We’re All In This Together by Emily Meixner
Most of the people in my life have rich reading lives. As an English professor, this isn’t surprising. I’m surrounded all day every day by colleagues who love to read and read voraciously. But this passion for reading isn’t exclusive to members of my particular department. Virtually everyone I know from every department on campus is enthusiastically reading something and has the next something to read in sight. Just recently, I spent half-an-hour talking with a friend and colleague in the Biology department about Kristin Cashore’s YA fantasy novel, Graceling. She’d read my Goodreads review and picked it up. As she and I sat discussing the book after a lecture we’d both attended, she returned the favor by recommending Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina. Her description of the book (Dragons! Humans! Dragon-humans! War!) was so engrossing, I immediately headed to the local public library and plucked the book off the shelf. I’m reading it now. It’s really good.
This conversation got me thinking about another conversation I had several months ago with a group of high school teachers during a professional development session focused on their students’ reading – or, more precisely, their students’ struggles with reading. After rolling out all kinds of statistics about how a dearth of reading leads to word poverty, a lack of knowledge capital, and little stamina for engaging with difficult texts, I made the case for the importance of a school-wide culture of reading: a culture of reading that extends beyond spaces like libraries and English/Language Arts classroom, spaces traditionally assumed to be where reading “happens,” to spaces like the principal’s office, math and science classrooms, the lunchroom, and – wait for it – even locker rooms.
At that point, I asked this group of teachers, some of whom were English teachers, but many who were not, to raise a hand if they were currently reading something they were enjoying. Most did, and when I directed them to take a couple of minutes to talk about these texts with several other colleagues, the conversations were joyful and boisterous. Several teachers were reading biographies, others were reading contemporary non-fiction. One science teacher had just started a book about faith, another was finishing a novel. At the time, I remember wishing I had my writer’s notebook handy because so many of the titles were unfamiliar to me and I knew I’d regret not writing them down.
As their impromptu book talks ended, I asked the teachers whether or not they had these kinds of conversations with their students. This time, only a couple of hands went up.
The momentary silence that ensued after I posed this questions and the eventual discussion that followed was instructive: no time, a saturated curriculum, no time, too much to cover, no time. The teachers’ anxiety over increasing curricular expectations that now included teaching reading was palpable. “What about just showing your kids what you’re reading?” I pushed. “Just holding the book up and showing them?”
“But how would we even do that?” responded one of the teachers earnestly. Several other teachers nodded in agreement. “And,” he continued, “would our students even care?”
It’s my experience that students do care and they are interested in what we’re reading, even it if it’s conveyed in facial expressions and body language that scream “whatever.” And they’re particularly interested when they find themselves in conversations about books with teachers and administrators and coaches and school staff who don’t teach English. Of course English teachers read. That’s what they do. They’re supposed to talk about books. But you, Mr./Mrs./Ms. Not-an-English- teacher? You read, too? It’s as if, all of a sudden, they discover that the world is larger than they imagined.
Years ago, when I was teaching high school, some of the most interesting conversations I had about books was with a friend who was also the school’s advanced math teacher. I don’t remember the specific titles we shared with each other, but nearly twenty years later, I do remember those conversations and how enriching they were both personally and professionally. I also remember our students listening in on our book chats with great fascination. “The two of you like the same books?” they’d ask. “Sometimes,” we’d reply. “But not always, which is even better.”
The truth of the matter is, we can’t really establish a culture of reading in schools unless everyone is on board, unless everyone is, at some point or another, visibly a reader. From the administrative offices to the library to classrooms to the lunch room to the locker room, we have to become one big team with one very explicit mission: to prove to students that when it comes to reading, we’re all in this together. We’re totally and fully and happily in cahoots with each other.
I’m deeply appreciative of all of the colleagues I’ve worked with over the years who have shared and who continue to share their reading lives with their students. It makes a difference. Thank you. To colleagues who haven’t, but – like the teacher I mentioned earlier – want to and aren’t sure how to start, here are five small-investment-big-payoff suggestions that I swear won’t take up too much time.
- Bring what you’re reading to class and quickly (in less than 5 minutes) “book talk” it before you begin the lesson. It’s your genuine excitement that’s key here. Tell your students where you discovered this book and what drew you to it. Give them a short summary or quickly read the blurb on the back cover. Reading the description on the inside cover of the book jacket isn’t cheating. Tell them what’s most interesting or of most value to you at this point in your reading. Then pass the book around or set it somewhere in the room where students can see it and perhaps look through it if there’s an opportunity. Students will consider these books and slowly approach them. Some might even pick them up and glance through them. Be prepared at some point for a student to ask if he or she can borrow one of your books (the holy grail of book talking). If they’re truly good books, however, I can’t promise you’ll get them back.
- Share excerpts from your current book with your class. Take the first or last couple of minutes of class to read your students something you’ve bookmarked because you’ve been thinking about it. Explain why this phrase or sentence or idea has captured your attention. In just a couple of minutes, you can potentially model several active reading behaviors: making a connection, asking a question, clarifying understanding, considering an author’s purpose, and/or noticing an author’s craft.
- Put significant quotes from the books you’ve read on your classroom door, the black (or green or white) board, wall posters or bulletin boards, or your teacher website. In many respects, these quotes serve as silent book talks; they provide your students with a small preview of what they might encounter should they decide to give the book a try. These quotes, because students are encountering them day after day, also become mentor texts for your students, examples of quality writing that contain rich (possibly discipline-specific) vocabulary, varied sentence structure, and powerful punctuation.
- Contribute to the school’s “Look at what we’re reading” library display or bulletin board. And if your school doesn’t have one, you could suggest – or maybe even spearhead – one. A couple of years ago during National Poetry month (April), I sent out a query to my college’s faculty listserv asking colleagues from across campus to share their favorite poems. My plan was to gather the poems and display them in a walkway between two buildings for passing students and faculty to read. Over the next few days, I received so many poems (between 60-80) that I had enough to change the display four times throughout the month. Each week twenty or so new favorite poems appeared in the walkway, and for four weeks our students read them and talked about them and saw again and again that words and ideas mattered to all of us.
- Finally, carry your book around with you in school: in the hall, in the lunchroom, wherever a student (or a colleague) might see you and potentially ask you about it. Just seeing you with a book that isn’t required for class makes students suspicious. Suspicion breeds curiosity. Curiosity breeds readers.
When it comes to developing a school-wide culture of reading, we’re all in this together.
So, get back to your reading. I have a book about dragons to finish.
Emily Meixner is an Associate Professor of English at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ where she coordinates the secondary English education program and teaches secondary reading/writing methods and young adult literature courses. Currently, the stack of unread books on her nightstand is almost as tall as she is. You can follow her and hear more about what’s she’s reading and teaching on Twitter @EsMteach.