conversations with students. I love Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them and Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. These works are rich with inspiration and guidance, but they are starting points, helping navigate the uncertain waters of the classroom. The greatest knowledge I gained this year came from my students, and these new understandings will be held in my heart forever.   

If we let them, students will write. I have never seen such passionate writing from students as I have this year.  During writing workshop, I’ve watched them linger over paragraphs and sentences, searching for the perfect words to express their thoughts. They long to tell stories, both personal and imaginative, but mostly, they needed a teacher to give them time to write and experiment with genre.

Mackenzie fell in love with books by Ellen Hopkins. Crank was one of her favorites, and during notebook time one day, she decided to use that novel as a mentor text, writing her own story while using Hopkins’s structure. It was her intense focus that caught my attention, and as she feverishly wrote, I looked over her shoulder. A story in verse was taking shape, and it was amazing. I prompted her to tell me about this story and she explained that she loved how the novel was written in poetry and just wanted to experiment with the style.  The powerful element in her writing was that she had had no instruction in this style of writing. She masterfully paired dialogue with an internal monologue, and a narrative took shape quickly. All I did was give her time to write.

Mackenzie's Writing

If we let them, students will read.  Many students entered my classroom this year convinced they were nonreaders. Never before had they had a classroom where time was set aside daily for independent reading. Several students admitted that they awaited the moment I would take independent reading time away from them and pass out a class novel, removing their opportunities to select their own books. That was what Kyler thought. His reading life had been limited to full class novels and teacher-focused conversation, and my independent reading expectation was cumbersome for him to think about. On the third day of school he approached me with The Shining by Stephen King, a book that he had checked out from the public library.

“Can I read this during class?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I replied. “But,” I continued, “I’d like to know why you chose that one in particular.” It was a copious novel, but his determination to read it was evident. “I just want to read one of Stephen King’s books,” he said.

It took over a month to finish the novel, but he was always engaged during reading conferences, and when he wrote about this book, his writing was lively. He spoke eloquently about characters and their ambitions, and after several months and several King novels, Kyler became our resident expert in the horror genre. Around February, he abandoned King for a bit to explore Lemony Snicket and some historical fiction, but eventually, he found his way back to the genre that had captivated him. Having time to read was a critical factor for him and for all students. Without time to read, students will not be able to explore genres that they may fall in love with or find an author to whom they develop an allegiance. I just let Kyler read. And read he did.

The Shining Cover Image

If we let them, students will choose challenging books. Teachers who talk with me about reading workshop usually voice a concern that when given opportunities to choose their own reading materials, students will choose simple books to avoid rigorous reading. I’ve witnessed otherwise. It was Teri Lesesne’s seminal Reading Ladders that helped me understand the importance of building bridges between where students are and where I’d like them to be as readers. Giving students reading choices is empowering, and when they know they have ownership, they will take it seriously. They will build a sophisticated reading ladder, and at the end of the year, you will celebrate their accomplishments with them.

Cassidy admitted that she was not as strong of a reader as she wanted to be. Her interest in reading was minimal, but if she had to read, she would. She started the year with books of 100 pages or less, but after a while, she began searching for other books, ones that would challenge her as a thinker.  In reading conferences she would talk about how she wished the story would develop more. So I suggested better books. She read Noggin by John Corey Whaley and Winger by Andrew Smith, identifying these as the types of stories she had been looking for. Her reading life took a detour when she read The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon, a memoir about an adolescent boy who set himself aflame and as a result had to endure the agony of multiple skin grafts. During various reading conferences, she explained that these books taught her about people and showed her a side of humanity that she had not seen before. Her reading life included over thirty books, but the one that impressed me the most was when I saw her reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2015. I did not assign any of those novels. She chose them. And she chose challenging books because she wanted to read them.

Cassidy All the Light

If we let them, students will teach us and our classrooms will change. Our lessons will come alive for students because we have included them by the simple act of listening and allowing choice. But we have to let them have a voice, and we have to give them a platform within our classrooms. If we let them, they will show us the type of learning environment that will work for them. Each group is unique and our knowledge of those groups must inform the lessons we use to captivate them. If we let them, students will tell us what works for them, the things they want to learn about, and the questions they have. If we let them, they will teach us how to be better educators.

I consider myself an experienced teacher. There is a stack of books on my desk that never shrinks. It increases as new books are released and I find out about new professional materials and current research. My success as a teacher this year hinged on the fact that I let my students be my teacher. I surrounded them with opportunities to read, write, and think, nudging them in the right direction.

Students will grow into amazing students. They will read with fervor and write with conviction, developing their identities as readers and writers. As they continue to read and write, they will challenge themselves, and seek opportunities to increase the rigor of their reading lives and the genres they choose to write. They will engage in conversations with their peers about books and writing and collaborate about ways to make their essays and stories come to life. And while doing so, they will educate us.

But only if we let them.   

Of Stories and Healing

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.” -Anne Lamott

The day I decided to share my personal writing with students, I was mortified.  Never before had I crafted, photocopied, and shared any of my work with a class.  I had also never asked students for feedback on a piece of writing.  But this year was different.  If I wanted my students to be real writers and readers, they had to emulate the practices of real writers and readers.  I renounced the worksheets and formulaic writing practices that used to dominate my classroom, and with my students, we studied author’s craft by analyzing articles, book chapters, poems, and short stories.  Getting to this point, however, took courage and a recognition that my students and I shared the same fears about writing.       

I knew that conversations about reading and writing were where the real connections were made; however, the dialogue in reading conferences with students unearthed stories of suffering for which there was little to no resolve.  They were reading books about controversial topics such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse, physical abuse, and foster care.  I would ask them how they related to these books, and they were honest, but they would whisper, afraid that others would hear.  Like many teachers, I have students who are dealing with emotional angst, trauma, even probation; for them these issues are daily battlegrounds.  They connected with the books because they saw themselves in the characters, and they could empathize with the pain and anguish often pervasive in young adult literature.        

In the midst of their problems, I was still expecting them to attend class and internalize curriculum, a necessity for passing my class and preparing for a future of writing and reading.  Internalizing content doesn’t really matter, though, when you’re facing problems like these kids.  Survival was what mattered, and editing a poem or reimagining an opening paragraph in narrative carried little weight.  During writing workshop, I noticed limited engagement as they pecked away on their Chromebooks, just fulfilling an assignment, biding time until the class ended.  Try as I might, they were unwilling to converse about current events, poems, or even short stories.  I was certain that they would find the morbidity of Poe’s Annabel Lee delightful and Gaiman’s opening paragraphs in The Graveyard Book lush with imagery.  These texts have captivated students of mine for years.  With this group, attempts at large group discussion elicited very little conversation, and when they responded through writing, they wrote superficial sentences, scratching the surface of the narratives.  I even asked them to create storyboards and character sketches based on these professional works, but they just weren’t interested in drafting something worthwhile.  Finally, I realized I was the problem.  

The writing I was asking them to complete held no value for them, and my class could hardly be considered a workshop environment.  I was giving them space and time to write, but I was still trying to control the outcome.  They needed a chance to connect with the act of writing.  In Read Write Teach, Linda Rief (2014) spoke eloquently about the importance of meaningful writing.  She wrote, “My job is to help them find that writing and that reading that matters so much to them that they want to keep writing and they want to keep reading” (p. 1). My shortcomings were easily recognizable: I had not given my students a foundation for writing, one that would carry them throughout the year.  Writing about literature is a necessary skill, but without the fundamental experience of writing from their own lives, topics about which they were experts, they had no investment in the writing process.  They had to start by writing about experiences that held value in their lives.  That was the writing that would matter to them.                   

Although I had not started my workshop in the most engaging way, I believed I could change its course and get them interested in writing.  Penny Kittle (2008), in Write Beside Them, explained the importance of beginning with story because “it is the most accessible form for writers” (p. 12).  My students are the experts of their pasts, and fusing that expertise with writing would empower them, giving them confidence, showing them that stories unite with readers (p. 102).  Personal narratives are powerful, and with the right blend of words, writers can craft passages with vivid imagery.  Getting them to write about the hardships they endured would not be an easy task, but Kittle’s words about modeling our writing for our kids resonated in my mind as I planned for the next few days of instruction.   And I wrote a memoir to share with them.

One of my most agonizing memories from childhood was the day I felt censure because of my family’s financial situation.  It was a painful, embarrassing moment; caustic words are emblazoned on the fabric of my memory.  Each of us in that classroom had experienced hurt, and I knew it would be a touchstone for class conversation.  Putting that moment from my history on paper was challenging, and I shed tears while writing it, but I was proud of the end result.  I began:

When I reflect on my past, vivid, colorful memories flood my mind.  My parents built a home full of warmth and love.  Both of them were hard workers and they instilled in me a drive to achieve greatness. My father bruised his hands from hours of hard labor, and he was willing to sacrifice his comfort for the sake of our family.  

And then to end, I wrote:

That day I realized the supreme importance of kind words and acceptance. It was the first time I had experienced judgment because of money.  Maya Angelou, one of my favorite poets, said people will forget things about you, but they will never forget how you made them feel.   Sure, I eventually healed, but I have never forgotten.


Having never read any of my work to a class, I was terrified of their reactions.  But after sharing my story with them, I noticed an immediate change in the tone of the classroom.  They were shocked that I had written something for them, and even questioned the authenticity of my memoir.  “It’s all real,” I assured them.  “Now, tell me what you noticed about the structure of my writing.”  The discussion wasn’t perfect, but they could point out the introduction and identify the paragraphs that focused on the central idea of the memoir. And when I asked them to write their own memoir, they didn’t hesitate.

Students began writing about heartache, loss, separation, death, and financial struggles that had left indelible marks on their memory.  One student, Faith, whose defiance had led to several suspensions the year before, wrote beautifully about the death of her grandmother.  She explained, “I didn’t show my hurt right then because I tried to act strong.  When I got home, I bursted into tears.  I felt like I was now alone, and she was the person I was closest to.  I could talk to her about anything.  I could trust her, but that day, all of that was gone for good.  I said “I love you” for the very last time.”  In her reflection about this piece, she stated that her grandmother’s death had been tragic, but writing about it helped get some of the anger and frustration out of her system.  

Another student, Annie, described the death of her father in ways that made me cringe as I read her words.  She wrote, “My dad passed away almost two years ago.  It was very hard.  I wanted to be with him in the ground.  I thought there was no purpose in my life.” At times while writing, she would start crying, declaring that the memoir was too difficult to write.  She persisted, though, and explained in her reflection that writing the memoir had helped her deal with her father’s death.   

During writing conferences, I asked them why they were suddenly willing to share such painful memories, ones they had avoided sharing before.  They cited my memoir and bravery to share as valid reasons for writing about these experiences.  Writing is a painful, searing experience that we resist undertaking because we do not want to resurrect the hurt.  Our students feel the same way.  But there is something cathartic about writing.  When we spill our emotions onto blank pages, we can see, through words, the problems that plague us.  It is a unique way of healing.  

I wanted my students to write, but I failed miserably until I began letting them write about the things that were meaningful to them.  As a teacher, it is easy to get lost in curriculum, testing, department meetings, and traditional methods of writing instruction.  But if we can get lost in the journey of writing, the rewards are far greater for our students and for us.  I believe that the best teachers learn alongside their students.  We become better writers by writing for and with our students, and ultimately, they grow in their craft as writers, too.

Meet Them Where They Are

There is a quietude that descends on my classes each day during independent reading, when the shuffling of papers and bookbags diminishes, and students settle into their books.  Looking around my room today, I see Logan captivated by the storm of events in Violent Ends, Autumn seared by the anguish in 13 Reasons Why, and Daniel, savoring the last moments of Mexican Whiteboy.  It wasn’t always this way.  These three students arrived in my room on the first day of school with a disdain for books.  Along with several of their classmates, they exhibited little passion for literature and were hesitant to read anything.  Their eyes glazed over when I explained to them the voluminous reading I expected from them, and they resisted the idea of choosing books and starting a reading life.  Now, at this point in the year, I couldn’t pry these books from their hands if I tried.  They have developed a book love of their own.  

This change did not come easily, though.  On the first day of school, I placed books all over my classroom, and during the first week, I spent time each day discussing five to seven titles.  I took my students to the media center and let them browse, book-talked novels to small groups of students, and pointed out personal favorites that I knew would captivate certain readers.  I discussed books with different structures, such as The Crossover, which is written in poetry, and The Memory of Things, a fusion of poetry and prose.  Books that deal with the emotional complexity of teenagers are popular amongst middle schoolers, so I introduced titles such as All the Bright Places, The Serpent King, I’ll Give You the Sun, Winger, and Orbiting Jupiter.  Classics, like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, Wuthering Heights, and Fahrenheit 451, were a part of these book talks as well, and I discussed with students the value and beauty of these ageless novels.  Even after a litany of book talks, trips to the media center, and multiple small group conversations, some students had not chosen books.  

I refused to give in to despair.  Logan, Autumn, and Daniel were part of a group of students who had not selected anything to read.  They were convinced they were non-readers, and even though I tried to match them with books that would speak to their curiosity and interest, they wouldn’t budge.  They would go to my classroom library or trudge to the media center, just lingering around the shelves without any idea of the book that would resonate with them.  These students were in need of a different approach. So I started meeting them with books.

I handed Autumn a copy of This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp one morning as she walked into my class.  It had a sticky note on the front that read, I think you’ll really like this one.  It’s very intense.  Her eyes lingered over the note I had written for her, and although she still seemed uncertain, she took it back to her seat with her.  I knew that she needed a book that would grab her attention at the beginning and would be intense enough to sustain her interest.  I was certain that the brutal honesty of the book, which details the events surrounding a school shooting, would captivate her.  It soon became one of Autumn’s favorites and I even noticed that my note to her became a bookmark.

As Daniel was staring at my shelves one day, I approached him with The Rule of Three by Eric Walters.  Conversations with him revealed that he enjoyed dystopian novels as well as technology, both of which are features in the novel.  Additionally, his manner of speaking and intellect proved that he needed complex reading material.  On that particular day, I met him at the bookshelf, book in my hand, and asked him to listen to the first few pages as I read aloud to him.  At first, he only complied, but as I read further, I could sense a change in his interest level.  He took the book, and during later reading conferences, he continually discussed the suspense and enjoyment he felt as he read.  

When Logan finally settled on a book, his posture and face told the story of his indifference to reading.  He was just passing time until independent reading time ended. I bookmarked a page in Winger by Andrew Smith and handed it to him one day during class.  Logan, convinced that his athleticism excused him from academics, had started and abandoned several books, claiming that he just couldn’t get interested in reading.  The page I bookmarked for him demonstrated the struggles and hilarity of Ryan Dean West, the main character in the book.  Ryan Dean’s athleticism, mixed with self-excoriation, was, I believed, the book that Logan needed to break his distaste for books.   After reading the page I had bookmarked, he decided this would be the book for him.  He was hooked.      

Teachers and administrators will come into my classroom, noting how invested my students are in their books.  During department meetings, I often share stories of success, ones that showcase the gains my students have made as readers.  I am not seeking to glorify my abilities before my co-workers; I only want other educators to know that students can and will develop a reading life.  Sometimes “meet them where they are” is literal.  If I see students laboring with a text, and I can tell it is not a good struggle, I approach them.  If they choose a book that is more complex than they can handle, I monitor them as they read and step in when necessary.  If they just aren’t enjoying the book they’re reading, I can help them.  Because I meet them where they are.      

We only build a love of reading in our students when we, as teachers, are readers.  If we do not read books appropriate for the age level and reading maturity in our classes, we fail our students.  If we do not share those books with them, we fail them even more.  Just having a classroom library does nothing for your students.  It’s almost like living vicariously through pictures.  You look at them, but you don’t experience the travel, atmosphere, delight, and emotion represented by those pictures.  People may talk about them, but until you experience it for yourself, they hold little value.  

The wonderful thing about books, though, is that we can read and talk about them, bringing them alive for our students.  We can meet our kids with books, share pieces that resonated with us, and give students reasons to read them.  They don’t have to travel to experience the beauty of the narrative.  They just have to commit to reading it.  

At times, I notice educators will ask students to “just pick something to read.”  Libraries are potent things, but building a love of reading in students requires that we become the authorities on the books in our classrooms.  We have to read the books and know which students will enjoy them.  We can’t meet them where they are if we haven’t developed this awareness of books that will speak to our students.      

As we begin closing in on the end of this school year, I encourage you to read books that will resonate with your students.  I encourage you to bring books to class, talk about them, and pass them along to students who will enjoy them.  Helping students find their own sense of book love is hard work, but it is so worth it.  All it takes is a commitment to meet them where they are.     


Destructive Reading and Writing #KidsDeserveIt

This post was co-written with Todd Nesloney.

You can follow him on Twitter here or his own blog here.

We’ve all been there at one point or another….that moment where a child needs a consequence and as educators we jump straight to “write this sentence 100 times” or “sit there and read your book in silence for 30 minutes”.  It’s an easy consequence. But both of us have come to understand and realize that it truly isn’t what’s best for the child.

You see, when you make reading or writing a form of punishment you create a sense of dislike for those subject matters.  You create students whose memories of writing are not some kind of joyus experience of self-expression but instead a dreaded experience of annoyance, frustration, and punishment.  You create readers who dislike reading because of the memories of being forced to read because they were in trouble.

From Todd:

As the principal of an elementary campus, we’ve done after school detention as a form of punishment for students.  The whole concept of “you wasted your class time with poor choices, so I’m going to waste your time after school”.  When we started this consequence, we always had them write sentences.  For whatever reason we had this notion that making a child write “I will make better choices” would actually influence them on a deeper level.  What were we thinking!?!?

After having some of my writing teachers come to me concerned that this consequence was building a dislike for writing in students, I took a step back to reflect.  And those teachers were so right.  We WERE building an atmosphere of “writing = punishment”.  As a teacher I even remember “making” students read when the class was behaving poorly.

I guess it’s like they say, the first step to moving forward is understanding.  After realizing what we were doing to our students I knew I had to figure something else out as a punishment.

That’s when we moved to digging to the heart of the issues.  Now our after school detention is a place of meditation and mediation.  We have kids stop, evaluate, and think through their choices.  We work with them on understanding their emotions and how to react in situations. And you know what? Our discipline has decreased.  It never decreased with the sentence writing.

From Travis:

I have been passionate about reading and writing since childhood, and one of my goals, as an educator, is to build the same passion for those subjects in my students.  I want them to see reading as a lifestyle, writing as a means of expression, and watch them grow to love the artistry of both.  A rich reading and writing life will carry our students far in life, providing them with skills that will sustain them academically.  While I have them, I want the year to be full of rewarding experiences, both in their reading and writing lives.  There is an exquisite joy when a self-proclaimed non-reader falls in love with a book; when a student who has despised language arts writes a thoughtful poem related to a book he has read; and when hyperactive teenagers silence each other as they prepare for independent reading during class. These are noteworthy, indelible moments, and I treasure them deeply.

Not long ago, I found myself engaged in a conversation with several co-workers, both planning a reward day for their classes.  One teacher had told her students that “if they were not eligible to participate in the reward, they would be going into another classroom and would have to read.”  Those words stung me.  If not participating in the reward, they would be reading, implying that reading was a punishment.  I mentioned to this teacher that a room devoted to reading would be a reward for many young people, and it was wrong to vilify books by representing them as activities for punishment.  The teacher chuckled and walked from the room.  

I structure my classes to give students time to write and read every day, experimenting with different genres and mentor texts that will guide them to be better readers and writers.  I always use positive language when I discuss the act of reading because I know that my attitude will affect my students’.  I never issue punishments for a refusal to read or when I notice that students are not reading outside of class.  When I note those behaviors, I know a conversation is necessary, and I target those students during independent reading time.  I want to know why they aren’t reading, if the book is not interesting to them, if they are confused by the events in the book, if the characters or situations do not reflect their interests, and so on.  I have never (*knocks on wood*) been unable to get a student invested in a book after such a conversation.  It takes some work, but it is well worth the time spent in discussion with the student.  The same goes with writing.  If the students are struggling with craft, word choice, or structure, I sit with them to resolve the issue.       

My classes are structured in a way to give students time to read, study, craft, and share.  I devote a specific 20-minute space of time each day to independent reading.  Students have a chance to read something of interest to them, most of them choosing something from my classroom library.  Afterward, we spend time sharing what we read, writing about something that resonated with us, or picking our favorite scenes and describing them.  In conferences, I ask students to think about books they have loved, knowing that the tone associated with the word love is one of warmth and comfort.  That’s what I want students to experience when they read books they adore.  This is book love.   

Unfortunately, we have heard the conversations many times from educators about the tendency to engage students in reading and writing as a punitive measure.  Some students have learned to loathe any kind of reading and writing because these beautiful activities have been reduced to worksheets and comprehension exercises. When we use language that belittles the act of reading, we do a disservice to our kids. We showcase, with our words, how little we value literature and written expression, and we do so to the detriment of the learning process.  No student will develop a love of books and writing if we represent them this way.     

As educators it is our responsibility to truly build a love of learning within our students.  To have them fall in love with books, dive deep into equations, explore scientific experiments, express themselves and their learning through writing, walk through history lessons, and so much more.  We want students to yearn for books, to establish reading habits that take them beyond the classroom.  Learning to love education stems from developing a love of reading, and as teachers, as educators, and as thinkers, we have a responsibility to engage our students with fascinating books, where we can see them fall in love with books.  

But that love of learning can never be built if we as educators take the easy way out and use any form of education as a punishment.  We’ll lose our students, one by one, if we destroy any love they could develop for these subjects.  What’s truly important is getting to the heart of the issue.  And you can only do that by truly connecting with others and learning who they really are.

Broken Hearts Make Art

The news of an immigrant and refugee ban was searing.  Frustration, anger, sadness, concern, and heartache flooded my senses all at once.  My writing notebook became a safe haven, and I turned to Twitter and Facebook to find community and healing.  I began reading books and articles that would deepen my awareness of the issues surrounding the legislation. Like many times before, I had turned to literacy for understanding, for consolation. Words finally coalesced into paragraphs, and within a matter of days, an article took shape in my notebook.

Todd Nesloney, co-author of the widely successful book Kids Deserve It, asked me to author an article for his blog several weeks ago.  At the time, I had considered writing about classroom environments, delineating the need for essential questions, expectations, daily agendas, and so on.  That wasn’t what I needed, and it was definitely not what everyone else needed, considering current events.  We Are All Immigrants was the title I gave to the article, and it is a representation of my heart.

In deference to Mr. Nesloney and the Kids Deserve It blog, I will provide the link; I ask that you go to the blog and read the full text there.  I am not a world-renowned author or someone who has gained immense success; however, I deeply care about people.  I believe in the power of books and the benefits of a literate life.  There is great understanding and healing that anyone can glean from reading.  If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t write about it so passionately.  Weeks ago, I was reminded that I can take my broken heart and make it into art.  That’s all I’ve attempted to do.

Thank you for the support you have given my blog already.  I adore each comment and relish the support from the Facebook and Twitter communities.  To this day, I still believe that “the greatest of these is love.”


The full text of my article, We Are All Immigrants, can be found here.

Finding Faith

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all miseries of life.” W. Somerset Maugham

“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” – from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

She sauntered into my class on the first day of school, scanning the room for familiar faces.  I was standing to the side of the room greeting students when my eyes locked with hers, and arbitrarily, she chose a seat in a group of desks at the front of the room.  The way she moved quickly, averting her gaze, alerted my teacher brain, and I moved from the side of the room to the front where I could keep a closer watch on her.  In her hands she held a drawstring bag, one that she clutched, holding it as one would a security blanket, and she was still peering around the room and eyeing the door for someone.  When a friend of hers walked into the room, her face illuminated with joy, and probably a little relief, knowing that she would not have to endure class alone.  Immediately, she engaged her friend in a conversation that included lots of giggles and furtive glances in my direction.  She slid items of interest across her desk to her friend who slipped them into her bookbag, checking to see if I had noticed.  When she saw that I had, she rolled her eyes and slouched in her seat.  She caught my gaze again, and within her eyes were fires that danced with determination, daring me to say something.   This is my 9th year of teaching, and I am well aware of the adjustments that students have to make at the beginning of a school year,  their minds settling into the idea of a new grade level.  They must become acquainted with a new teacher.  For me, the first day is about establishing connections and relationships, and I try not to form opinions based on the first day I meet them. Something about this young lady, however, captured my attention.  Her eyes and body language were offering a challenge, almost as if she were willing me to provoke an argument.  I held the stare until, in response, she rolled her eyes and put her head down, turning so I was out of her view.  

I walked to her desk in an attempt to mitigate any animosity that I might have created, especially at this point in the year.  When I approached her desk, she sensed me standing there and sat up.  “I’m sorry if I upset you,” I said, trying to smooth what appeared to be a possibly precarious situation.

“It’s ok,” she said, but her tone didn’t convince me.

“I’m Mr. Crowder. What’s your name?”

“Faith,” she said.  After the monosyllabic word, she put her head down again, her social cue that the conversation was finished.  I went back to my desk and called roll. When I called her name, she didn’t say anything. Her head remained on her desk.

Homeroom seamlessly segued to first period, and when it started, Faith came into class with a notebook, labeled English/Language Arts.  She slid back into her seat, still clinging to the drawstring bag from earlier.  Her spirits seemed better at this point, but I was cautiously optimistic, nervous that I would recreate the scene from earlier that morning.  I passed out the class syllabus, and as usual, asked my students to highlight parts of the document that were important.  Faith acquiesced, highlighting portions with precision, even broadening certain lines so that she made a perfect square around paragraphs of information.  As a class, we discussed their required independent reading, and although I was nervous about her reaction, she didn’t seem phased by the voluminous expectation delineated in the syllabus.  I felt hopeful, but my hopes were premature as I was to learn the following day.                 

We wasted no time getting to the media center on the second day of school.  I had spent time booktalking numerous novels in my classroom, hoping to spark some form of interest as my students began establishing reading lives.  A large number of them chose books from my classroom library, but there was a significant number that needed to visit the library.  So off we went.  I was the last to arrive in the media center and students were all over browsing books.  Faith stood off to the side with her friend, ignoring the shelves of books that surrounded her.  I approached her, stubborn enough to believe I could help.

“Have you selected a book?” I asked.

“I don’t like reading,” she said.  Provocation, I thought.

“Well, unfortunately for you, you don’t have a choice.  Would you like me to help you select something?”

“No, I’ll just get something.”

“I’ll be happy to…”  Before I could finish, she had taken a book from a nearby shelf and joined her friend at one of the tables in the media center.  She sat there for the rest of class, laying her head on one of her arms while a hand steadied the book on the tabletop.  She fake read for the rest of class.     

For the next month, Faith continued to read this book, one arm supporting her head while she tried to focus on the narrative.  Sometimes, her fingers would trace the sentences, and she would mouth the words, one by one, trying to negotiate the text. During reading conferences, she had little to say about the characters or plot, sharing only a modicum of information with me.  I could tell she was bored with the storyline, but she resisted any other reading suggestions I gave.  I start each year with a reading interest inventory to determine students’ ideas and opinions about reading and as a means to guide them to literature that will engage them as independent readers. Her reading inventory proffered little help about her interests.  Conversation with her yielded the same results, and I was beginning to think this student would slip through the cracks.  Defeat seemed imminent when I saw her skip the last 50 pages of the book before proclaiming to her friend, and ultimately me, that she had completed the novel.  It was impossible to read and write with fluency if these were the academic habits she was establishing.  I would say I felt hopeless, but the word hardly captures the feelings I experienced.

We stayed in the media center for class that day, transitioning to writing workshop after our independent reading time.  I was scheduled to conference with Faith about the memoir she was writing, and when I sat down beside her, she barely acknowledged I was there.  Instead, she was diligently typing another paragraph for the first draft.  I asked her how the writing assignment was going, and although she had struggled a bit with some sentence structure, she felt confident about this draft.  I read over her shoulder as she typed and was appalled at her story.  The first page was infused with themes of neglect, abandonment, verbal abuse, and death.  Her memoir unearthed her troublesome past, justifying the actions she willingly displayed in class.  Faith knew transience at such a young age, moving from place to place, person to person, environment to environment.  Through each test of her resilience, she had somehow found resolve.  She had chosen a book in which she could not see herself; no wonder she had no interest in the story.  

I went to the shelf in the media center and chose Dark Song by Gail Giles, a gritty novel about a teenage girl whose strength and resilience enable her to overcome her fears.  I took it to Faith as class was ending and talked about it briefly.  “Just try it,” I said.  “If you don’t like it, we’ll try something else.”  When she returned to class the following day, she opened to the first page and started reading.  Within five minutes, her posture had changed.  Within fifteen minutes, she was squinting her eyes, indicative of the negotiations she was making with the text, the characters, and story.  Her familiarity with the characters and situations yielded deeper conversations during reading conferences, and I could sense her negative view of reading beginning to change.  One day, I looked over, and her drawstring bag was in a pile beside her desk; she was lost in her book.  Success!

Since then, Faith has read eleven books.  Her interests have ranged from Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper, to A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.  Currently, she is reading The Memory of Light by Francisco Stork, a novel about people who find redemption as they resolve the tenuous relationships and issues of their pasts.  If you ask her about it, she’ll give you a thorough analysis of the characters and their situations.  I often share this story with co-workers and friends because I believe in the power of books.  I believe that once students find the right book, they’ll be hooked forever.  One of my favorite writers, thinkers, and mentors is Penny Kittle.  I have often heard her say that “the difference between a reader and non-reader is that a reader has a plan.”  Once we help students develop reading plans, they learn to sustain their reading lives.  This experience taught me a valuable lesson about the rich experience reading brings. Students walk into my room every year, convinced that reading is not for them.  Their opinions about reading are framed by the worksheets, multiple-choice tests, and vapid discussion that has surrounded books, articles, and poetry.  Considering that this is their context for any instruction surrounding literature, I can’t blame them.  I continue to believe that they can become enraptured by a narrative, and that it is never too late to develop a reading life.  I continue to believe that a story can come to life in their minds and build a world full of light, a fortress of illumination that opposes the darkness and misery of our world.  I just have to have faith that the right book is out there.  

Of Books and Humanity

“What we need is a curriculum that invites students to answer the essential questions we all ask, one that is a transformative experience, and allows students to become storytellers, philosophers, historians, anthropologists, reporters, critics, designers, and travelers.” -Jim Burke

“Empathy, stronger than sympathy, connects to the reader at a deep emotional level. Something in the book has happened to the reader as well; thus, a relationship is made, one that can be sustained book by book.” -Teri Lesesne

I have read widely and passionately for most of my life and as a result, I speak, think, teach, and write in terms of books.  The narratives echo deep within me, and for every situation, there is a character or quote that comes to mind.  These artifacts of ink and paper are more than stories, and any reader who has spent time dwelling in the world of a book knows its power. When I discuss books with my students, I reference themes that connect them to the stories and the characters. I hope they will see each book as a microcosm of the world, containing the lessons that will prepare them for life.  But sometimes I forget that the lessons in books are for adults, too.                    

Rage emanated from all sides during the turbulence of the national election.  Like all Americans, I was bombarded with toxic language on a daily basis, encountering words that had no other purpose than to destroy.  To counteract the negativity, I focused on The Underground Railroad, a novel by Colson Whitehead that is nothing short of masterful.  Whitehead uses the Underground Railroad as a metaphor, taking us on a journey with Cora, the protagonist, as she struggles to find her way north.  Her adventure is breathtaking, yet heartrending; as an African-American woman, she chances capture from her owner, but her resilience leads her onward.  Upon finishing the novel, I turned to my notebook, and as I wrote, I found myself thinking and writing in terms of humanity, of shared experiences.  Historical events have shaped who we are, how we think, and how we will affect change now and in the future.  The pieces of our past are threads that weave us together, as citizens, into the fabric of the world.  I read and wrote about Cora’s journey, and I celebrated her resilience in the face of adversity; but, I failed to exhibit the same qualities I so happily applauded.  Whitehead’s microcosm was a world I wanted to disappear into, but the wisdom of the narrative taught me a lesson in spite of the fictional escape I so desperately wanted.        

As a teacher, I am responsible for expanding the minds of my students.  These are the individuals whose future tasks will include participation in civic duties, such as voting and engaging in global conversations.  The toxic language used at the national level, including the voices that raised in support of narrow mindedness, revealed an overall absence of empathy, a hallmark of an unhealthy reading life.  The National Assessment for Adult Literacy, in 2003, found that 11 million Americans lacked basic literacy.  In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that in a 12-month span, 27 percent of adults reported that they had not read a single book.  The United States Census Bureau claims that 318.9 million people currently inhabit our country, meaning that in 2015, 86.1 million people did not read a single book. I find those statistics frightening, and I fear future reports where the population of readers becomes marginalized by growing numbers of non-readers in our country.  Paltry reading diets deny us journeys through time, adventures through distant lands, and chance encounters with gorgeous cultures and different faces.  The 27 percent of people who did not read denied themselves any exposure to our heterogeneous world.  For 12 months, they declined opportunities to see the world differently, to resolve their questions or uncertainties about life, and they relegated themselves to a single viewpoint of life.   

As an English teacher, I am responsible for representing the beautiful threads of diversity through literature, writing, and conversation.  Ignoring the hateful language that children are exposed to through news sources and social media does them no favors, and it is hypocritical of me to suggest they seek to understand humanity if I am not responding with counteractions against the vile language at the national level. Books are resonating, powerful things, and right now, at this exact moment in our teaching lives, our students need to read to develop a sense of humanity.  I’m not asking them to read just so they can understand another culture.  More than anything, I want them to realize that their lens is just a fragment of the larger world.  Our curriculum, guiding questions, and goals must all be linked to giving students opportunities to function cognitively as inquirers.  They should always be asking questions about the world in which they live, and the books they read should help them answer those questions. The more we read, the more connected we are to the rest of the world and we begin to see how similar we really are.  Limiting our reading experiences to one story of humanity, one viewpoint, limits our scope and forces us into cognitive confinement.  I would not have applauded Cora if my idea of the world was formed from a single story of humanity.  My empathy, gleaned from a healthy reading life, enabled me to celebrate her resilience and fear for her life.  If we do not read widely and passionately, we will fail to defend democracy and to condemn the pure acid of hate speeches and racial epithets. Ignorance will isolate us from the exquisite community that comes from passionate reading.          

I have started a Voices for Humanity board in my classroom.  Anytime a student notices a sentence, phrase, or passage that reflects a different culture, idea, or way of thinking, I ask them to write it on the board.  This gives students a visual representation of the diversity and humanity that exists within the books they are reading, connecting them to the larger community of our world.  My students seek justice and they celebrate the resilience of characters they meet in their books; they want to see good triumph in the end.  As they journey through school, developing a book love that extends far beyond this year, I hope they will remember the Voices for Humanity board in my classroom and remember the words that were written across it.  I hope they remember that I filled my classroom with books that reflected as much of humanity as possible, that in my library lived thousands of people who represented life beyond our school, that my class transformed their ideas about reading, and books gave them opportunities to be historians, travelers, thinkers, and philosophers, that each book was a mighty heartbeat of the world, and that they had a chance to hear that heartbeat before they left my class.

I know there are other teachers out there who believe in the power of good books.  There is a distinct joy that comes from a voluminous, healthy reading life, one that counteracts the hostility that is present in our world.  I believe we teachers, the ones who understand the potent quality of books, can impact change in our world by inviting our students into a sustained reading life that is rich with perspectives and experiences.  Let us use books to counteract the ignominious deeds and words of those around us.  Let us lead our students to a love of reading by bringing them to literature that reflects truth.  I am confident that our passion for reading will inspire our students to experience books with the ardent intensity that we do.  

Give them books.

Show them humanity.

And in the end, good with triumph.