A few years ago, I welcomed a new advisory. These were students I’d meet with three times a week for about a half hour. I would become the adult in the building that they could turn to if they needed help. As a class, the students would work together to support each other through their high school years. As I got to know my students, I made sure that I listened to what they said in their conversations with each other and with me.
One day I heard Amy, one of my advisory students, say that she had never read a book on her own just for pleasure; she only read books for school. As someone who advocates for joyful reading, I was horrified. I immediately went to my classroom library and pulled out Blake Nelson’s Recovery Road, an extremely compelling and authentic piece of young adult literature loved by teenagers. After I gave Amy her book, Jenny piped up that she wanted one, too. I gave her a copy.
The next day, both girls ran into advisory, excited to talk about their books. “I read 40 pages last night!” Amy exclaimed. “My mom had to tell me to turn off the light and go to bed.” Jenny echoed Amy, “This book is so good; I can’t put it down!” I was beaming. I was so excited to see these young people uncovering the delights of reading for pleasure. For the next two advisories, each girl feverishly discussed the characters, plot, and subject matter.
After the weekend, I waited for Jenny and Amy to come to advisory. At the rate they were going, I expected both girls to have finished their books over the weekend. I was excited to talk to them. When Amy and Jenny walked into the room without mentioning their books, I was confused. “What happened?” I asked. “Did you guys finish your books?”
“Oh,” said Amy. “I showed my teacher my book, and she said I couldn’t read it. She said I had to choose a book with a higher lexile score.” “The exact same thing happened to me,” said Jenny. “Except my teacher told me that the lexile score for my book was too high.” Both girls were given new books by their teachers.
I felt physically ill. Here were two young women excited about reading, happy to discuss their books; they had discovered the pleasures of reading. All of that was taken away from them. Amy never finished reading the assigned book. Jenny never talked about hers.
Taking the Joy Out of Reading
A teacher at another school told me about a former student who came to her to ask for help in understanding what was going on in the book To Kill a Mockingbird, which the student was reading in his English class. “We aren’t reading the whole book,” the student explained to her. “My teacher is ‘chunking’ it, and I have no idea what is going on.” My friend told the student to go home and read the entire book on his own. She didn’t want the student to miss out on experiencing the joys of reading To Kill a Mockingbird in its entirety. The student came back to the teacher later, excited to discuss the book and anxious to see the movie to compare it to what he had read.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened with my students. I was upset for days. That’s when I learned about “readicide"—a term coined by Kelly Gallagher to describe “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbering practices found in schools.”
I talked about it with several colleagues. They, too, had seen readicide in their schools. They saw it in the continuous emphasis on test preparation instead of a focus on the development of lifelong readers, and they saw it in the de-emphasis of recreational reading.
My educational philosophy is centered on helping my students become lifelong readers and learners. I believe reading is the foundation of all learning, and I want all my students to appreciate the enjoyment that comes from reading and discussing a good book. I am convinced that students who read will do better on tests and in college.
Last year my sophomore class read six books in addition to the required reading for the curriculum and they loved it. They read three books of their own choice, and together we read A Doll’s House, Fences, and All Souls: A Family Story From Southie, Michael Patrick MacDonald’s memoir about his life growing up in the Old Colony housing project in Boston. MacDonald writes about the crime, violence, and drugs that gripped his neighborhood during the time of the Boston busing crisis, when Whitey Bulger, a gangster and FBI informant, controlled most of Southie. After the students read the book, MacDonald came to our school. He spoke to my students about his experiences, the writing process, and the difference between being a survivor and a victim. My students—many of whom had overcome a great deal of adversity in their own lives—were riveted.
Building a Foundation
Each year, I work to combat readicide in my classroom. Here are 5 tips I find to be extremely helpful.
1. Find compelling reading. When I discovered that my male students, especially, did not enjoy reading, I sat with them and asked them questions about which subjects interested them. Overwhelmingly, they said sports and survival. I went on DonorsChoose.org and bought books which featured those topics, and the number of boys who completed their reading assignments increased to almost 100 percent.
2. Start a Book Club in your school. Almost ten years ago, one of my former colleagues started a book club in our school. I secured a grant to help pay for the Kindles, Nooks, and books that would support the club, which met once a week. Other students saw the books that the book club was reading and became interested. And when the club finished with the books, they were donated to the library so more students could read them. This year I took over as the advisor for the book club, and I was delighted by the number of students who came to the first meeting. I hope to bring more authors to the school, and I want to invite students to book readings by authors. We just started reading Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews, and we are loving it!
3. Look for funding on sites like DonorsChoose. If your school budget is tight, turn to DonorsChoose.org to help secure books for your classroom. I’ve gotten hundreds of books from DonorsChoose. The process is easy, and once I post my project on Facebook, my friends and even former students almost always fund it.
4. Read plays. Last year when I read A Doll’s House and Fences with my students, I discovered that my students truly enjoyed reading plays in class. We had so much fun acting out the scenes, and the reading became even more accessible to my students. When our state test rolled around, many of my students used one of these plays to answer the long composition. This year I plan to look for some contemporary plays for my students because I know they will enjoy them.
5. Scaffold reading. Lexile scores and success on state tests are important. Sometimes, however—especially for students who don’t already enjoy reading—you have to take small steps. Matching a student with a book that will interest him or her—despite its lexile score—will help a student appreciate the pleasures of reading. From there, the student can move on to more challenging reading and build upon his or her skills.
As teachers, we are under constant, enormous pressure to help our students succeed. But we also have to be cautious that we don’t destroy their love of learning along the way. Instead, let’s work to create an atmosphere where teachers inspire and nurture students’ passion and enthusiasm for reading. If we build this foundation, success will soon follow.