The English Teacher Who Almost Quit Reading by Brett Vogelsinger
I remember my creative writing teacher in tenth grade lamenting the fact that she had such a difficult time convincing her colleagues in the English department to read. The school district was working to integrate some newer titles into its approved reading list, and she felt it was, ironically, the English teachers holding it up.
As a high school student who enjoyed reading, it struck me as strange and sad that the teachers who brought me book after book to read, most of which were literary classics that they helped me to enjoy, were not even enjoying books on their own, outside of class. By the next year, I had decided to become an English teacher, and I knew that would never be me.
Except it was.
Eight years into teaching, I had a two-year-old and a newborn. I was living on little sleep. I read to maintain my spiritual life and to expose my kids to great picture books, but reading as a form of entertainment was completely absent. Feeling a bit braindead from those early years of parenthood, TV was just too easy. Papers needed grading. Novels could wait.
A colleague and father of four asked me around that time “What are you reading right now?” I fumbled for an answer, and he proceeded to tell me all the great titles he had devoured recently. I felt a bit bereft. Much like exercise, once you break the habit, no matter how good you know it is for you, it can be hard to find the time.
As a young father, though, I made a conscious decision to return to a reading routine, to buy back something I lost and missed and clearly needed to do, both personally and professionally. How did I do it? I made a few waves, wrinkling my perceptions about reading and motivating my own progress.
Here are a few steps that made the difference for me:
Following readers and writers on Twitter exposed me to books that those faster and less out-of-shape readers were enjoying the most. Following educators whose work I respect — Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, Carol Jago — gave me a steady flow of quick and enthusiastic endorsements for titles I could enjoy and those I could share with students. Once I started establishing favorite writers again, following them led to other recommended reads.
The county I live in had a network of eleven libraries, large and small. The best thing about having so many is that you can put in a request online and have any material shipped to the branch closest to me, often within a few days. The problem is that I lived here for three years before I used their website enough to realize this. Moral of the story: public libraries likely have hidden gems waiting for you to find, and they are all free! Mine even allows, and frequently takes, online purchase suggestions, meaning I can, with a little patience, get some rarer titles just by asking. Now there is a way to get my hands on books I read about on Twitter but didn’t want to buy. The library was more than just a place to stroll by the stacks — it became an online trove of treasures waiting for me to unearth them.
I drive thirty minute each way to the school where I teach. For years, I thought listening to audiobooks was cheating somehow, not the same as actually “reading.” It wasn’t until I actually started using them that I realized this very different kind of reading actually helps me to think deeper and remember more than my silent reading. It often motivates me to go back and find the text on paper to look more closely at my favorite parts.
The reader’s interpretation of the text adds texture and flavor that I might not have discovered on my own. The length of nonfiction bestsellers like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Dead Wake might have put me off from reading them, but thanks to audiobooks from the library, they quickly became favorites.
Goal setting is something I spoke to my student readers about, but never really did in my own reading life. Now I track books that I plan to read and those I have read, challenging myself to beat last year’s reading record again and again.
The Breeze Book
This one may have been the hardest to swallow. Being the English class geek that I am, my definition of “book” tended to be synonymous with “literature.” More recently I’ve learned to find some books that are quick reads. It’s got lots of photos? Sure, add it to the list! The fact that I have never been a fast reader, quaffing down books by the dozens, makes a book that feels airier more approachable.
Many books that appear breezy at first surprise me with how much they make me think. Books like Steal Like an Artist or The Best American Infographics 2015 may only take a little of my time to read but leave me lots to think about in my teaching, my writing, and my life.
So it didn’t take much, and I’m grateful for these changes that brought me back to the tribe of “the readers.” I always want to avoid becoming the grandest of oxymorons: an aliterate English teacher. These reflections help me to remember never to give up on those students who do not see themselves as readers yet. And of course to remember that one must never give up on oneself either.
Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. He loves spending time in the garden, shopping for books to add to his classroom library and spending time with his family. He leads his school literary magazine www.sevenateninemagazine.blogspot.com.