The Do’s and Don’ts of Raising Readers by Jen Kleinknecht
Air conditioning taught me how to read.
It sounds crazy, but it’s true. We didn’t have central air conditioning in the home where I grew up. We could have afforded it, but we didn’t have it. What a blessing that I didn’t have everything we could afford. It gave me a reason to work for my dreams.
Anyway, let’s get back to reading and air-conditioning. I wanted to be like my big sister and my mom. On hot, sticky summer nights, they would lounge in my parents’ bedroom and read on the cozy bed under the loud but powerful air conditioner in the window. I knew how to read, but I was not allowed into this exclusive reading club until I could master the art of reading silently. It sounds silly, but I didn’t know how to do this as a young child.
I sure learned fast, though.
My mom is a genius. She made reading everything it should be. Inviting. Special. Volitional. Thank you, Mom. You taught me to love books and more importantly, the poetry, the truths, and the imaginings they contain. The books themselves? They’re just the cases that contain the gems. That’s why I don’t get upset anymore when my students lose books. After all, the story isn’t lost, just that one telling of it.
As a former classroom teacher and now a school librarian, my life’s work has been dedicated to books. But not every student is going to become a reading teacher or a librarian. The best we can hope is that reading will be their lifelong hobby. I don’t know about you, but when I meet people who tell me they don’t have time to read, I want to scold them for the hours they spend binge watching Netflix until I remember I do the same exact thing.
How do we convince students that reading is worth their time? Model your own reading habits. If you don’t have great reading habits, improve them, and then model them.
Read books that your students might like and post pictures of them. I started a library Instagram account. I don’t have a blue check mark next to my name, but who cares? Don’t underestimate the value of every small positive contribution that you make with your efforts.
Join a book club. Better yet, host one with your fellow teachers. Don’t worry about choosing something really literary. Just have fun and reclaim your own joy in discussing a book.
Read and teach poetry. Listen here to what Jason Reynolds has to say about it. His point is brilliant but often overlooked.
Don’t make students dread reading. Don’t suck all of the joy out of reading by removing student choice. Don’t force students to do assignments that they hate. If it’s clear students hate something, just stop it. Don’t scare the living daylights out of them if they lose one of your books.
By the way, I have made all of those mistakes. I deemed certain books unworthy. I gave silly assignments. I tried students in the court of overdue or lost books, and I found them guilty and made them pay the fine.
We commit educational malpractice when we forget the true purpose of reading. It’s not about levels or compliance or responsibility. It’s about the exact opposite, actually.
Reading is about equality and freedom and wild abandonment. Books are our common language. They help us share our humanity. I’m a middle-aged White, cisgender, heterosexual woman who has lived a privileged life. But when I read Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart, I was transgender Lily, yearning for my father’s approval. When I read Blended by Sharon Draper, I was Isabella, an innocent Black girl shot by a police officer. When I read I am the Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, I was Xiomara, a Latina teen falling in love with a boy while discovering my twin brother is gay.
Reading is a time to escape and a time to forget who we are and where we are. We can transcend the boredom and the anxiety of our current situation through the power of reading. Relax your rules. Let students read graphic novels, joke books, and biographies of sports players. Familiarize yourself with Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of a Reader and commit yourself to following them.
The pandemic made the return of classroom and library books a nightmare. I am not nearly as worried about all the books that didn’t get returned as I would have been a few years ago. It’s a bummer to replace lost copies, but a lot of things were lost last year. Lives were lost. Do your best to figure out a way during these trying times to get books into kids’ hands. If you lose some books in the process, so be it. Better to have loaned and lost than to have never loaned at all.
And while we’re at it, let your students fold down the pages of your books. Losing your place and having to wait another breathless second to return to your story? That would be the real crime.
By the way, I have central air in my home now, but I miss the nights curled up with my mom and sister under the old behemoth air conditioner. I miss the adventure of being Nancy Drew. I miss losing myself in a fantasy or finding myself in a poem for the first time.
I don’t miss it too much, because there is always a great book waiting for me on my shelf. My mom raised me right. She raised a reader.
Jen Kleinknecht has spent 20 years as an educator dedicated to inspiring a love of reading. She is currently a school librarian who loves coffee, Netflix, and of course, reading. She writes about life, education, and librarianship in no particular order on her blog, “The Yes Librarian.” You can follow her on Twitter @citecitebaby or on Medium @kleinknechtjen.