Returning Home to the Bookshelf

As a child, when it came to reading I was a quick study. I was reading and writing before I was in Kindergarten and could always be found with my nose in a book at home. Whenever we would go visit family from out of town, if I found myself bored by the conversation, I would wander into a room with a bookshelf and entertain myself for hours.

In elementary and middle school, I continued to read in an eager fashion, often choosing Nancy Drew mysteries or R.L. Stine’s scary stories over anything of substance. Despite being a fluent reader, looking back, my comprehension wasn’t really there. I chose simple books that were in my comfort zone. If I ventured out of that zone, often I did not understand much beyond the words I was reading.

Still, despite my lackluster comprehension, I loved to read because all of my teachers encouraged self-selected reading up until the end of middle school. We were always encouraged to read independently and given time in class to do so.

This innate love of reading and voracious appetite for books lasted until ninth grade. That was the year my teachers stopped caring if we liked to read and started caring whether we could pass comprehension quizzes and write literary essays on stories that bared no significance or importance to our lives.

From that day forward, reading was no longer for enjoyment. It was a job. I had to constantly be on the lookout for symbols, metaphors, imagery, and a host of other literary concepts that my literal mind could not begin to fathom. I might have been in AP English, but my ability to think abstractly was still underdeveloped to say the least. So I still vividly remember sitting in eleventh grade AP English and listening to my teacher blather on about how Madame DeFarge’s knitting in A Tale of Two Cities symbolized this and was a metaphor for that, and all I could think was, “REALLY? She’s sitting there knitting and I’m supposed to know that means something else other than she’s knitting!?”

To say I was frustrated was an understatement. To say I was angry was probably more accurate. Why? Because I didn’t understand. My needs as a reader weren’t being met. And no one ever thought to give me or my classmates permission to read anything other than what we were assigned. And at that point, I really needed permission. I was so overwhelmed with everything I was not understanding that books lost their joy for me. If one of my English teachers had just said, “This semester we’re going to read Othello, but I also want to know what you like to read in your free time too,” that would’ve made a world of difference.

So all of this reading to hunt and peck for literary devices left me with zero desire to ever pick up a book on my own again. This lasted all throughout high school and college. I thought my love of reading was gone forever.

But then one day when my husband and I were living in Germany, I found myself bored and tired of mindlessly surfing the Internet while my husband was at work, so I went over to the bookshelf, and picked up a book. I enjoyed that one so much, that I picked up another one a few weeks later. A little while later, after we moved back to the U.S. and I found myself with my first teaching job, I decided to challenge myself to read 50 books in one year. I could tell that I wasn’t meeting my students’ needs by just TELLING them to read all the time, I had to SHOW them. So I vowed to get back on the horse and try to resurrect my love of reading.

I wasn’t expecting to complete 50 books that year, but lo and behold, I almost made it to 100.

As I began reading more, I realized that you only learn what your mind is ready to learn. I might have been in AP English all four years of high school, but my mind was not ready for all of those difficult, abstract texts that we were reading. It was then I knew that as a teacher, I could never meet the needs of every reader with one book. Just because I mandated the worthiness of a certain book, doesn’t mean that everyone in my class is ready to hear the message of said book. I had to find a way to meet readers where they were at, not where I wanted them to be.

When I first implemented an extensive reading workshop in my classroom last year, I found kids reaching so many milestones that it brought tears to my eyes. Kids who thought they were bad readers started to enjoy reading, all because I gave them permission to choose what they wanted to read. And kids who already loved to read had a warm, safe place to continue to nurture that passion.

Which is why it pains me when I hear of students who were in my sixth grade class who always had their noses in books all but abandon reading for pleasure now that they’re in seventh and eighth grades. When I ask teachers about this student or that student, most often I’m told that they don’t read anymore. And these kids aren’t even in high school yet and the joy of reading has already been squelched for them.

So teachers, please, I’m begging you, stop destroying the love of reading in your students. You might think you’re not, but I can guarantee that if you teach whole class novels on a regular basis with no room for allowing students to explore their own preferences, you are losing more than half your class. Strangely enough, the further removed from high school I get, the angrier I feel that I had that innate love of reading taken away from me by the very institution that was supposed to nurture it. I feel, in a word, betrayed.

I’m happy that I eventually found my way back home to the bookshelf, but not every reader that’s had his or her love squelched by the chains of academia is going to meet the same fate. Let’s find a way as teachers to make sure that our kids never have to leave the bookshelf at all.

Beth Shaum is a 6th grade language arts teacher in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She blogs about food, books and travel at: A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust (

You can find her on Twitter: @FoodieBooklvr