An Army of Book Nerds
A few weeks ago, I had the rare pleasure of meeting some girlfriends for dinner and leaving my two-year-old and five- year-old home with a babysitter. On my way to dinner, I realized I had about 45 minutes to kill. Naturally, I chose the library. 45 whole minutes wandering the stacks for a new book without having to shush Captain Question or calm The Tornado? Intoxicating.
I walked into the library and started my delightful wander but quickly discovered I had no idea what I was looking for. My 45 minutes were ticking away, and I was aimlessly reading spines with no titles jumping out at me. I could have asked a librarian for help. I could have gone to the computer and done some searches. I know all those things; I’m an English teacher. But I didn’t. In that moment of combined laziness and apathy, I realized why so many of my students say they can’t find a book to read. Just like me, they technically know what they should do to find a book, but they just don’t do it.
Why is it so difficult to find good books? Why do so many teenagers struggle to find books they like to read? For students that used to be readers, this is one of the main reasons they no longer identify themselves as readers. After Harry Potter, people stopped giving them books that really appealed to them. Other students have never thought of themselves as readers at all. Perhaps they were never given books that appealed to them or, even worse, they were never given any books at all. By the time they hit high school, many kids are reading at a level where they can handle the vocabulary of many “classics” or “grown-up” books, but many of those novels simply aren’t interesting to them. Reading becomes boring.
After a department book study of Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, my English department colleagues and I decided to make a concerted effort to bring back the love of independent reading at our school. Last year, most of us began every day with ten minutes devoted to independent pleasure reading–no book reports, no requirements. The kids responded well for the most part. Students who had been readers in middle school picked it up again, and I think we may have even inspired a stray non-reader here and there.
But I think we can do more. I want my students–all of my students–to know that awesome feeling of finding a new favorite book. I want them to love books so much they’ll be excited about the opportunity to go to the library alone someday.
Book nerds. I want to build an army of book nerds.
So, I’m making some changes in how I approach independent reading in my classroom.
- I read every YA book I could get my hands on this summer. For whatever reason, kids actually seem to listen when we recommend specific books to them. They don’t want a list; they want a personal recommendation. On the first day of school, a young lady told me she “hated reading” and was “really bad at it.” I pressed for clarification, and she admitted she had only ever liked reading The Fault in Our Stars. I quickly ticked through my mental list of cheesy-ish romances and suggested Anna and the French Kiss. Had I only read things I loved personally, I wouldn’t have had an appropriate title on hand to suggest. I think English teachers have a responsibility to read outside our comfort zones so we can find books for more kids.
- I’m building up my classroom library. When I handed that young lady my copy of Anna and the French Kiss, she was shocked. “I can just read yours?” “Sure. Take it. Read it.” She brought it to class the next day and the next, and she is already three chapters in. Since I’ve very pointedly asked her how she’s liking the book three days in a row in front of the whole class, there’s now a waiting list forming for this book. Admit it–we’re all a little lazy. If someone hands me a book, I’m more likely to read it than if they suggest a title for me to find. It’s not possible to have every title, but some kids need you to physically hand them a book so they’ll read.
- I set my room up differently. Many kids don’t know author names. They need to know “that shelf is the sci-fi” and “If you like high school drama, look on that shelf.” My bulletin boards are divided into three sections—fiction, non-fiction and YA—and I plan to change the recommended books on those boards monthly. I’m looking for more ideas to physically change the room, too. As we move through the year, I’m planning to ask students to help me decorate the walls with short, illustrated book blurbs about books they’ve loved.
- I’m exposing my students to the recommendations of other readers. The entire English 10 team worked with our media center specialist on a day of book talks for our kids. We each talked about four books that we loved– our favorites rather than things we assumed kids would like. My choices leaned nonfiction and history, another teacher stands firmly in the sci-fi/fantasy category, and a third is obsessed with Stephen King. I think it was important for the kids to see us reveal that we don’t sit around discussing classics all day. Some of us dig a good chick lit romance or a thriller now and again.
- I required my students to start Goodreads accounts. Goodreads helped me with my “read everything and anything plan” this summer, and I think it has the potential to help students, too. Full disclosure: I have no idea if this will work or not, but I’m experimenting. Right now, I’m overwhelmed by the 150 friend requests from my students, but I anticipate it being useful once I identify who my most reluctant readers are. I can see what they’ve read, what they like and don’t like and then suggest specific books. All of that can happen in a face to face conversation, too, but I think the online component will make it easier to zero in on good recommendations for some students.
- I’m showing my students what a real reader does. We begin every day with ten minutes of reading and I read, too. I never take attendance, grade papers, etc. I read. Some days they see me push the ten minutes to fifteen (or twenty!) if I’m completely engrossed. Other days, I finish reading and start class by talking about the book I’m reading or asking them about what they’re reading. Slowly but surely, we’re becoming a natural reading community where books are recommended, shared, or completely panned.
None of these things are ground-breaking or revolutionary, but all of these steps are helping to change the conversation about reading in my classroom. They’re not all book nerds yet, but it’s only September…
Hattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fourteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, English 10, Debate, and Practical Public Speaking. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.