Permission Granted

I’ve always been a voracious reader. I couldn’t tell you exactly when it started, but growing up in a house surrounded by books and seeing my parents and older brother reading all the time made a difference. It’s just what we did. Seeing the models of good reading around me, and that it was a valid choice for a relaxing, free-time activity, gave me permission to become a reader. I was surrounded by Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, Archie, Mildred D. Taylor, and Danielle Steel. Some I sought out, some were passed on from my mom. But I had a dirty secret – I only read what I wanted to; I didn’t read what I “had” to. Teacher assigned book with questions and discussion taking away the enjoyment and escapism that was reading to me? Nope. Not gonna do it. The exception – Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I actually read that one in middle school…and then I went to the library to search out every other Mildred D. Taylor book I could find. I didn’t read the other books the teacher wanted me to-I sought out and read the books I wanted to. High school came…and reading went. I managed to get through Honors and AP English classes having read only one complete book assigned to me in the entire four years – The Invisible Man. Why that book out of all the ones I could have read? Who knows why that was the one that connected with me at that point in my life. Seems like I could have picked a shorter or easier one.

I don’t know why certain books connected with me when others didn’t, but I do know the way in which books were being picked and taught made me rebel against them. Don’t think I wasn’t reading – I absolutely was, but I was not being granted permission by teachers to read in the way I wanted to. I was devouring books outside of school. They were my escape from adolescent self-esteem issues and drama. I was choosing what I needed at the time, and that made all the difference in my reading habits. My AP English test essay question: how the dance scene in Romeo & Juliet changes the course of the story. My college entrance essay: the impact Message From Nam had on changing the course of my life. Books impacted my world-just not always in the way teachers might have prescribed them to.

As a teacher myself now, I can only cringe when I imagine how frustrating I must have been as a student. Intelligent and capable, but doesn’t do homework. If she would just read and turn in this assignment, she can pass. Attitude problem – oh, yes, my famous phrase was “I don’t want to do stupid busy work.” Then I became a teacher myself – a middle school language arts and reading teacher. I start my first job as an eighth grade teacher. They teach The Outsiders so I go to read it and I can barely get through the book myself. How could I possibly teach it to my students and get them excited about it?! The teachers choose books based on what they have in the cabinets and teach one book to the whole class. I hated it when I was a student, so why was I doing it to my own students now? Because I didn’t know any other way. I wasn’t granted permission to do it any other way and I didn’t know how.

Then came the master’s program and the books that gave me permission to do what I knew was right. Professional books and journal articles saved me as a teacher-they gave me the research base and methods and structure to support the changes I wanted to make so I didn’t have to feel like a hypocrite of a teacher anymore. Atwell, Allington, Gallagher spoke to me and who I wanted to be as a teacher. Give kids choice! Don’t give comprehension quizzes! Let them read books at their level! Don’t teach one book to every student! Have them respond in authentic ways! Be the model for them of what you want them to do! Get them engaged and motivated to read! And guess what…it worked. Once I was granted permission to do what was best for students, what I would have wanted as a student, I was able to love the teaching of reading. Students started reading and then I started reading more and more so I could keep up with the necessary recommendations. Then I started blogging to share those recommendations on a larger scale. I read more widely and voraciously now than I ever did before because it’s necessary to do my job as an educator.

Books gave me the permission to do it my way. Books gave me the permission and strength of character to fight for what I know is right for my students. Books save my students from boredom and disengagement. Books allow me to communicate and connect with my students and get them reading. Books grant me the ability to do my job to the best of my ability. Books help me to understand myself when I can’t figure it out any other way. Books help me make a difference in the classroom and in my own life. Teaching reading and helping grow an appreciation of it in my middle school students has brought me back to the joy that I had as a reader myself, and it’s what makes me a life-long, card-carrying (do we have those cards yet?) member of the Nerdy Book Club. I’m granting myself permission to start a chapter at my school next month to recruit more members who can carry on the tradition for us. Get books, read books, talk books, share books, but don’t “teach” books. Do what you know is right. Permission granted.

Heise Reads & Recommends
Twitter: @heisereads
Middle School Language Arts & Reading Teacher