Have You Read Everything?

After thinking about this blog for a week, the word finally came to me this morning on my run: “Tantalize.” That it came from a conversation about Brave New World—my runs can be very literary—may make you wonder. I promise you, though, that’s the word.

It’s the right word because it’s what we do, and what we need to do to make it so kids want to... need to...can’t wait to... read something. No kidding, Wright?, says every teacher ever.

So how?

Some history:  I have always been a reader. The thrill of finishing my first book of over 100 pages—Danny Dunn and the… Something that Somethinged…is still a tangible (sort-of) memory.  When my students ask me, “Wright, have you read everything?” I take it as a compliment. One of the blessings of my almost 30 year teaching career has been fellow readers at every stop.

The physical buzz of the school book fairs of my elementary days made me start an annual book fair at my first teaching job—a Title 1 middle school in the port area of Elizabeth, NJ. With my principal’s blessing, we ran every class through the aisles of wheel-borne shelves parked on the floor of the school auditorium. Every free book we earned through sales got placed on other shelves throughout the school.

My love of thrillers, some age-appropriate but many decidedly not, from middle and early high school—books so good I cursed the bus driver for arriving at my stop—still comes out in recommendations to students looking for a book that will keep them awake, or nudge aside their homework for just one chapter more. Many of those books also populate my own collection of first editions.

In high school and college, books may have saved me a time or two. Or finally alighted on my shoulder when they had slipped off before. In high school, The Great Gatsby was just blissfully short (“Only 185 pages?  Sweet!”) assigned reading. In college Fitzgerald’s prose got a little bit better. Now to someone who gets to teach it or see it taught so beautifully by one of my partners, it is an absolute joy. An old paperback Gatsby sat in my race bag for years, readily available to be opened to any page should there be a delay, or some unexpected time until my heat began.

I had always been about and around books.

So my early training as a student teacher—at Penn where the brilliant Mort Botel created the Pennsylvania Framework for Literacy—made it clear that reading was the core of everything. That wasn’t news. But what was new was that I needed to learn how professionals went about it. I also needed to know how I could bring what I already knew to bear in classrooms full of kids struggling on lots of levels, urban and suburban, middle and high school.

So sharing my overt reading habits and finding the seemingly disparate texts that pop up in my class have been an ongoing challenge and joy—What can I think of here that goes with this lesson?. Teaching the Bubonic Plague in Western Civ? Start with Chapter One of Stephen King’s The Stand. Starting Brown v. Board…excerpt Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice. Want to set the tone for an entire American Studies course? Assign The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay over the summer to show kids that this is a challenging course…and so that you get to reread it every other summer too.

Let me sum up what you must be thinking:  Paul, how does this help me? Where are the plans, the sources and resources to facilitate this for me if I need it? Here is where I will cheat, but with the hopefully noble goal of motivating you.

You’re the source.

You’re the reader who throws six books into the suitcase for a week at the beach. You’re the one who has a book on the bedside table, an audio book in the car, and the next three of each already picked out.

You’re the one who comments when the guy on the train platform is reading an old favorite of yours. You’re the one who asks the kids what books they choose to read until we make them put ‘em away to start class.

You can model BEING THE READER THAT YOU ARE every day you’re with kids and colleagues. Bringing that to bear may be the challenge, or better yet, the opportunity: to build your own PD, to create interactions with colleagues to talk about books, and to get in front of kids and say “I am a reader, and that is I want that for all of you.”

What a...tantalizing...thought.

Paul Wright, 2011 Finalist for PA TOY, teaches Government, American Studies, and Sr. Seminar at Radnor High School in Wayne, PA. He is a member of the inaugural class of Teaching Fellows at the Alliance for Decision Education, https://www.alliancefordecisioneducation.org/teach/fellowship and is a founding partner of JumpStart Main Line College Essay Camps, www.collegeessaycamp.com. When he isn’t engaged in one of those three pursuits, it’s usually about reading, running, and maintaining the <genuinely> happy husband and father routine. He is proud to represent NNSTOY in education circles everywhere.




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