Breaking Some Chains by Marcie Mann
Ah, summer. I’m new at my school and I’ve been shocked this past school year by the lack of reading my students are doing, despite a strong collection. So, as you may imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get students to read more. Amendment: I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get students to read. Period.
I’m a high school librarian. High schoolers are a tough group. They profess to “never read,” never even open a book in their entire high school career. Too cool for school. Like it’s a badge of honor or something. I feign a broken heart and crocodile tears, but really it does break my heart because they’ve never escaped into a world where life comes at you only as fast as you can turn the pages. They’ve never felt the sadness that comes at the very last page of a good story just because it’s over, never felt the longing for the next book in the series knowing it might not be out for ages.
So, my broken heart got me thinking about creating a community of readers and a culture of reading at my school. As adults there are some chains that bind our thinking, and I think it’s time we got rid of them.
Here are some of the chains, as I see them.
We don’t recognize that students are reading, indeed, in a non-traditional way, on their phones and devices, all day long.
They are also writing – texts, tweets, posts – which is often harder to do because of the economy of language and symbols they can employ. A lot of their reading and writing is very creative, but it’s not the formal kind. So, they are engaging with text all day, but we don’t define it that way, since it’s not traditional text.
Sometimes reading has to be truly recreational because even an “independent reading” book is assigned. Big kids need to read just for the fun of it.
Grown ups don’t engage with teens about their reading enough. If you see a student with a book in her hand, ask her about it. Kids love to be asked about what they’re reading. At first, they may be a bit coy, but I’ve found if you have an opinion about what they’re reading, they engage more easily. Be relentless about this. It bothers them, but I think they secretly like the attention.
Students seem to have a distinct preference for “real” books that they can hold in their hands. Books with beautiful covers. This should be encouraged at all costs.
They have a distinct preference for hardcover or paperback, but not both. And, they will never pick the library bound edition if another copy is available. Frankly, I don’t care if a book will last ten or fifteen years. I’ll want to replace with a clean copy way before then, or I may not even want it on my shelves in ten or fifteen years.
Students don’t want to be seen reading. For them, it’s a very personal experience. They want to hide away when they read. So let them get lost.
They are reading.
Sometimes reading should be truly recreational.
Engage with them about it.
Give them beautiful books that feel good in their hands.
Let them disappear into their reading.
So with that in mind, here are some things I think will help create readers over the summer or any time during the year.
Instead of sending students home with a summer reading list, why don’t we send them home with some books – maybe more than one. Let them sign out books over the summer. Open the library up on Fridays, or Tuesdays or whatever day during the summer, and let them hang out, hide in the stacks and read, even if it’s just part of the day. The public library and the Summer Reading programs are great, but let’s face it, we have plenty of kids who fear fines. Either because they have fines and can no longer take out any public library books, or they don’t have regular transportation or support at home to get to the library and they know their books will end up overdue – more fines… Pay it forward by making a donation to the public library to pay off a kid’s fines. I keep some money “on account” at the public library in the town. It provides kids a little cushion to get their books back.
There’s no guarantee anyone will read, but I’m convinced that the more we acknowledge what kids are doing instead of what they’re not doing, the closer we’ll come to that. If we build the social capital to get them in the door at our libraries, the better the chance they’ll pick up a book one day. And, after that, it’s anybody’s guess, but maybe they’ll even become a “reader.” I don’t know a librarian who wouldn’t agree with me. Share if you’ve got some great ideas; we all could use more good ideas!
Marcie Mann is a high school librarian at Homer High School in Central New York state. While she is new to Homer, she’s been a school librarian for 15 years, almost all of it at the high school level. A self-professed fan of nearly every teenager she’s met, she pushes book love daily and gets some in return, but believes you can never have too much! You can follow her on Twitter @marciepmann.