As an English teacher, this is my guiding philosophy. I mean, I became an English teacher for my overwhelming, all-consuming love of books. It wasn’t because I was a card-carrying member of the Grammar Police (though I totally am), and it wasn’t because I enjoyed writing (though I do).
It was because I saw the magic that each book could hold. I could explore ancient civilizations, fly to outer space, hang out with coolest people ever, and sometimes even perform a little magic of my own.
I’ve loved reading since I was young and my mom would read me books almost every night before bed. From 6th grade through college, I carried a book with me to every single class in case I had time to read, even if it was just 2 minutes. Sometimes, even just 10 seconds was enough to find out what happened next.
This is what I want to pass on to my students. This love of discovering new worlds in the palm of your hands.
Every year, this is a challenge. I’ll see a couple of kids who are clearly readers and I connect with them quickly. But I teach what’s called “academic English”, which is basically your low to average students. The high-flyers belong to another teacher. So basically, my kids mostly hate school, would rather be anywhere else, and only grudgingly follow my directions.
Getting these kids to love reading is a huge challenge. Especially since most of them won’t read anything I assign anyway.
And I don’t like being that person. I hate giving a bunch of assignments while they’re reading something because it completely takes away from the fun of reading and seeing what happens next. I hated more than one of the novels I was assigned to read in high school and college for that reason.
But y’all…I’m making magic this week.
I’ve referenced this a few times now in my reviews, but I gave my students a dozen books to choose from for a novel project. I read them the back of the book, told them what I liked about them (and what I didn’t), and let them choose the one they wanted most. The novels include:
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
- Night by Elie Wiesel
- Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
- The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Divergent by Veronica Roth
- Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
And a few more I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of.
The point is that there is a huge selection of novels to choose from, in all shapes and sizes and content. A lot of the kids go for Night because it’s short and it’s nonfiction; others clamor for Divergent because they love the movie. And some really die-hard weirdos want Fahrenheit 451 (which I only grudgingly read in high school).
I’m going to tell you the story of two of my students who changed after reading their novels.
Let’s call the first one Erica* (not her real name, obviously). Erica is a fantastic student–hard working, thoughtful, conscientious, quiet. She told me early on that she did not care for reading. Her older sister was the reader, not her. She chose Divergent as her book and was so worried that I wouldn’t have enough copies for her to get her book. She was excited to read it. She, a nonreader, read the book in about 3-4 days and adored it. A couple of days later, she was asking me if she could go to the library to check out Four, the collection of stories told from Four’s perspective. A few days ago, she came to class over halfway through Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck. She told me that her older sister has been trying to point her toward books she might like (though older sister also told her how Allegiant ends, ugh). And she said that she’s never been like this before, constantly wanting to find another book to read.
If I had turned only her into a reader, then I would feel like I’d made my mark on this class.
But let’s take a look at Simon*. Simon is belligerent, sarcastic, and prone to extremely dark humor. He’s something of a problem child, the one every teacher kind of hates. I met him the year before and was acquainted with his home life situation (it’s not good), but also I respected his love of Hamilton and 80s rock. So I tend to cut him some slack when I maybe shouldn’t always. Simon read Night because I said it was the darkest book of the bunch. (He also complained it wasn’t dark enough.) Recently, while everyone had a chance to read their books, he came up to me holding a book. It was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He asked if I’d read it before. I said yes, twice. It quickly became clear he was asking if it was any good. I said I liked it, but there’s a lot of philosophy and it can be a little confusing at times being a story in a story in a story. His eyes lit up when I said there was philosophy. He was totally interested.
Later on, Simon asked me where to find the assignment they needed to be working on. I told him and his friend went, “I told you that already!” to which Simon replied, “I wanted to hear it from someone with a teaching license.” A girl nearby, having overheard this chimed in, “Simon, I think that’s the first time you’ve ever listened to a teacher.”
I told another teacher what happened after class and she couldn’t believe it. Then again, neither could I and I was there. Somehow, I think I got through to this kid. Maybe not entirely, maybe not enough, but I get the feeling I’m doing something that’s helping him.
This. This is why I teach. For these small moments where I see light in their futures, where I see them embracing ideas they never would have before. They can forget my name, my class, but I just hope they never forget how they felt in those moments when they discovered books.
For anyone who may be looking for tips to get someone interested in reading (whether you’re a teacher, parent, or friend), here are my simple suggestions:
- Give them some choice. Not all of my students would have been happy reading Divergent or Night, no matter how popular both of them are.
- Give them some space. When we read novels like this, I try to show the kids I trust them to do the work. I give them time in class and very few assignments. I check in occasionally by having them verbally tell me what’s going on, but this change of pace is really good for most of my kids. Of course, I step in when I need to, give them deadlines, things like that. But everyone reads at their own pace, so I like to let them have the space to learn what that is.
- Share their excitement. Since I’ve read all the books, it’s easy for me to jump in and ask, “What did you think of this happening?” or “Oh, I was so mad when Tris did that!” It gets the conversation going and they get more invested in their books, knowing they can talk to me about them.
- Be honest with them. If I hate something about a book I’m giving them, I’m upfront about it. I want them to know that books aren’t perfect. And sometimes knowing that I hate a book makes them more interested in reading it. For example, I don’t like Boy in the Striped Pajamas because I think Bruno’s an idiot. I flat out tell them that. Some agree with me; some think it’s cute. But either way, they know I’ll tell them what I think.
- Audiobooks are your friend. For a lot of my non-reader students, they feel they read really slow or get easily distracted. They like audiobooks because it keeps them on pace and/or helps them block out the rest of the class. They follow along with their books, but they process the story better if they can hear it. And I’m all for whatever’s going to help them understand the story.
That’s it! I’m hoping in the next week or so as we finish up the novels that I’ll have more stories like this. I’ve had some people talking to me more in the last two weeks than they have all year, simply because books give us common ground. It’s so fascinating to watch this all happen.