Breaking the Rules & Growing Readers by Rebekah O’Dell
For six consecutive Sundays, we broke the rules, operating in the strictest of secrecy.
When the 9 o’clock bedtime hour struck, my brother and I went upstairs to our respective bedrooms per usual. I ran to my room, quickly turned off the light, and huddled by the door, listening for my brother’s door to shut, straining my eyes to see his light go off. I waited for my mom to come get me and silently signal the all clear.
After all, Pride and Prejudice isn’t for younger brothers.
I padded down the hall to my parents’ bedroom — dark except for the blue glow of the television. My dad scooted toward the edge, making room for me in the center, smushed between parents and pillows in the queen-sized bed. The screen lit up in a soft rose hue, lilting theme music commenced, and I was utterly transfixed.
This was a world I had never encountered before — ladies playing harpsichord in pretty dresses, afternoon tea, smart and witty heroines, well-spoken men. And even a 7th grader can fall in love with Colin Firth. It was everything I had ever wanted in a story, and my parents gave it to me as a gift.
Those January Sunday nights were my literary coming-of-age.
After the mini-series concluded, I voraciously read everything Jane Austen had to offer. Then, the Brontes. Then Alcott. Then – everything. Every grown-up book I could get my hands on. While I had always been a very strong reader, I was now a reader on fire — gobbling books in giant bites as quickly as possible. The Pride & Prejudice mini-series had flipped some kind of switch in me — moving me from proficient to passionate.
My parents knew me. Really, deeply knew me both as a person and as a reader. So they connected their knowledge of their daughter with literature. They somehow knew that 12-year-old Rebekah would adore Jane Austen, so they broke the rules and let me stay up far past bedtime. They knew Austen’s writing was just a little bit beyond what I was ready for — so they broke the rules again and scaffolded with the movie before the book and then chatted with me about the differences between the film and the book while I later read. And they knew I could keep a secret from my brother for nearly 20 years.
My parents did the same job I try to do in my classroom every day — connecting the right kid with the right book to create passionate, lifelong readers. Even if it means breaking the rules. Sometimes it means recommending the book after the movie has been viewed. Sometimes it means making room for fan fiction during independent reading. Sometimes it means encouraging a book well below grade level. Sometimes it means allowing a student to read all fifteen books in a series that you know isn’t well-written.
Breaking our long-held rules can explode the reading possibilities for all of our students. Our strongest readers find new, diverse areas of reading interest. Our reluctant readers find entry points, open windows into a world of words. All of our readers develop richer reading lives. By breaking the rules, our young readers, too, can be transfixed by books.
Rebekah O’Dell teaches high school English in Richmond, Virginia. She blogs at movingwriters.org. You can connect with her on Twitter @Rebekahodell1.