Reading is not the enemy.
Conversations with students repeatedly point to a loss of a reading life outside of school during the formative transitions between 5th and 6th grade. It only gets exacerbated throughout 7th and 8th until high school students, returning for a visit, lament, "I wish I could read books again."
Life interferes with reading. Homework interferes with reading. Other people's expectations interferes with reading. The resigned trumpeting of "I'm too busy" fills our homes and schools.
Walt Whitman decreed, "Be curious, not judgmental."
So, I ask students to tell me about what works for them as readers. How can we expect kids to be readers, if we act as though we do not want to catch them reading? Without reading, few would write.
Leaders read. Leaders write.
In this podcast, my 8th grade student, Manav, begins by telling me about her reading life. She enjoys John Grisham and anything reminding her of Grisham. She has a book pile and accepts recommendations from her sister and her father. Manav knows herself as a reader. She even reflects that she "aged out" of fantasy and enjoys YA realistic fiction today.
As I listen and then dig deeper with my questions, Manav shares that she thinks about writing down her thinking after reading something she enjoyed. As a matter of fact, Manav has written stories on her own time outside of school. She has shared the stories with trusted family members.
Yet, Manav does not see herself as a writer.
She says, "I just don't feel like I can be a writer like that...I'm an ok writer, I think...the way I write is a bit off."
I understand this lack of confidence as having direct ties to her reading. Yes, Manav reads. But she must keep reading. Relentlessly. The less Manav reads, the less confidence she will foster in herself as a writer. When adolescents are made to feel that self-selected reading is an afterthought to other assigned work, they are less likely to develop reading and writing as a strategic, game-changing life skill. The worst-case scenario is that students grow into citizens who completely abandon reading because they have learned and accepted that they do not have time.
I am not a reader. I am not writer. Anything else is more important.
With this mindset, students grow up learning to depend on other people for ideas. They become followers in the classroom...and the workplace. Muhammed Ali's statement works both ways: "What you are thinking is what you are becoming."
I worry when I hear adults gripe that kids are reading in lieu of "other" work. I hope kids are not hearing that message, but I fear that they are. Reading leads to thinking, leading to writing, leading to deeper thinking...and more reading. When we make kids believe that reading interferes with the something else that they are supposed to do, we influence how they see themselves as readers.
"As a man is so he sees." William Blake.
Students like Manav must keep reading so they are inspired to write and develop their ideas--especially those ideas that barge unexpectedly into their imaginations! They have to read and write during their own time outside of class, as well as during their busiest times of life outside of class. The business of a reading life pollinates all beautiful societies.
Like all adolescents, Manav needs to not feel bad about reading--to stop feeling as though reading is like a caramel to be enjoyed only after dinner. Too much is lost when adolescents apostatize reading for everything else in a day. If we scold an adolescent who is reading for not doing other work first, perhaps we might examine the other work , instead of kicking the book out of hand.
Reading is the engaging, pleasurable work that plants the seeds of original, expressive thought.