Reflections by Ryan M. Hanna
The famous saying “Cats have nine lives” isn’t one I had ever thought much about before I began to ponder my life as a reader. It soon began to resonate with me. I’ve recently realized something pretty amazing – I have lived many reading lives.
In elementary school, I never read very much. I just wasn’t interested. I played the part of a reader. I would volunteer to read aloud, check books out of the school library, and open books when asked to read silently. I never got much out of those years in school because I was rarely ever really reading. To a casual observer, I might have looked like an enthusiastic reader, but in reality I was just keeping up appearances. Growing up in the days of the basal reader, one couldn’t fully escape reading. We read stories aloud together in class and often were asked to read full excerpts alone. (Can you imagine that today?) So, I read when I had to and left elementary school as an average reader, a kid who would’ve chosen to clean my cat’s smelly litter-box instead of reading on my own for pleasure.
Because of my status as an average reader, my seventh and eighth-grade language arts classes were a nightmare. I had suddenly become a new type of reader: the struggling reader. Since there is often less focus on average students in many American schools, I was put in semi-remedial language arts classes, and boy did I know it! It frustrated me greatly that many of my peers were in honors classes. I felt stigmatized, held back, and hurt. As a result, I continued to avoid reading, but for a different reason than before. What was the point if I wasn’t good at it?
It wasn’t until high school that my reading life changed again. I had engaging teachers who had us read fascinating, compelling, and more modern texts (short stories, poems, novels, plays, etc.) and I finally began to recognize that the world of literature was more than I had ever given it credit for. Novels such as The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, plays such as The Crucible by Arthur Miller, poems by Langston Hughes, and short stories like The Lottery by Shirley Jackson impacted me. What made the difference? In short: a few amazing teachers. They worked overtime at making the reading we did seem exciting and meaningful. After my year in regular freshman English, I was able to join the honors English sections and ended up in AP English my senior year. Although I had made progress in reading, it was not a complete 180° turn. I still was not reading books for pleasure at home and was more interested in the World Wide Web craze, which I accessed via a very temperamental AOL dial-up connection. (Looking back, I realize now that was a form of reading.) But, I hadn’t yet become the reader I am now.
My next reading life, now as an avid reader, began in college. I had never been a very scientific or mathematical person, yet had always wanted to be a teacher, so I chose language arts and social studies as my subject concentrations. Pursuing my teaching degree put me on a mission: getting my future students to love reading. As I began my first teaching job, this question stuck with me: How could I teach my students to love reading if I didn’t love it myself? So, I filled my classroom with books and read most of the books prior to putting them on the shelf, wanting to be ready to discuss books with my students at a moment’s notice. It was something I had to do. I became an obsessed reader, bringing books to family Thanksgiving dinners just in case I had a free moment and spending hot summer days at the pool reading, in the shallow end, giving the stink eye to harmless children who splashed too much.
As I look out across my classroom, my students’ faces are mirrors, reflecting the many reading lives I myself have led. I see the reader who gets in trouble in math class (and heck – I’ll admit it – even in my language arts class) for hiding a book in their lap during a lesson, unable to wait for the next chapter. In the second row, I see the reader who will only choose one genre, author, or series of book, as if entranced by a magical spell. In several places in the room, there are the readers who struggle with comprehension, unwilling to read books that they can actually comprehend, flush with embarrassment because their “just right” books may look different than what the majority of their peers are reading. In the last row, I see the reader whose reading light is only a flicker, waiting to connect with a book that will ignite their passion again.
I feel that teachers who have lived multiple reading lives can connect with any reader and more easily help them progress. It’s the most vital step, coupled with filling your bookshelves with new, appealing books, towards hooking your classroom of readers. Teachers who haven’t lived multiple reading lives themselves must be able to empathize with the diversity of readers they will encounter.
Much like the cats from the famous saying, I have learned important lessons from each of my reading lives. When I look into the faces of my students and can recognize myself, I am instantly closer to helping them become a better reader. I can honestly say to them, “I’ve been there.”
Ryan Hanna is a fifth-grade teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has been teaching for nine years. He served as a Scholastic Book Clubs Teacher Advisor for two years and was named his school’s Teacher of the Year in 2012. Ryan is a fortunate member of the Nerdy Book Club and is a fanatic about recycling (and reading). You can find him on Twitter @rantryan and on his blog at www.seipelt5.blogspot.com.