Filip: A Portrait of a Passionate Reader by Tara Smith

Most of my teaching day is spent talking about books: mini lessons, reading conferences, book talks, reading response letters and listening/facilitating/leading discussions about books.  I surround my sixth grade classroom with lots of wonderful books, and I am happy if all they do is to  become book lovers during the school year – never mind if they don’t love grammar, spelling, test taking, and all that other “stuff” that our sixth grade curriculum is packed with.  If they become excited about reading, and if they read a lot and are able to talk about and write meaningfully about their reading lives, I feel as though it’s “mission accomplished.”

Some of my kids arrive at my sixth grade door loving books, and some of my kids need nudging…sometimes, a LOT of nudging.  Most of the early weeks of the school year is spent trying to figure out my current bunch of readers, and then devising ways of making this their most reading-rich year ever.

And it was in one of these early conferences that I met one of  the most voracious readers I have ever come across, adult or student, Filip.

I knew this the moment he rattled off his summer reading list, and then informed me that his greatest struggle as a reader was finding enough books to read, and asked if I would be able to help him.  I just about leapt out of my chair with joy. Of course, I said, I would LOVE to help you! Since that conference in September, Filip has read two to three books a week.  Just this week, for example, he read Divergent, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, Bystander, and We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.

As you can see, his tastes are varied but well developed – he is choosy about what he reads.    Of course, I want all my students to read as voraciously as Filip, and so I have kept a list of what I notice about his habits as a reader, and I share this with my other students:

·        Be choosy – there are so many wonderful books out there, don’t settle for a boring read.

·        But, choose carefully – really take the time to preview the book, ask questions and research the author, time frame or subject.  Filip takes his time about choosing his next book, and he keeps a list of my-next-read books so that he is never caught without his next reading adventure.

·        Talk about your what you are reading – explore how your ideas connect with your teacher’s, your classmates.  Filip is always ready to chat about his book – he says it keeps him interested in what he’s reading.

·        Try new authors and genres.  Filip is never stuck in a rut – there are authors he loves, but he is always willing to explore new ones.

·        Never waste an opportunity to read.  Class work done? Get out your book and read! Waiting for your picture to be taken on picture day? Get out your book and read! Waiting for a boring assembly to begin, get over with? Get out your book and read!

But, this list would be meaningless without Filip himself to be  a living, breathing example of passionate readership every single school day.  He is a gift to my classroom and to my other students.  Our reading conferences are eavesdropped upon, and students will later ask me to put them on the waiting list for books that Flilip is in the midst of enjoying.  The thoughtful way in which he speaks about books has also influenced his classmates – they want to emulate his degree of seriousness, the way he tries to connect his reading to other books, history and current events.  His enthusiasm is contagious, and his delight in a good read is infectious.  Many a time he will laugh out loud, sigh deeply or (very discreetly) wipe away a tear.  He shows us that we can get lost in the magical world of a story – that reading is bliss.

We have half the school year to go, but I am already thinking about how much I will miss Filip next year.  He will be back to borrow books, and perhaps in those brief moments he will be able to share a bit of his reading self with my new crop of sixth graders.  But, I will miss him.

Gary Paulsen said this about reading, and the quote has hung on my wall for many years now:

“Why do I read?
I just can’t help myself.
I read to learn and to grow, to laugh and to be motivated.
I read to understand things I’ve never been exposed to.
I read when I’m crabby, when I’ve just said monumentally dumb things to the people I love.
I read for strength to help me when I feel broken, discouraged, and afraid.
I read when I’m angry at the whole world.
I read when everything is going right.
I read to find hope.
I read because I’m made up not just of skin and bones, of sights, feelings, and a deep need for chocolate, but I’m also made up of words.
Words describe my thoughts and what’s hidden in my heart.
Words are alive–when I’ve found a story that I love, I read it again and again, like playing a favorite song over and over.
Reading isn’t passive–I enter the story with the characters, breathe their air, feel their frustrations,
scream at them to stop when they’re about to do something stupid, cry with them, laugh with them.
Reading for me, is spending time with a friend.
A book is a friend.
You can never have too many.”

Well, Filip already has whole libraries of friends…

 Tara Smith teaches sixth grade at a middle school in New Jersey.  She blogs about her adventures in teaching at A Teaching Life.