Saying Yes by Jenny Rich

Today, as I dropped my first grader, Ethan, off at school I said, “I’ll be around all day if you need me!” He responded by saying, completely seriously, “Well, then don’t bother leaving because I’ll need you.  We have Reader’s Workshop in a few minutes and I don’t like it.”

I’ve been thinking all day about what Ethan said, and I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it, and just how much of this problem I have the power to fix.

I know what went wrong.  I can trace it to the day.  It was a day in September and Ethan was in a Greek Mythology phase at home.  He asked me if he could bring his big yellow Greek Mythology book into school with him.  Yes, it was a hard book for him.  But he would sit for hours at home and work through it, one myth at a time, making connections between them.  He was working on a map of where he imagined each of the gods and goddesses lived.  He wanted to read the book in Reader’s Workshop, and maybe even share it with his classmates during Morning Meeting.  I thought about it first – how would I feel if a child brought a book from home that was a bit too hard but that he or she was passionate about?  Would I be okay with a first grader reading Greek Mythology?  Yes, I would.  So I told Ethan of course, he could bring his book into school with him.

Ethan’s teachers didn’t agree with me.  They told him the book was too hard (and possibly too violent – the story got a bit hazy), and had him leave it in his cubby all day.  He said he read Elephant and Piggy books during his workshop time.  Ethan likes Elephant and Piggy books.  He reads them to his younger brother, Holden, often.  But they are not what he chooses to read.  His teachers also told him that the books he reads at home to log on his reading log have to come from the classroom.

And that is the day that my very sensitive, but very engaged, reader became a non-reader.

So we spent winter vacation rebuilding Ethan’s reading life after some very challenging months.  He fell in love with the first two Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, and is now starting with the third book in the series, which he is enjoying just as much.  He is waiting for the Do-It-Yourself journal to arrive in the mail, and is hoping that I meet Jeff Kinney at the IRA Convention this year, so he can autograph it once Ethan writes in it.  Ethan told me he likes the Wimpy Kid books because he likes “learning about other people’s funny lives when they are written in comics and words.”  He stayed up late all through break reading in his pitch-black room with a book light attached to his book, laughing out loud.  When we watched the first two Wimpy Kid movies, he pointed out parts that were different from the books, and why they were better or worse.  He asked questions about becoming an author, illustrator, and movie-maker when he grows up.  He was curious.  He became a reader again.

Today, he asked me to promise never to tell his teachers that he is reading the Wimpy Kid books, because they will think they aren’t appropriate.  He told me his teachers think he is “an Elephant and Piggy reader” and he needs to “do the right thing the first time every time, and reading Wimpy Kid probably isn’t the right thing.”

Full disclosure, before I go any further: I only spoke with his teachers about this once (maybe twice).  I have a hard time knowing where the line between teacher and parent is, and I don’t want to overstep.  I was a classroom teacher, and it’s hard to have parents who think they know what is best.  It is also entirely possible that, in school, Ethan is a different reader than he is at home.  Or that I hear a different version of reality when Ethan tells it.  His teachers are smart, and hardworking, and I like them.  So I have written all of the above with only one point of view, and that is the point of view of a parent.

However, here is what I would like to say about cultivating a love of reading in young children: Let them read.  Let them read.  Let them read.  Say yes to books that are too hard for them, within limits.  Allow them to grow their passion for whatever it is they are passionate about.  Do not make them do “the right thing the first time every time,” because they are children and shouldn’t do the right thing the first time every time. Let them be curious.  Let them talk about all sorts of books.  Tell them that if they can’t make mistakes, they can’t make anything, and some of those mistakes will be in picking the wrong books.  Have lots of graphic novels around.  And magazines, and wordless pictures books, and audio books!  Let young readers look at that big yellow Greek Mythology book with friends, and make big maps of the worlds of the gods.  Let them imagine.

Mostly, we want our young readers to believe that they are readers – to understand that they are members of the literacy club, and that their attempts at reading are real, their interests are valid, that they are honored.

It is my great hope that 2014 can be the year of saying “yes” to the things that our young readers want to do, so that our readers stop labeling themselves as “Elephant and Piggy readers” and simply become “Readers.”

Jenny Rich is an adjunct professor in the School of Education at Rider University, and a doctoral student at Rutgers University.  Before working with pre-service teachers, she taught second, fourth, and fifth grades in New York City.  She is the mom of two boys, who will hopefully grow up to love reading just as much as she does. You can visit her on Twitter at @jdrich219.