I. "I hate reading!"
At the beginning of one of my classes last Thursday, I asked the kids to get out their books and start reading. We frequently spend the first ten to fifteen minutes of class reading silently, and some students had already started; others were opening backpacks and digging out their independent reading books. Then one girl--I'll call her "Karenna"--slammed her copy of The Lovely Bones on her desk and said, loudly: "Why do we have to read? I hate reading. We spend forty-five minutes a day reading. Can't we do something else?"
This got everyone's attention, and we hadn't talked about this issue recently, so I decided to speak to the whole class. I suggested that in fact we averaged about ten minutes a day of reading, and that we had only once or twice all year spent more than half an hour reading in class, and I said, as I often do, that reading was important, it was what we were there in English class to get better at, there was no way to get better than to actually do it, and most people would prefer to read a book of their own choosing. Then I asked the class how many of them would prefer to do something else. One other girl, a friend of the first one, raised her hand.
In any case, Karenna, I went on, I don't believe that you just never enjoy reading. You are smart and interesting, and there are lots of different books in the world. Maybe The Lovely Bones just isn't the right book for you. What's a book you've enjoyed?
She admitted to having liked an Ellen Hopkins book she read earlier in the year. Well, I said, even though you've tried other Ellen Hopkins books and haven't liked them, we know you CAN like to read. You just need to find a new book. Then I turned to her friend.
Her friend, who happened to be reading another Alice Sebold book, Lucky, cannily said, "Well, I like my book. But I don't like reading. I just don't enjoy the activity."
I thought about this for a second. Clearly with these two kids I hadn't succeeded in "teaching a love of reading." What to do?
II. Inappropro... what kids like?
I ended up sending Karenna down to the library to find another book. I sent another student (not her friend) along with her, to help out. The girl I sent didn't want to go--maybe she wanted to read?--but I told her that since she had already read dozens of books this year, missing twenty minutes of reading wouldn't hurt her--and besides, as an avid reader, she'd be able to help Karenna find a book. But, the girl said, I don't like the library; I haven't been to the library all year. Okay, I replied, it will be good for you, too, then--you should get to know the library!
After they left, the rest of the class got down to business. It wasn't long before Karenna's friend, the one who had backed her up and said that she, too, hated reading, called me over to tell me about what had happened in her book. Last week, this girl had been amazed that Alice Sebold's memoir had moved so abruptly away from the verdict in the trial of her rapist, without going into how it had affected her. Now she wanted to let me know that Sebold had started discussing the longer term effects of her trauma. "She's got PTSD," the girl informed me. I said something appreciative, and moved on. A few minutes later, the same girl called me back over and informed me, in a loud voice, that Sebold was doing crack and heroin. A few minutes later she had to tell me that Sebold had gone to Germany and let a bunch of guys have sex with her all in a row. I was duly horrified, and I think the girl appreciated my horror.
A few minutes later, as we were finishing up our twenty minutes of reading, the two other two girls returned from the library, the one who hated reading holding a copy of Lauren Myracle's l8r, g8r. Some adults don't like that book, focusing on the inappropriate sex--but maybe that's what some (all?) kids want to read about...
III. What next?
I don't know yet how Karenna is liking l8r, g8r (and I wonder why she didn't start with the first book in the series!), but the day overall left me thinking about how I could have done a better job of encouraging these girls to find books they actually like. Karenna has been resistant since the beginning--I remember she told me on day one that she only liked Ellen Hopkins, and I had a talk with her very thoughtful mom on parents' night about how difficult it always was to get Karenna to read--but I think if I had been able to put in her hands a much wider variety of books, especially books that were easier than The Lovely Bones, then maybe by now she would have developed more "reading perseverance," as some people put it.
The best way to do this would be to have lots and lots of books in the classroom, since going to the library doesn't come easily to some kids (like the avid reader who hadn't yet been to the library), but I should have been taking the class to the library regularly, having kids booktalk more often, and talking often about how we find books. (I also could have instituted a rule about how quickly you have to move through your book before you have to switch. Karenna has been moving very slowly through The Lovely Bones for about a month now, and I should have forced her to switch.)
In any case, while independent reading has been working well for most of my students, there are some for whom it's not working. I've often said that we need to be better at providing kids books to read and time to read them. I've gotten much better at providing time; now I need to get better at providing books.