A Reading Life: Making Our Literacy Traditions Explicit to the Children We Teach by Dorothy Suskind


Children do not become readers because we tell them to read, but because we immerse them inside of our own reading lives and invite them to create their own. These immersions charge us, as teachers and readers, to tell the story of our roads to reading, detail our daily traditions with books, and create opportunities for our students to engage with words inside and out of the walls of school. Below is the story I will tell my students, all boys, on opening day.


Boys …


As a young girl I struggled to learn to read, and we didn’t talk books in our house. I managed to make it to a doctorate program before I fell in love with words. Before the fall, I found meaning primarily in the pictures I painted of my world, and inside that stillness, I extrapolated a sense of peace within a chaotic childhood. Art, however for me, was a singular story of self. Though I dove deeply inside my thinking, that swimming did not include the stories of others, so for much of my life, I felt less than and alone.


In 1999 I met Jane Hansen at the University of Virginia, and each day in class she told us what she was reading. At the end of her email exchanges she signed ~  “Love Jane (Who is reading …),” and as we sat over lunches, she brought her favorite books. I wanted to join her conversation, so I began to read too. Today, I have a complex reading life, reflective of my broad interests and need to jump amongst topics and genres fluidly to feel content. My weekly reading is housed on seven metaphorical bookshelves:


  1. Academic and Research Interests
  2. Print Nonfiction (primarily memoirs)
  3. Print Fiction
  4. Electronic Nonfiction
  5. Electronic Fiction
  6. Twitter, Blogs, Magazines, and News
  7. Audio Story


As a teacher-researcher and adjunct professor, I read books that speak to the work I am doing in the classroom and academic articles I am writing. Today, I am reading Abigail James’s Teaching the Female Brain: How Girls Learn Math and Science and Ruth Shagoury’s and Brenda Power’s Living the Question: A Guide for Teacher-Researchers. Not much of a television watcher myself, as my husband soaks up the screen, I dive into favorite nonfiction and fiction reads in print. Today, I am captivated by Barbara Brown Taylor’s search for self inside a vocation she ultimately found by stepping down from the pulpit and into the woods of her own backyard. I first read Taylor’s An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith which led me to my current read ~ Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.


Though partial to nonfiction, I find the journey of story captivating. It situates me in places I have not visited but come to see myself inside. It is also where I notice the writer’s craft, noticings I transfer to my work as a writer and take back to the classroom to the writers I teach. Today, I traveled to Gilead and visited Marilynne Robinson’s Home where I sighed in understanding with Jack the prodigal son. In the evenings, my bedside light awakes my husband, who does not keep my twilight hours, and the grumbling begins. In response to his unrest, I turn off the light and use the Kindle app on my ipad to read books I have downloaded from Amazon and our local library. Each evening, I tend to jump between my fiction and nonfiction electronic selections. Last night, I stretched my conception of genre, as I read the multiple tellings of David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife and then jumped over to Ann Patchett’s memoir Truth and Beauty: A Friendship because Glennon Doyle Melton told me it was a must read, in her blog post The Storm Before the Calm is a Good Place to Start. That is what reading does, it brings us into conversations with others.


This morning, like most mornings, I started inside those conversations, those recommendations, those proclamations of self. I strolled through my Twitter feed and picked through my Reading List I house on Safari, and I listened to the talk, grumble, and muse of my favorite friends with deep literate lives. I heard Pernille Ripp peel the onion as she spoke the hard truths of transformative classrooms where homework takes a backseat to provocative conversations that raise the voices of students, I heard @jesslif lift our consciousness, and I wondered if my niece and nephew (being raised by two moms) feel welcome each day at school, and I saved to Evernote two articles Alfie Kohn tweeted, because I think we need more revolutionary voices questioning the status quo and painting innovation all over the walls of school.


And as the voices of Pernille, Jessica, and Alfie danced around my head and challenged my preconceptions for a duel, I set out for my morning run where I listen to audiobooks and podcasts on my iphone. Today’s selections were Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a partner with my print copy of Home, and a Ted Radio Hour episode entitled Transformations, because that is what reading does for us, it take us from one understanding of self and other and transforms us into new places, spaces, and ideals.


Your turn! So, tell me about your reading life …



Dorothy Suskind has taught numerous grades from JK-graduate school and currently is a fifth grade teacher and action research coach in Richmond, Virginia. Her research interests include critical literacy, gender studies, and writing and reading across the curriculum. You can find her on Twitter at @dorothysuskind.