November 30

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Match.com: Helping Older Students Fall in Love With Reading (Again) by Nicole Kronzer

I teach a lot of twelfth grade. Newly adults, they are often in one of two places: ready to graduate yesterday, or clinging to their swiftly dwindling childhoods. Sometimes, they’re in both of these places on the same day.

I love seniors. I love their vulnerability and the way their eagerness for independence clashes against their fear of the unknown. I love being there for them with a reality check when they need it, and other times, with assurances they’re just as ready for adulthood as anyone has ever been. Maybe most of all, however, I love helping them fall back in love with reading before their lives turn upside-down.

A few years ago, my school librarian, Allison Hackenmiller, came back from a mid-winter conference. “We’re not giving older kids books to read for fun,” she told me. “They’re overwhelmed with college prep and whatever it is you’re making them read in class, and then they turn into adults who haven’t read for fun since who knows when.” We needed to change the culture at our school. But what could Allison and I do?

I knew immediately I had the class time: the two weeks in May when my seniors are in and out taking various A.P. and I.B. exams, and any sense of class continuity is rendered impossible. But I also knew I couldn’t just bring my students to the library and tell them to pick out a book and read—I could already see the blank stares I’d get. Plus, I wanted an opportunity to connect my students with books that might bridge them into this next phase of their life. I wanted to give them a book specific to who they were and what I thought they’d fall in love with. Essentially, I wanted to send them on a date with a book.

Allison and I created a Google Form called “Match.com: Going on a Date With a Book!” It was filled with questions that gauged students’ general interest in reading, the last book they read that they remembered enjoying,  what they did for fun, and what movie genres they were drawn to. One of the most useful questions surrounded students naming which of Nancy Pearl’s Four Doorways into books (Story, Character, Setting, or Language) they were most drawn to.

Then Allison and I (but let’s be honest, mostly Allison) hand-matched each of my students with a book we thought they’d enjoy. Allison also made a bookmark for each student with other books they might try if the first “date” was a dud.

On the day before the A.P. and I.B. testing began, I brought my students to the library and Allison had jazz music playing in the background and had lowered the lights. There was hot cocoa and centerpieces on the tables. Each student’s name was on a Google Slide, and as we all sipped our cocoa, she called out each student’s name, the name of the book we had chosen for them, and why we thought they’d connect with it.

Allison tells me she lives for book clutching—when a student loves a book so much, they bring it back, clutching it to their chest.

This exercise produced an epic amount of book clutching.

One student told us in her survey that she liked romance and food, so Allison gave her The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo. Allison happened to go into the bakery where this student worked a few days later, and the student practically leaped across the counter at her, gushing about how perfect the book was for her. She brought Allison, who has celiac disease, a gluten-free cupcake to thank her.

Another student just sort of held his book limply in his hand. After a half hour of him staring into the middle distance, I told him it wasn’t a problem to find him something else. He confessed that his dyslexia had always made reading a huge chore. Once I convinced him listening to an audio version of his book wasn’t “cheating,” we had another excited reader on our hands.

Not all “dates” went well—just like in real life. But when they didn’t, the bookmarks, Allison and I, and their fellow readers helped students find their next option.

The first time we did this project a few years ago, I only had one section of seniors during a five period day. This past year, I had three. It is a testament to how much joy and love for reading this activity has brought students that we’re willing to put in the extra work to match one hundred kids each spring with a one-on-one book date of their own.

One of my favorite parts of this project is the students who tell me they’d forgotten how much fun reading was, or who couldn’t remember ever finishing a book until now. Or students who email me a year or two (or three) later to tell me what they’re reading, and have I read that book, or that I have to read this other one.

Science has proven what we as readers and educators already knew: reading makes us more empathetic. What better time to give students an empathy booster shot than when they are about to launch themselves into the world to be thinkers and doers and changers?

We tend to focus on the littles and the middles when we talk about literacy. But those older kids still need us, even as they practice pushing us away. I’m so grateful to Allison for reminding me of that, and for years of students who have proven her right.

 

In addition to writing books for teenagers, her favorite people, Nicole Kronzer is a high school English teacher and former professional actor. She loves to knit and run (usually not at the same time), and has named all the plants in her classroom. She lives with her family in Minneapolis.