Reading “Just Because” by Jennifer M. King
It’s a new year. A time of resolutions—and perhaps confessions. Here’s a shocking one for Nerdy Book Club blog readers: I haven’t always been an avid reader. (Gasp! Horror!)
As a child, I was an enthusiastic reader. My love of stories was fostered by my mom, who made up bedtime stories as we snuggled with her, and who took me on weekly trips to the public library. Throughout my elementary school years, I read voraciously: Amelia Bedelia, Encyclopedia Brown, Ralph the Mouse, Ramona Quimby, and anything by Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Judy Blume.
Then, I entered junior high, and thus began my experiences with assigned texts—and a stunted reading life. I dutifully read the assigned “classics,” but my independent reading nearly halted. My voluntary reading for pleasure gave way to compulsory reading for academic purposes. In spite of these stilted reading experiences, I still liked books and literature, and, in my AP Literature class, I learned to analyze and interpret literature in a “deep” way that propelled me into an English degree as an undergraduate. Still, throughout my college years, I stuck to my compulsory reading load, reading only “for pleasure” during “breaks.”
After earning a master’s degree in secondary English education, I became a middle and high school English teacher. The power of selecting books shifted to me, but I remained largely bound by compulsory reading in order to “prep” the whole-class texts that I was assigning to my students, or by professional texts to improve my teaching. Still, my “pleasure reading” was mostly relegated to “breaks.”
Ten years into my teaching career, I began a doctoral degree, and anyone who’s done doctoral work knows that there aren’t really “breaks” anymore, as there is always some academic text to read or write. “Pleasure reading” became a memory of the distant past. Who could possibly have the time for that?!
However, in the fall semester of 2009, I was teaching a secondary English education methods class to graduate students. We were reading Jim Burke’s The English Teacher’s Companion. And I was convicted. Jim talks about the importance of modeling reading for our students. If we want our students to be readers, we need to show them that we are readers. I knew then that I needed to lose the mentality of not having time to read. In my inner core, I still loved reading and literature, but over the years, I had strayed from a readerly life. And as a teacher educator who wanted my teacher candidates to model a readerly life for their future students, I knew that I needed to begin to model a readerly life for them. Thus, it was that fall—thanks, Jim Burke!—that I began “reading for pleasure” again.
So, I started carrying a book with me wherever I went and could be “caught” reading in bed by booklight. Now, 5+ years later, I’m more likely to “carry” a digital book on my smartphone or to read by the backlight of my tablet, but I still always have a book with me to capture as many minutes of reading for pleasure as I can in any given day. I am not a speedy reader, or a voluminous one. It might take me a month or more to read a book. But I read freely and joyfully and often.
In the fall semester of 2013, when I started my first full-time faculty gig after finishing my doctoral degree, I had another “aha” moment about fostering a readerly life. I was teaching an undergraduate reading and literature class to elementary education majors. In the early weeks of the semester, I asked the students to interview each other about what they like to read…favorite books, authors, genres…As I listened in on their conversations, I was shocked to learn that many of them were more or less nonreaders beyond what they were assigned to read for their college classes—all the more shocking given that they were great students and highly motivated to enter the teaching profession. If they weren’t avid readers, how would they inspire a love of reading in the lives of their future students?
That semester, we read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. We took Donalyn’s Reading Interest-A-Lyzer survey to learn more about ourselves as readers, and I brought in the stack of books that I was currently reading to give my students some sense of my reading interests and to expose them to my own reading practices. As we continued to read Donalyn’s book, we got excited about the ways that we could foster a love of reading among the developing and dormant readers in our classrooms as well as liberate our underground readers. We also took up her suggestions for crafting reading improvement plans by writing up our own. I had students who, like my former self, rarely read beyond assigned readings because they “didn’t have the time.” But through their reading improvement plans, these future teachers committed to carrying a book with them (physically or virtually), or keeping several books in multiple locations, so that they could capture minutes for pleasure reading throughout the day (just like Donalyn and her students). That semester, many of my students rediscovered the joy of reading for pleasure—reading “just because…” That semester and every semester since, my students and I continue to read and live out Donalyn’s “book whispers.” It’s my hope that these whispers will accompany my students into their future classrooms, echoing in the ears of the young readers journeying with them.
With this blog post, I bring my confessional to a close. Now I’m off to read Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil—in the physical form of a beautiful hardcover signed by the author. I’m reading it not because I’m “prepping” to teach it this semester, or because I’m taking a class in which it’s an assigned reading, but “just because” it brings me pleasure, taking me into a world of poetic words and enthralling lives…
Jen King is a mother, wife, teacher educator, mentor, writer, activist, and life-long learner who happily serves on the faculty at SUNY Geneseo’s Ella Cline Shear School of Education. She freely acknowledges her addiction to books and reading, and she proudly flaunts her affiliation with the Nerdy Book Club.