Recommendations Without Walls by Heather Rader
Beginning my 22nd year in education after 13 years as a teacher-librarian and instructional coach, I am returning to the classroom this fall. In 2004 I walked out of my fifth-grade classroom carrying the last load of books as the tears fell. Somehow I knew it would be a long time until I returned to the day-to-day of teaching and I would miss it. I did.
Now it’s summer, my school is being reroofed, my classroom repainted, so the only thing I can do is plan my environment, specifically my classroom library and book repertoire. And that’s an exciting and immense task. I think back to a coaching conversation I had with a teacher about revamping her library.
She said, “I want kids to be able to find books by interest, but I want to have a sense of how to move them to increasing complexity over the year. I also want them to stretch themselves.”
I read over my class list that I’d been given in June– a dozen boys and a dozen girls. What will Serenity, Atal and Nevaeh want to read? What about the tastes of Minji and Aidan? Much of my library will be built over the year as I learn about my students, but I also want a hearty library to start, one that sings, “We are readers here.”
I choose a corner of my home office and “stage” my library. I touch the spines of new favorite picture books like Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes and Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds. I wonder if my Diary of a Wimpy Kid readers will like My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish by Mo O’Hara and The Bad Guys series by Aaron Blabey. Dan Gutman’s baseball books transport me to reading them to my then young son (he’s turning 21 this month). Slowly, slowly, I make lists of my categories for my future fourth graders. Scary books, humor epics, graphic novels, poetry, Planets and Moons books…
I count the bins I need to hold all the books. I’m excited about the recommendations I’ll make in nature adventures, fantasy/dystopia books and friendship books. And that’s when I recognize my challenge: this fall when I return to teaching, I am committed to Reading Without Walls. I’m referring to our National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang’s invitation to explore the world through books and get out of our comfort zones. So…
How will I invite readers to find characters that don’t look like them or live like them and read about topics and in formats that are new?
Of course, it begins with me.
I read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas to explore characters that live differently than me. I had the added bonus of getting to read the book aloud to my eighth grader, Ahna. We supported each other as we progressed through each chapter. She wanted to understand more about the Black Panther references and what I knew about Tupac, while I needed to understand the teenage dialogue. At one point I said, “OTP?” And Ahna rolled her eyes, “Your One True Pairing, Mom. It’s a thing.” And so, I learned, it is.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang was the new format book. Graphic novels are familiar, but I don’t read as many as my daughters (now 13 and 18) do. In this book, there are three plotlines that explore being comfortable with who you are and harmful stereotypes. I loved using the pictures to enhance my comprehension. For example, during the Monkey King story there was a decree that all monkeys must wear shoes. The illustrations show monkeys falling out of trees unable to grip as they try to adhere to the decree–the pictures made it more humorous than text description. However, I did find it more challenging to remember what I’d read and weave the three stories together. Rereading proved to be essential for me in order to synthesize and I couldn’t wait to share that with my students.
Finally, The Reading Without Walls challenge invited me to “read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.” Instead of a book I read several articles online about our upcoming total solar eclipse partly because my first science unit is “Planets and Moons” and mostly because my family will be in a position to see “eclipse totality” on August 21, 2017. Building my own background experience has greatly enhanced my excitement about this upcoming natural phenomena.
Modeling reading without walls in my own reading is one thing, but walking my talk with my recommendations is another. So I can pitch several books with male athlete main characters, but what about female athletes? I read Distance to Home by Jenn Bishop and several others to bring gender balance to my sports book talks.
I keep pushing. OK, Heather, what about kids who quiver for shivers? What can I recommend? My walls haven’t included many scary books so I order The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and find myself pleasantly surprised by the story of Bod raised in a graveyard.
Nerdy Book Club middle grade winners and new recommendations build my TBR pile. I look for underrepresented characters and fall in love with Jason Reynold’s As Brave As You and Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Short as great read aloud possibilities.
Soon it will be time to move my library to my actual classroom shelves. This fall my recommendations will be about characters who don’t necessarily look like me or live like me. They will be about topics I didn’t know much about before I started. They will be in new formats that I’m pushing myself to comprehend. May my recommendations keep the spirit of the challenge alive as I embrace being an ambassador for my 24 readers.
Heather Rader is a fourth-grade teacher in Washington State. She wrote the book Side by Side Short Takes on Best Practices for Teachers and Literacy Leaders (2012) and contributed to Birth Writes: A Collection of Real Life Birth Stories (2016). She’s excited about the next chapter of her life as an educator and is grateful for reading communities like The Nerdy Book Club who keep her in good shape as a reader.