We Have a Code Situation: When the Heart of the Reader is in Arrest by Paul W. Hankins


It’s the beginning of the year. I am leaving the driveway to head for the school.


It’s an exciting time wherein I arrive at the school with at least three crates of new young adult titles we have collected over the summer. And at least three more crates of picture books.

I walk by the cafeteria and observe all of the students waiting there for the bell to ring that will release them into the hallways and to their first classes of the day.


The release bell rings and I wait in Room 407 for the first, eager students to arrive.

I do one more status check.

Books. Check.

Reader Interest Surveys. Check.

I am ready for the new group of Room 407 Readers.

And then I remember the first rule of any emergency situation. One I remember from basic first-aid class as a Navy Hospital Corpsman: check your own pulse first.

When no one else is in the room, I see my own enthusiasm as the pulse. This is a nice sentiment, but it is a platitude at best. In order to accurately check one’s pulse as a reader, one must be able to put a thumb on the current book he or she is reading.

Take a moment to review that rule again.

If we, the lead reader, cannot put our thumb on the title we are currently reading then we cannot share that title we are currently reading.

No pulse. No rhythm. No beat to follow.

I have three books that I can put my thumb upon right now. Each of them makes my heart race in a different manner. I like to have at least three titles going at any time I might share with my readers. Like a shell game with shifting stories and promises of a good read. I am going to chat up a book that a reader in the room will hit upon. Nothing up my sleeve.

But we are mixing metaphors here. What we do in the room on the first day of school is not always the magic we experience later in the year.

No. . .the first day is often a code situation. With the heart of my would-be readers in a state of arrest.

You can almost hear the tones of “heart failure” in the early responses.

“I didn’t read any books this summer.”

“I have never read a book for pleasure.”

“Last year, I only read the books I had to read for Reading Counts.”

It’s not just a code situation. It’s a triage scenario.

Military triage (where we treat those most ready to re-enter battle) is a little different than civilian triage (where we treat the most seriously wounded). But the basic assessment that happens in both cases is the same. . .ABCs.

Funny. . .the very first lesson of literacy becomes a lesson in preserving a life.

ABC. . .airway, breathing, circulation.

“I didn’t read any books this summer.”

This is an airway problem. Okay, it’s probably an access problem, but try to hang in with the metaphor here. And, if we think about it, isn’t any airway problem really an access problem? In order to maintain an airway for a patient, we often tilt their head back to assure an open airway. In a reading situation, we simply ask our readers to turn his or her head from side to side to see the number of books in the room. Access will no longer be a problem. Not in this room.

“I have never read a book for pleasure.”


I am sure that this leaves you as breathless as it left me when I heard it. Defer to rule number one, lead reader. Check your own pulse first. Talking about books and our appreciation of books is the breath of Room 407. It will take a while to get that first book into this reader, but soon, those short rapid breaths of anticipation of reading more than this would-be reader has ever read before, will soon become part of the steady, “book in and book out” kind of cadence that becomes automatic by Winter Break. The student who is not breathing books at the beginning of the year is a true emergency situation. They need to be a part of regular conversations that revolve around books and reading. If you want to call this “mouth-to-mouth” it would certainly fit this particular metaphor we are working with here. In fact, use that. It’s pretty good.

“Last year I only read the books I had to read for Reading Counts (or insert your own reading management tool here).”

For Room 407 Readers, this could mean that the student read one book per each nine week marking period and then passed a ten-point quiz in an effort to satisfy the requirements of the program. This is a circulation problem.

Reading is not in the blood here. It’s bound up in the bureaucracy. Computerized coagulation. Reading against a deadline with the fear of missing a couple of comprehension-level questions is like a stress test scheduled at nine-week intervals for many of these readers.

And all of this is informally assessed before 0830.

A new shift has begun in Room 407.

And in order to get this new group of would-be readers to become as group of “we are readers” we’re going to need a little patience (see what I did there. . .I know you did. . .feel free to comment upon this chestnut of wordplay).

Now that we have assessed the ABCs. . .it’s time to employ CPR.

This is really quite simple, but this step can be the telling point in a school setting and how a building responds to RHF (Reader’s Heart Failure). While many will go to the programs, I am suggesting that we go to the paddles (stay with me). I want you to envision the passionate lead reader who approaches a group of would-be readers with a book in each hand yelling:


Yes. The good old standby command when we get ready to shock the system. It means stand aside programs. Stand aside rigor. Stand aside levels. Stand aside lexile.

Just like in a code situation, you might hear us call out genres and titles waiting for the right title to connect with the right reader. In this situation, the goal is to get each would-be reader in the room to leave the room with a book. Look around. You should have plenty of paddles for each pupil.

Clear the way for these readers.

And now we can perform our CPR.

Communication. . .we’re going to start talking about books. Every day. These readers came to us in a code situation. Now we set the code for the talk in the room. And how we talk about books in those first few class meetings should be returned to us on the last day as the students begin to use this new language. Book Talking should be the primary language in the English Language Arts classroom.

Pass. . .we begin the first couple of class meetings with those classic book passes. Look. We are lead readers. We never go for the bypass here (it just doesn’t fit into our metaphor).  Never go for the bypass when a book pass will do. Take another look at this strategy. I guarantee that books are reluctantly passed to the next reader time and time again as the one holding it has difficulty in letting go once they are hooked.

Repeat. . .with each new block, we will be ready with another title to share. Another book trailer. Another small sample of a high-interest title shared as a teaser.

Until that rhythm is established and set into motion. Until each reader can put their thumb upon the book they are reading at the moment.

When the pulse of the room is set to the beat of the heart.

The healthy heart of the reader.

And then. . .the next group of readers comes in. And just like any good medical drama. . .we stand at the door. . .at the ready. . .ready to receive.

Ready to assess.

Ready to advise.

Ready to treat.

Ready to read.

The heart of a reader sounds like this:

love LOVE. . .love LOVE. . .love LOVE. . .

Paul W. Hankins teaches English 11 and AP English Language and Composition at Silver Creek High School in southern Indiana. Paul participates in numerous online forums regarding reading and writing. In addition to membership within many professional organizations, Paul is a Wonder Lead with the National Center for Family Literacy and the non-fiction site, Wonderopolis. The creator of RAW INK Online, Paul is celebrating with his students in Room 407 the 5th Anniversary of the site which brings young adult readers and young adult authors together. At home, Paul is married to his wife of fourteen years (August 13th), is the father of Noah (7th grade) and Maddie (6th grade). Mia, Pepper, KitKat, and Butterfinger remain loyal fans of Paul’s poems and posts and most of his attempts to write something.