Reading in the Light by Andrew Smith
In fifth grade, I was blessed to have an amazing educator in my life. Her name was Mrs. Ann Ostrowski or “Mrs. O.” Mrs. O was the type of educator that many of us dream of becoming one day. She had excellent relationships with her students and families, challenged individual students to push his/her thinking and assisted students in publishing the school newspaper. Mrs. O. taught me countless objectives and lessons, but one of the lessons she engrained into me is to “always be you. You should never change for someone else.”
This lesson was easier to live out in grade school as the same 25 students surrounded me in my class every school year. As I grew older and had to learn with more students in high school and college, Mrs. O.’s message got lost inside of me. I was a nerdy kid. I enjoyed reading, but loved math and also loved overextending myself by signing up for every organization possible in high school and college. I was bullied and teased almost daily for not being a “man’s man,” for having a voice that was not yet as low-pitched as other men’s voices and for playing soccer instead of football. In high school and college, I learned that anything that could be seen as “different” meant that it could be used as a “target point” for bullying. I learned to blend in. I learned to keep quiet. I learned to hide my differences.
My reading life was something that I chose to hide as well. Mrs. O. had got me beyond hooked to reading in fifth & sixth grade, but that love of books was something I chose to hide, in fear that I would be mocked or ridiculed for reading. This was a daily struggle for me because I loved to read, so I chose to read in places where no one could see me.
This fear of sharing my reading life lasted through college and well into my first two years of teaching. I encouraged my students to read, share with friends and fall in love with books, but I would not do any of those things with my students or with my peers. You see, I was a male teaching lower elementary. Not only was the fact that I was a male different, but then also teaching lower elementary really made me stick out, so why would I want to share anything else about myself in fear of making myself seem even more different?
The summer after my second year of teaching, one of my colleagues and best friends to this day, Darcy Oberdorfer (@DarcyJObe), encouraged me to attend #NerdCampMI with her. I loved to learn and was immediately excited to attend.
Several weeks later, Darcy and I ventured to Parma, MI, where we met fellow educators from across the state and country. I remember being overwhelmed and energized by the pure number of educators in attendance. The first day of #NerdCampMI this woman named Donalyn Miller stepped up on stage and spoke to us. I had never heard of Donalyn before this day. I was a math major in college and hid my reading life for the previous ten to twelve years. When Donalyn Miller got up on that stage, it was as if she was preaching to my soul. She challenged us as educators to not only read, but to share our reading lives with our student. She challenged us to be transparent and to collaborate with peers. She started talking about books. The books she shared were books that I had read as an adult, but was too scared to share because they were middle grade novels and adult males are not supposed to read middle grade novels. Listening to Donalyn that day preach to us about “reading in the edges” but also being transparent re-energized my reading soul. She was challenging me to get of my box and share with others.
The next two days at #NerdCampMI I spent time connecting with people and met Kari Routledge (@KariRoutledge) & Colleen Mestdagh (@colmesdagh) who were educators from the east side of the state. We shared many things in common, but the one thing we all truly loved was books. After the conference we began sharing our books with one another on social media and somehow we arrived with #AccidentalBookClub because we truly had met by accident and discovered our love of books in the same manner.
With Donalyn’s advice and the energy from #AccidentalBookClub, I decided that I was going to transform my teaching of reading in the classroom. My mom helped me create this mock bookshelf that I was able to hang in my classroom.
This bookshelf, from day one captured the attention of my students. I was sending them a message that my reading life was transparent and that I not only loved books, but wanted to share that love of books with every single one of them. This bookshelf, modeled after the app “Goodreads” gets updated continuously as I am constantly reading, completing books, rereading and looking for the next best read.
In the two years since posting this bookshelf in my classroom, my reading life and my teaching of reading has taken a drastic turn. Students have a very open relationship with me about their reading lives and about mine. Every morning I have students come in and race to the shelf to see if I had finished another book and if I would be sharing that with them as my “good news” for the day. The love of reading in my classroom carried over to other colleagues in my school and their classrooms. The music teacher in my school, Meghan Hoop (@HoopThereItIs28), and I began trading books. I would finish a book and students would volunteer to run it down to Ms. Hoop’s room for me. My class buddied up with Mrs. Kelli VanSettter’s (@KVanSetters) class and then we also began trading books. My kids could see daily that so many people were truly invested in their reading lives and that transparency mattered.
It has been 3 years since I heard Donalyn Miller talk for the first time. Her words, along with Mrs. O.’s from years ago made me realize that my reading life is different. I don’t read what stereotypical males my age read. I don’t read what stereotypical teachers read. I read what I want to read and I don’t hide it because I am different, much like each individual book I read and love. Donalyn opened my eyes to a transparent reading life. With encouragement from #NerdyBookClub, #AccidentalBC and my wife I am now able to share this love of reading with those who matter most – my students. My goal is now to connect each student to a book that allows each of him or her to be different. I want them to read, not in hiding, but for all to see.
Andrew Smith is a Kindergarten Teacher for Byron Center Public Schools. He has taught third, second, first and kindergarten. He is a proud math nerd, but also loves to read as much as possible. He is a husband, son, brother, runner, Detroit Tiger’s fan, Michigan State Spartan’s fan and student advocate. You can follow his reading life on Twitter @smithand1015 or #AccidentalBC.