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.