Connections. When I contemplated how to express my experiences and feelings about reading, the word connections kept popping up. Like many avid readers, I really don’t remember a time that I didn’t love reading. The more crucial question for me to figure out, especially as I try to connect students to books, is why this ever came to be in the first place.
I grew up in a small rural community on a farm. While it was a fantastic childhood, my outside world was limited. We went to town once a week for groceries when I was growing up, and the rest of the time was spent on the farm until I started school. I was also a quiet, shy, yet inwardly anxious child. My mother would tell the story of how an ignorant neighbor asked her when I was five, “Is that one all there? She never talks.” But talking is not the same as connecting, and books became a way to connect to characters and experiences that I would never see in person. As a shy person, books also don’t expect anything. You can read, cry, laugh, ignore them, and most importantly to me, connect with the characters in them. I remember vividly reading and rereading “Little Women” and feeling as if I knew Jo and Megan personally.
When I had children, helping them find a connection to reading was vital to me. We read aloud many series together as a family, and I loved watching my children make their own personal connections to books. I still remember my daughter tripping down the stairs, crying as she discovered Melanie died in Gone with the Wind. Or my son, today at age 18, still expressing his anger over how Grandpa handled his depression in Stone Fox, a book we read years ago.
My career has jumped around a bit. I started out as a psychiatric nurse. When I began looking for a change, becoming a reading teacher seemed a natural fit for me, loving books the way I do. And for quite a number of years, it was a great fit. Then No Child Left Behind entered our collective lives as teachers, and slowly but surely, test scores became the litmus test for reading. Discrete skills such as words read per minute, phonics rules, and computerized test scores became the measure of reading progress. Loving and connecting to books were not part of the equation that equaled “proficient reader.” In fourteen years, I never saw a child learn to love and connect to books by reading scripted, phonics based books meant to make him or her a proficient reader.
As I looked for a change yet again, the role of a teacher librarian kept popping into my mind. When I had a chance to enter grad school in this field three years ago, I took it. Without a doubt, this has been one of the greatest decisions of my life. When I think back to beginning grad school, there was a learning curve that I really wasn’t aware of, or ready for, when starting. My curriculum married two basic pieces, reading and technology, which at the time seemed somewhat unnatural to me. I always thought of technology connections as a series of superficial, vague relationships, like having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook. In addition to being highly inept at computer skills, I was skeptical at how technology and making connections in reading could be linked together in any meaningful fashion. Luckily, I kept an open mind, and eventually realized the two operate beautifully together. For a woman who is basically still the same shy, inwardly anxious person, technology has become a fantastic tool in which to make real and powerful connections for both my students and myself—connections to share books, share conversation, and share our love of reading with one another. I have loved watching children make their own connections through book clubs with characters like Auggie in Wonder, and then discuss their connections together on Edmodo. The excitement was palpable when my third graders were lucky enough to Skype with Kate Messner after reading Marty McGuire in book club.
I guess when I sum up my life as a reader, I realize books are as big a part of me as my brown hair and green eyes. I carry parts of them with me long after I am done reading them, and I find the connections I make personally and those that I make with others about books, comforting and powerful. My favorite book in the world, This Much I Know is True by Wally Lamb resonated with me on many levels. Even today, I could probably recite by memory the last paragraph of the book, even though I read the book years ago. And I would be equally excited to talk about it with anyone who has read it today. And to me, that is the power of reading. Connecting over something we collectively love.
Mary Priske is a teacher librarian at Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon, Iowa. She can be found on Twitter @MaryPriske and her library blog is priske.blogspot.com.