It’s Never Too Late by Julia Reynolds
I have always been a reader. As I was growing up, my parents had their own books on bookshelves, by their bed, on counters, in cars, and anywhere else they might stop and read. It was similar in the bedroom I shared with my sister – books in baskets, in bookcases, and by my bed – with a light clipped to my headboard so I could read late into the night after the lights were turned off. This foundation for my reading life (which I have repeated with my 9-year-old son Liam) helped me survive the confines of traditional teaching (assigned texts, 6+ week long units, lower-level quizzes and tests) that I encountered during much of my schooling.
As an educator, I am a tireless advocate for students and reading, especially what we can do during school hours since we cannot control what happens (or not) at home. This meant, over 17 years ago when I started teaching, giving time every Friday for “Reading Day” with my high school students (despite a curriculum packed with mandated whole class texts). As a district administrator, it means standing against purchasing basals and whole class novels, instead giving money to teachers to choose and purchase books for their classroom libraries. It means learning with Richard Allington, Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Lucy Calkins, Chris Lehman, Cris Tovani, and others to support the professional learning of teachers about reading workshop. It even means taking risks and jumping into teaching situations to remind myself that workshop teaching is challenging work, but it is also the best and most rewarding work I have ever done.
A few years ago, I taught a Saturday morning reading class at the local community college. This non-credit bearing course was for students who did not score high enough on the ACT (or took the ACT so long ago that the scores did not count anymore). I was excited to try workshop teaching in my class, so when I was given the course textbook and told to teach skill-and-drill exercises with worksheets, I told my students to not buy the textbook (or sell it back if they already purchased it). Instead, I had a classroom library “on wheels” that I rolled into class every week, laying out books, doing book talks, and helping students pick books. One student, Anthony, claimed he is a better bedtime story reader for his children because of all the reading he did in class. Another student, Dennis, who recently was in prison, mentioned that he had never read a book in his life, and now that he finished nine books, including Jack Gantos and Matt De La Peña, in 15 weeks during our class, he had his “swagger” back.
A few summers ago, I taught summer school to incoming ninth grade students at a local private school. The students were chosen due to low entrance exam scores. The initial idea was for someone to pre-teach the mandated summer reading (The Lightning Thief) over 8 weeks. Instead, I proposed that I teach the class in a workshop format, with book talks, a classroom library, and time to read. Luckily, the administrators agreed (I don’t think I would have taught it otherwise). One student, Cole, told me that he had not read a book since fifth grade (Hatchet), but during the summer, he discovered books by Chris Crutcher and wanted to read everything written by the author. In less than 2 months, the 14 students who I “coached” read 229 books (compared to 120 books during their entire eighth grade school year) and 44,716 pages. Every one of the parents thanked me, many with tears in their eyes, for inspiring their child to enjoy reading.
Last year, I taught ninth grade English every morning during first hour. Of course, I did this in a workshop format (daily commitment to reading and writing) with a classroom library of over 1000 books. My students were chosen for my class due to low test scores. We worked all year on setting goals for reading, building stamina, choosing good books, making plans for reading, and celebrating success in reading. Every day, I saw students smiling while they read, engaged in the text, and not willing to put the book down. Arriving early was a daily occurrence as students went book “shopping” at the classroom library, shared book recommendations, and started reading 15-20 minutes before class started. One student who started the year not speaking because of trauma read over 25 books during the year and went on a whirlwind evening trip with me to go meet Laurie Halse Anderson (one of her favorite authors) at a bookstore two hours away. When I tabulated the end of the year results, we had 667 conferences about reading and writing and my 22 students read 453 books. Now as tenth graders, my students (who are no longer considered the ones with low test scores) continue to reach out to me to share book ideas, ask for new titles, and demonstrate to me that the experience of “English 9 on Steroids” was successful.
These experiences working with students in various contexts to build their reading lives have reinforced my relentless commitment to students and reading. It is never too late to begin working on the foundation for a love of reading, learning new authors and building stamina. It is never too late to try workshop teaching, and all students should experience the possibility of becoming independent, lifelong readers. It is never too late to continue advocating for every student’s right to best practice teaching, having access to books, and choosing what she or he reads. We must never stop trying.
Julia Reynolds (@jmrliteracy) is Director of Curriculum and School Improvement in Northview Public Schools and Associate Professor of Education (Literacy Studies) at Aquinas College, both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is a past president of both the Michigan Council of Teachers of English (MCTE) and Michigan Reading Association (MRA). In her “spare” time, she loves being with her husband, Billy, and their son, Liam, and reading professional, young adult, and children’s literature whenever she can.