If You Want Students to Be Passionate Readers, Learn from This

If You Want Students to Be Passionate Readers, Learn from This

It is easy to forget during the season of testing just what it is about reading that lures us in. We can become hung up in test prep---exposing students to so-called "test questions" and sample passages---and in the process utterly blaspheme the joy of reading and the beauty of literature.

Looking back, I became a reader due to two educators in my life: Ms. Jackson (name changed) and Ms. Sherrill (again, name changed, in case she is still out there). Ms. Jackson was our school librarian. She was not a media specialist as they are called now. In fact, I could bet Ms, Jackson would have disdained that title. She would have seen all this hype about "computers" and "technology" as major distractions. She would not have liked the direction our school libraries have taken at all, with the removal of books and the placement of high-tech gadgets.

My fondest memories of Ms. Jackson is her reading fairy tales to us. She read them all: Hans Christian Andersen, Grimms, Native American Tales, mythology, etc. During my first and second grade, Ms. Jackson introduced me to the world of fantasy where almost anything could happen. She provided me with a ticket to my own imagination. She introduced me to books. But what Ms. Jackson did really was instill within me a insatiable flame of desire for books and reading, and she did this when she "broke the rules." Yes, she broke the rules.

In those days, the rule of the library was that you could only check out books from your assigned grade level. Such a rule makes sense on the surface. Students aren't allowed to check out books that are too difficult or are inappropriate, but rules can put out the flames of passion, and in this case, she could have just enforced the rules, and let my own passion for exploration and reading die. She didn't. She allowed me to wander everywhere and check out anything I desired, so when I had a passion for the stars and planets, I checked out every science book on the topic. When I became interested in the Civil War, I checked out books on that topic. When I stumbled on dinosaurs, as every young kid inevitably does, I read every book in the library on the topic. I literally checked out books, in some cases, way over my head, but when I got the books home, I wanted to know what they said so badly, I read, re-read, and read again, until I could understand. Ms. Jackson, by simply choosing not to enforce her library rules, created a life-long passionate reader.

Ms. Sherrill, who was my sixth grade teacher reinforced my passion for books in her classroom. First of all, she surrounded us with books and a comfortable place to read. She had this carpeted mat sitting next to the class library, and she practically gave us free rein to spend as much time there as possible, if we got our other assignments done, of course. But that alone wasn't new. Ms. Sherrill also fostered my passion for books by reading aloud to us as well. She read Old Yeller, Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist. She read with such energy and passion. I could tell she loved novels, and she infected me with the same disease.

Both these teachers remind me of these words by my favorite writer, Pat Conroy:

"Great words, arranged with cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers. From the beginning I've searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul-killing doubts. I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate. I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die." Pat Conroy, My Reading Life

Today, we aren't going to foster reading, I mean real reading by being obsessed with standardized tests. These two educators introduced me to the "great words" of writers. They also introduced me to novelists and then allowed me to "search out those writers" for myself, "who are unafraid to stir up my emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions..." Ms. Jackson gave me ability to search and fulfill my hunger to know. Ms. Sherrill infected me with a disease that means I can't walk by the new novels rack in the bookstore and not feel the passion and energy surging from them.

In this season of testing, let's remind ourselves, that the test is not everything; it never was, nor will it ever be.

cross posted at the21stcenturyprincipal.blogspot.com

J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.