My Favorite Thing

Today, I’m going to tell you about my favorite thing to do. And no, it’s not reading.

I like reading. And since finding the Nerdy Book Club, I’ve been reading more voraciously than I ever have in my life. But why do I read? It’s not an escape. It’s not for the stories (though the stories are often so, so wonderful). It’s not even for fun.

As a teacher, it is hugely important to me that I be able to recommend books to my students. Not recommend like “I’ve heard this is good. You should read it.” More like, “I read this book and thought about you. I know you’ll love it.” I want to be a sharer of stories. To do that, I need to know what stories to share, and who to share them with.

So, I read to share stories. But just sharing stories is not my favorite thing.

For the last seven years, I’ve run a Guys Read Book Club for fourth and fifth grade boys. Here’s how it works: Each month, the boys and an adult (we love dads, but we’ve had moms, grandmas, and brothers) read a selected book. Then we meet, talk, and eat. Oh yeah, and act silly.

This is my favorite thing to do.

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My school is stuck on AR. Students are required to meet a reading goal (assessed via AR test) each month, based on their reading level. While I admit that the program has increased the amount reading taking place in our school, I’ve also seen it slowly suck the fun and love out of reading. Students pick books based on length, based on perceived AR-points-to-effort ratio. They completely avoid books without tests. They pass on recommendations for all of the reasons above. It’s frustrating. I don’t support it, but it’s the way of our school, for now.

So what’s a teacher to do? Well, work and work and work and work to associate reading with fun. That is what Guys Read is all about.

How do I do this? Part of it is choosing great books to read. Want the whole list? It’s long. Oh, you know you want it. Here’s every book we’ve read in our Guys Read club over the years: Janitor’s Boy, Rescue Josh McGuire, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Magician’s Nephew, Ben Franklin’s Almanac, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, Aliens on Vacation, Sign of the Beaver, Hatchet, Brian’s Winter, Guts, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, Maniac Magee, Wringer, We are the Ship, The Book of Three, The Case of a Case of Mistaken Identity, A Wrinkle in Time, Tuck Everlasting, Trackers, Skeleton Creek, Danny the Champion of the World, Sasquatch, Replay, Surviving the Applewhites, How to Eat Fried Worms, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, Ghost Canoe, and Crossing the Wire. Whew. That’s a lot. But you know you wanted to know. These are books that need no discussion starters. They start their own conversations. And our conversations are awesome.  Last week, we met to discuss Jennifer Armstrong’s fantastic account of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. There was extensive talk of jiggly blubber, disgusting food, near-death experiences, delirium, rashes. At one point, after a particularly gross conversation, one member said, “It’s supposed to be Guys Read, not Barf Read.” To which I replied, “Oh, it’s the same thing.” Yeah, we have fun.

How do I do this? Part of it is having cool stuff. I have been blessed by the work of Jon Scieszka. His website, guysread.com, has supplied us with bookmarks, stickers, and posters. The great Tom Angleberger provided us with fake mustaches, Darth Paper tattoos, and a wonderful personalized sketch (which I then turned into a sticker). Vordak sent us some insult-generating cards. I’ve spent a few too many hours creating and perfecting a Guys Read membership card because…well…membership cards are cool. All of these things go straight to the guys. Because reading is fun, and results in fun stuff.

How do I do this? Part of it is doing cool things, in the name of reading. We’ve Skyped with Mac Barnett and Tom Angleberger. We’ve welcomed Clete Barrett Smith to our meeting, in person. We’ve built and launched our own rockets (after reading Hugo, we had to aim for the moon…but we didn’t hit it). We filmed an intro for Patrick Carman’s appearance at the Western Washington University Children’s Literature Conference. We went on a movie field trip to see Hugo. This year, in partnership with SMS Guys Read, all the way across the country, we founded a lunchtime-offshoot, the Intercontinental Ballistic Reading Group, a vlog/book club project that began with Horton Halfpott. A few of these things have nothing to do with reading, but really, they have everything to do with reading.

How do I do this? Part of it is spreading the word. The accessible lunchtime schedule of the Intercontinental Ballistic Reading Group led to an influx of new members, guys that couldn’t or wouldn’t come in the evening, but loved having somewhere to go during lunch. My guys get rewards for recruiting new members to the main club. We invited every student in our school that had read or checked out Origami Yoda to our Skype with Tom Angleberger. We put jokes above the urinals in the boys’ restroom. We’re a little nerdy. We’re not necessarily the most popular kids. But we don’t care.  We’re cool because we read and we read because we’re cool. I challenge anyone to join us and not have fun.

If reading is only an assignment, then reading will cease when the assigning ceases. As I see it, the more joy we can have around reading—the more we can solidify the idea that reading is fun and that fun comes from reading—the greater our chances of developing life-long readers. I literally cannot wait for the Guys Read meeting each month. I love engaging with boys and acting like a “guy” in the name of reading. It is such a part of my life that I connect seemingly disparate things with Guys Read. Take Pat Summitt’s recent retirement announcement. I don’t really follow basketball, but I’ve read The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, I know who Pat Summitt is. Anyway, she said, “It has been a privilege to make an impact on the lives of 161 women who have worn orange.” This is how I feel about Guys Read. It has been a privilege to make an impact on the lives of the forty or so boys that have joined me (so far) for this reading adventure. I will never forget it, and I will never tire of it. It is my favorite thing to do.

Keep reading!

Adam Shaffer teaches fifth grade at Ten Mile Creek Elementary, in Everson, WA. This is his second post for Nerdy Book Club. Adam does most of his book blogging for kids, on the TMCE Guys Read blog. On Twitter, he is @MrShafferTMCE. One of his Guy Readers wrote the following on a district writing assessment, for the prompt ‘My favorite thing to do’: “I like Guys Read because the leader is Mr. Shaffer, the coolest person ever. He is not strict like most teachers, and he is childish but grown up at the same time.”