This year, I rededicated myself to helping students find their “readerly lives.” I actually started to do more independent reading with my students three years ago after I read Readicide, but it wasn’t until this year that I felt like I understood what it really meant to help students discover who they are as readers. What I discovered, of course, is that in order to help students find books that will speak to them, I had to read books that would appeal to them, even if they weren’t the books I’d typically read. After all, how can I recommend books to certain students when I don’t know what books to recommend? So for the last year two years, my reading life has included several YA titles.
I have several thoughts on the value of YA titles, and on the benefit of reading YA literature not just for students, but also for their teachers. But that’s a topic that requires some more time and attention, so I’ll get back to that in another post. But for now, I thought I’d write about something that happened a few days ago that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have happened in my first few years of teaching.
It was the end of class; the bell had rung, the end of another long, tiresome day. As students packed their bags and left, one students stopped by my desk with a book in her hand. The book was Stranger by Rachel Brown and Sherwood Smith, and she loved it. She couldn’t stop talking about how much she was enjoying the book, especially the characters, who were not only clever and interesting, but also diverse and realistic. She recommended the book to me, and although I already have a “to-read” list that is hundreds of titles long, how could I not read this book after such a glowing recommendation?
I read Brown and Smith’s Stranger over the weekend, and it was everything my student promised it would be. The truth is, I probably wouldn’t have read the book if it weren’t for my student’s recommendation. As yet another post-apocalyptic YA dystopian novel (I had also just finished reading The Fifth Wave), I was suffering from a bit of genre fatigue. But I’m so glad I read Stranger. Five different points of view, each one with its unique voice, including a mysterious stranger who comes to town with an ancient artifact, a book that somehow survives whatever cataclysm has destroyed most other written words. What I appreciated most was that the characters in the novel were treated with a depth and respect for all types of people that are still underrepresented in much of mainstream (and YA) literature. If reading is a way to allow us to “step into another person’s shoes” as Atticus tells Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, then Stranger did just that.
But more than anything, it wasn’t that I read a good book that made this experience meaningful. It was the fact that one of my students personally recommended the title. When I mentioned earlier that I didn’t think this would happen in my early teaching years, that’s true. Back then, I didn’t share my “reading life” with my students. Instead, whatever reading we discussed was limited to the novels that were part of the official curriculum. Even though I’m sure my students knew I read in my spare time—after all, I was their English teacher—I never shared what I was reading outside of class or, more importantly, why. And I never asked them what they were reading either. Discussion was always about what we were reading in class, and only in class. I didn’t share, and I didn’t invite students to share either.
When I started reading along side my students in a deliberate, visible, and thoughtful way, I was not only able to recommend better titles to them—to help find the right book for the right reader—but my students started recommending titles to me, too. I can’t say enough about how meaningful that’s been. I think (I hope) we all know the joy of a good book—one of the first things you want to do after reading something wonderful is to share and talk about it with others. The fact that my students see me, their teacher, as someone they can share that joy with… well, that’s a good day.
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 200 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.