Preaching to the Choir: Singing the Praises of Books and Reading by Teri S. Lesesne

I know a posting here at Nerdy Book Club is truly preaching to the choir, and I did hesitate to write this post.  But a couple of weeks ago, I did a little preaching to the Arkansas Association of School Librarians about the power of books and reading.  After I finished the keynote, a librarian came up to me with tears in her eyes.  She thanked me for the “sermon” saying she really needed to hear the message as she returns to the library this school year.  She had been feeling a bit depressed about some of the changes wrought by new curriculum and was beginning to feel she could not make a difference.  My “sermon” had reminded her of the important work she has done and needs to continue to do.  Needless to say, we were both teary by the end of this encounter.   When Donalyn asked me to contribute a post, this was fresh in my mind, and so I hope the choir will accept a little sermon as we begin a new school year.

the three questions
You and I are stewards, dear choir members.  We are charged with service to others. Our first priority is, of course, service to the students who come into our classrooms.  In the picture book The Three Questions by Jon Muth, Nicolai has three burning questions: “What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?”  I would love to use these three questions to frame my “sermon,” a sermon about the importance of books in the lives of our students.


What is the best time to do things?


The best time to do things is NOW.  As we are in the final weeks of preparation for another school year, it is time to identify those all-important first books we will share with our students.  I begin every single class in Literature for Children with a reading of Byrd Baylor’s Everybody Needs a Rock.   It is a story about finding a perfect rock and how we should go about that search.  For me, it is also about finding the perfect rocks, the pieces of literature that will become the foundation of my classroom for the semester.  YA class opens with a reading of the short story “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros.   The concept of having all our years inside us like rings in a tree underscores, I think, the incredible emotional range of adolescence.  What books are on your shortlist?  Which book do you plan to use to open up the new school year?  Will you read a picture book or a poem or a nonfiction selection?  Maybe a short story?  Or a fairy tale variant?  Perhaps you will read Chapter One from a longer work and leave the students wanting more?


What books will surround the students on Day One? Even though I taught the sophisticated 8th graders when I was a middle school teacher, I set out my collection of pop-up books on the first day of school.  Yes, they pretended to be too mature for these books at first, but before long, the books were being passed around, giggles were escaping from the sophisticated leaders of the middle school.  It set a tone that was important to me:  books and reading can be fun.  The pop-ups were removed from the classroom library that first day and placed on desks, tables, and even ledges of the white boards.  I wanted to establish my room as a reading zone and myself as a reader on that first day. What will you do to send that message to the students?


Who is the important one?


Notice the singular “one.”  The important one is the one standing beside or in front of you.  Not only is it essential to surrounds students with books, we must begin on Day One to learn the tastes and preferences and habits of our students.  Who has a new pet?  A new sibling?  Who has moved recently?  Which students prefer fantasy and science fiction?  Which would prefer a novel in verse?


Surveying students about their preferences will help us develop our classroom libraries, direct some of our selections to share aloud with the class, and also indicate which students are already avid readers and which might be dormant or reluctant readers.  Asking each student to complete a brief survey helps us reach the one, EVERY one.


Keep in mind, too, that conducting a survey only once in the school year might mean we miss the changes in readers as they develop.  I know from my years teaching middle school that 6th, 7th, and 8th graders change significantly over the course of the school year.   So, return to the survey periodically throughout the year.


What is the right thing to do?


Nicolai is told in The Three Questions that the right thing to do is to do good for the person standing in front of you.  I think the best thing I can do is to share as many books as possible with the folks sitting in front of me.  I tend to do scattershot booktalks in workshops even when I am talking about something other than books and reading.  I did the same thing as a middle school teacher.  The more I talk about books, the more the likelihood that students might find that perfect book, the book that awakens a passion for reading or reignites a love of books.   As this school year gets underway, here is my short list of the “right” thing to do:


  1. Read aloud.  Daily. The research is clear (check out Jim Trelease’s web site for confirmation of this: reading aloud is not only motivational, it can improve reading.
  2. Booktalk. Weekly. As you read new (to you) books for students, be sure to talk to students about the book.  You could read aloud a section, speak as one of the characters, or do a book commercial.
  3. Model. Daily. Students need to see you read.  Show them your TBR stack. Talk about what you are reading. Keep a running display of your reading.  My colleague Karin Perry created a bulletin board for the hallway outside our offices where we post print outs of our book covers.


Okay, sermon ended.  Please go forth and preach the praises of books and reading.


Teri S. Lesesne (rhymes with insane) is a professor in the Department of Library Science at Sam Houston State University in Texas.  She is the author of three professional books: Making the Match,  Naked Reading, and Reading Ladders.  She maintains two blogs as well:  http://professornana.livejournalcom and