Helping Teachers Rediscover Reading by Margaret Hale
“Margaret, you keep talking about something called ‘yaw.’ What exactly does that mean?”
When my colleague asked me this question, I didn’t know how to answer her. I played around with the word ‘yaw’ in my head for a moment as I tried to figure out a response. Giving up, I finally asked her when I had ever used the word ‘yaw.’
“You use it every time you share book ideas with us to share with our students. You know, you call them yaw books.”
Then it hit me! She was taking Y-A and turning it into the word yaw! Every time I had talked about YA literature, she had morphed it into yaw literature! I felt bad for assuming she and possibly other colleagues hadn’t understood that the term YA stood for young adult, but I was also saddened at their seeming lack of experience with books for middle grade and teenage readers and, quite possibly, professional reading for teachers of English and reading.
As I continued mulling over the incident, I thought back through my years of teaching middle school language arts and about other colleagues with whom I had worked. I even dug out some old journals that I had kept as part of a teacher research group I had belonged to at one point in my middle school teaching career.
These reflections and re-readings illuminated a concern that I had grappled with over and over again in my teaching career. Teachers of reading should be readers themselves, and they should be enthusiastic and passionate about it! It seems simple, and many people probably assume that if someone teaches reading, then of course they are a reader. But I have found that not to be the case at all.
In her book Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing for Children, Katherine Paterson wrote,
“We cannot give them what we do not have. We cannot share what we
do not care for deeply ourselves. If we prescribe books as medicine, our
children have a perfect right to refuse the nasty-tasting spoon.”
For me, this quote encompasses much of what I believe about teaching reading and helping to make reading engaging for students.
One of the things I found when I reread those early career journals was the story of a teacher who taught reading next door to my classroom. Our school had been the recipient of a grant, which, among many things, allowed the language arts teachers to purchase books to help build our classroom libraries.
Over the two or three years before, I had worked hard to build my classroom library using the methods many of us are familiar with – shopping at used book stores, thrift stores, and garage sales, using book club points to get free books, asking for books from friends and family as gifts, visiting the Friends of the Public Library sales, and even asking students to donate books they were finished with. All of these methods had proven successful and I had a nice classroom library with books that appealed to most of my students.
As the language arts department began planning to purchase books four our classroom libraries with our allotment of grant funds, this teacher raised the question of how we would divide the purchased books. The department chair didn’t know how to answer the question other than to say that they would be divided equally among all of the language arts teachers.
This answer was not the answer that my colleague wanted. She continued by explaining that in her opinion it wouldn’t be fair for people who already had lots of books in their classroom libraries to get the same amount of funding or books that others were getting. I made the decision to stay out of the conversation but listened as the department debated the issue and finally decided that regardless of what people had already done on their own to build their classroom libraries, everyone would share equally in the grant-purchased books.
Later in the year, this same teacher asked me in the hallway one day between classes why my students all carried books with them to every class and seemed to really enjoy reading. She was frustrated because no matter what she did, she couldn’t get her kids to read in class, much less outside of class.
I shared with her some of the books I had read recently and had then been able to place in different students’ hands knowing they would enjoy them. I tried to explain the effect that my own reading of YA and middle grade books had on my students. They saw me valuing reading, so it caused them to value reading. They saw me modeling reading, so they were more likely to read themselves. I was familiar with lots of YA and middle grade books because I read them, and because of that, I was able to match students to books.
She explained to me that she didn’t have time to read. At school she was always busy during her conference period grading papers and contacting parents, and she wasn’t about to give up any of her time outside of work to read. This was the first time I had encountered a fellow language arts teacher who didn’t enjoy reading or take time to read. Maybe there had been others with whom I had worked, but they hadn’t ever volunteered this information.
The conversation left me a bit stunned. In my naïveté I had just assumed that all of my language arts teacher colleagues were as passionate about reading and writing as I had always been. Isn’t that why we had all chosen to teach language arts instead of another subject area? At the time, I wrote about this revelation frequently in my journaling.
I ran across similar situations again and again as a classroom teacher, literacy coach, and staff developer. Many of the teachers with whom I worked were avid readers like me, but it seemed that just as many hadn’t read a young adult book since they were in middle or high school themselves and weren’t planning on it anytime soon. Their passions for reading seemed to have been forgotten – maybe buried by the stress of teaching in our current high stakes environment.
I still run across these teachers today, and I do everything I can think of to help them regain their passion for reading so that they can share that passion with their students. Sadly, I find that some of them were never passionate readers, and sometimes they don’t enjoy reading at all. Imagine my delight when I discovered the Nerdy Book Club blog. Every morning I find a new blog post waiting for me to read, and then think about which teachers I can match it with. Just like I’ve always enjoyed matching kids to books, I can now match teachers to blogs in hopes of helping them rediscover (or sometimes discover for the first time) a passion for reading.
Margaret Hale is an admitted biblioholic who spends her time teaching literature, language arts, and reading courses to pre-service teachers at the University of Houston, working with teachers in school districts around the Houston area, and reading as much as she possibly can. She is also the co-director of the Tweens Read Book Festival. You can find her on Twitter as @grithale.