The Beginnings of my Reading Life by Caroline Petrow
I am an ambivalent reader. I always have been. That is, until a few months ago. As a child I learned to read with little difficulty and fondly remember childhood books. Examples of avid readers fill my life including my librarian grandmother carrying a book everywhere, my mother pouring over novels during summer nights on our back porch, and a former literacy coach starting a book club just to get teachers reading. But I failed to ever reflect on and expand my reading life. Even as an adult, I admire friends who easily engage in multiple books at a time and gush with tales from their journeys. I start many books and finish some.
The truth is, for the past decade I’ve taught children how to read. At least 200 elementary students have learned from a teacher who could take or leave books. Yes, I’ve worked to help them become better readers and hopefully inspire a love of reading, but all the while lacking a reading life myself. That is changing now. A few months ago I set out on a personal and professional journey to ignite a love of reading in my own life based largely on the work I do with students. Discovering personal interests, setting goals for reading, and keeping books everywhere are not just strategies limited to engaging students. They work for me, too.
As I enter unfamiliar territory I already developed a reading life barometer. I have stacks of books I want to read and not enough time to read them. Admittedly, I still occasionally binge watch a TV series that hasn’t aired in years. But I keep books waiting for me, stashed away in my laptop bag, under my bedside table, and on the large living room bookcase. I have books waiting for me on hold in the library and magazines in the mailbox. This is not a random collection of books begging to be opened. I sourced them from giving serious thought to growing my reading life.
So, where did they come from? I began with a personal favorite topic of culturally diverse stories including historical fiction, memoirs, and personal accounts. As a recommendation from NPR I read City of Thorns and recently started I am Malala, based on its awards and popularity. I collect and read professional texts recommended from colleagues such as Young Mathematicians at Work and Innovator’s Mindset. I subscribe to two magazines, The Reading Teacher and Cooking Lite, trying to balance my interests. I find books that mattered to me in another time. Recently conversations with others reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye and Authentic Happiness, two books I read as a student. I frequent the library and even stocked up on at the used book sale browsing for award winners, books about writing, and anything else interesting. I ask for parent recommendations of possible read alouds for my students such as The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. I find books in all corners of my life.
A few months into my endeavor, the effects surprise me. This new-found book love seeps into my students and my own children. Books cover every corner of my classroom, my car, and my house for the growing readers in my life. I incorporate literature into math lessons and search for new texts to teach complex concepts. I visit the library more often and ask for recommendations. I increase the amount of books my students read and the amount of books my own boys check out. Unintentionally, as I place more importance on growing a reading life of my own, the amount of books in theirs’ expand as well. Young readers imitate and develop their own reading experiences based on the adult examples around them. Reading in my life sparks reading in others.
I initially made this change to be a better reading teacher. I wanted to live an authentic reading life to inspire my own teaching and other readers. Recently, one of my students asked me “Do you like books for your birthday?” I exclaimed an obvious yes! She wanted to know my favorite author. When I dug deeper to find out if she was inquiring about children’s literature or my own personal interests she replied, “The kind of books you read before you go to bed at night.” This six-year-old sees me, her teacher, as a reader. While I can’t claim to be doing anything new or revolutionary in the world of literacy, sometimes the simplest step can move a teacher closer to authentically connecting with children. The act of finding books, wanting to read, and reading often allows me to proudly call myself a novice book lover. I’m new to this club, but the more I attend the more natural it becomes to have a reading life.
Caroline Petrow teaches first grade in Durham, North Carolina. She has 11 years teaching experience with an M.A.T. in Elementary Education and M.Ed. Reading Education. Follow Caroline on her blog about growing independent readers and on Twitter.