Readers, in Spite of School by Donalyn Miller
I am endlessly fascinated with readers—what and why they read, how they became readers and sustain a reading habit, and the ways reading has shaped their worldview and their identity development.
I know other folks are endlessly fascinated with other aspects of reading and reading instruction including phonics, comprehension, or vocabulary. All of these components matter when teaching readers. They all deserve attention, but I don’t see reading identity development or supporting lifelong reading on many meeting agendas these days. Where are readers in conversations about teaching reading?
At 52, I have been many readers in my lifetime.
I am five—emotionally spent and proud because I finished reading The Velveteen Rabbit, the longest book I had completed alone to this point.
I am ten—fascinated with animals and planning to become a veterinarian—reading every Marguerite Henry book in my elementary school library.
I am fifteen—sneak reading Alex Haley’s Roots and Robin Cook’s Coma out of my desk in English class, while we spend four more weeks on The Scarlet Letter or Huckleberry Finn.
I am twenty—with a life in upheaval, who didn’t have a stable home for my books, and stored them in my dad’s garage.
I am twenty-five—reading to my two-year-old on my lap.
I am the woman on a cheap date at the used bookstore with the reader she would marry. I am the grad student reading towers of research, the teacher reading to her classes and recommending books, the grandma who pre-orders you the next Dogman or Diary of an Ice Princess. I am the lonely traveler listening to Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn while driving through Illinois this summer.
My reading identities will continue to evolve and change as long as I keep reading. I look forward to it.
I am also the mom who buys you graphic novels and stacks them on your bed—waiting for you to discover during a visit home. An identity I will only keep for a few more years.
Sarah came home this weekend. She’s twenty now and a junior at Stephen F. Austin. We miss her, but we know she is on the path to building the life she wants for herself.
Reading is still part of her identity and I am grateful. For years in middle school and early high school, she predominantly read books for school assignments and not much else. Thank goodness her comics-loving dad introduced her to his graphic novel collection. It was the only thing that kept her personal reading life alive during those years.
Sarah still loves graphic novels. She reads a lot for class assignments and graphic novels give her an enjoyable escape. She’s fascinated with the format and follows several artists, authors, and webcomics. This weekend, she picked up Jenni Holm’s newest title, Sunny Rolls the Dice, her latest Mom delivery. Sarah has been reading Jenni’s comics since she started collecting Babymouse in fifth grade.
Don, Sarah, and I read a flood of graphic novels this summer—passing around titles like This Place: 150 Years Retold, which features ten indigenous artists; the National Book Award Longlist title, Kiss Number 8; Jerry Craft’s New Kid; the tender romance, Bloom; Jen Wang’s Stargazing; and many others.
I am happy that for the first time in over a decade, I don’t have to worry about what Sarah’s teacher might say when she brings a graphic novel to school.
I am a former schoolteacher and active supporter of teachers and schools, but I will admit that I am relieved teachers don’t control my daughters’ reading lives any more. I talk often with educators who blame their students’ apathy for reading on their parents and caregivers at home. It’s not always the parents, folks.
Yes, it is true that parents and caregivers remain the most important influence on children’s development of lifelong reading habits. But educators are not absolved of responsibility for fostering lifelong reading habits at school. Some of the children in our classrooms become readers in spite of our efforts to marginalize or diminish their reading lives.
I am an advocate for all readers, but I understand I do not represent every reader’s experiences at school. This is my story, though. My daughter’s story. Many of my students’ stories. We are readers in your classrooms, too. There are a lot of young readers just like us.
If we are self-reflective educators, we must admit that despite our best intentions, we have not equitably supported all of the readers in our classrooms. I haven’t. You haven’t. There’s no blaming or shaming here.
It’s true that we have readers in our classrooms who need more home support for reading. So give it to them. Prioritize home book access first. Yes, we have readers who struggle with learning to read. No single solution will meet the needs of every reader. Yes, we have children and teens who don’t like reading. We are their teachers, what are we going to do about it? How are we contributing to their reading disinterest?
We also have kids in our schools who loved to read when they showed up. Have you considered what they might need to grow as readers? How might our schools change if we looked through a young reader’s eyes for even one day? What might they teach us?
Yes, engaged readers still need high-quality reading instruction, but do you think there’s a way we can teach them how to read without killing or disrespecting their reading lives in the process?
I have spent my career studying the conditions that engage people with reading and the conditions that don’t. I have spent a lot of that time trying to convince adults to just let kids read. I call on my inner fifteen-year-old—still reading out of her desk—every time. She still wants to talk to you.
While Sarah was home, we went to lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant, Lupe’s, to celebrate our son-in-law and younger granddaughter’s birthdays. Chatting with our older granddaughter, Emma, I asked her what she was doing at school and what she was reading.
She said, “I just finished El Deafo (CeCe Bell’s graphic novel memoir). I really liked it.” Emma met CeCe and heard her speak at Nerd Camp this summer.
Emma continued, “Yeah, my teacher didn’t really like me reading it because it was only a 3.2*, but she let me take a test on it.”
Reader, I kept my mouth shut (this time), but it was hard. Another generation of readers in my family navigating school mandates and negative messages about reading in order to keep our reading lives alive. It’s getting old. We are blessed that our family has the ability to give young readers the support they need. We just wish that our kids’ reading experiences at school were more positive than negative. What happens to kids’ reading lives when they don’t receive support at home and school?
Sarah swaps out books when she comes home because her dorm room bookshelf can’t hold a lot. I have no idea what she left with; her reading life is her own. Her best friend, Hailey, borrowed a stack of graphic novels Sarah recommended.
Talking about it later, Sarah said, “Hailey asked me which one she should read first. I told her The Prince and the Dressmaker.” We know what to do to engage readers around here. Help us or get out of the way.
*I presume that Emma was talking about the reading level of El Deafo. I didn’t check it for accuracy and it’s not relevant.
**I meet teachers, librarians, administrators, and families every day that are striving to build positive reading communities in their schools and homes. But until the reading lives of young people outside of school matter, I fear we will never provide equitable opportunities for all children to become readers.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author or co-author of several books about encouraging students to read and creating successful reading communities at school and home including, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009), Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013), and Game Changer! Book Access for All Kids (Scholastic, 2018). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter @donalynbooks.