Friday, September 2, 2016

My Experiment

Confession: I was not a reader when I was in school.

I always loved writing--that was my reason for enjoying my English classes, not to mention my reason for maintaining relatively high grades in my English classes.

Because I had parents who were readers, and who both had extensive vocabularies of their own, I was able to develop a vocabulary that probably made me seem like I was a reader.

But I wasn't a reader.

Sometimes I would begrudgingly read the literature assigned in class, and sometimes I would find myself profoundly moved by what I had read, as I was with To Kill a Mockingbird in my sophomore year.  And, although Mockingbird remains one of my favorite novels to this day, it was not enough to make a reader out of me.  It was not enough to keep me from watching Pride & Prejudice (the BBC version) instead of reading it, or frantically flipping through Crime & Punishment the weekend before it was due, both of which were transgressions I committed in my Senior AP English class.

I didn't become a reader until the summer after I graduated from high school.  I had avoided Harry Potter for six years, and although it had been recommended to me by at least three eager school librarians on as many occasions, I firmly refused to try it on the grounds that it was "a book for nerds" (which must have been confusing, coming from a scrawny kid with large glasses not unlike Harry's).  However, on one family car ride in which my then-11-year-old sister was listening to the audiobook of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I found myself unable to either tune out the story, or mock it sarcastically.  Jim Dale was narrating the scene in which the Weaselys visit the Dursleys to pick up Harry during the summer holiday.  Harry's loutish cousin Dudley had just eaten a bewitched toffee which had caused his tongue to swell to a grotesque size, and I found myself laughing out loud at Rowling's vivid and clever descriptions of the chaos that followed.  My resolve shattered, I picked up Sorcerer's Stone that evening and did not resurface until I had finished Order of the Phoenix (the fifth, and at that time, the newest, book in the series) six days later.

After that, my world was never the same.  I devoured Ender's Game, then the rest of the Ender series, then the Shadow series.  I consumed the Shaara Civil War trilogy.  I laughed as I read The Princess Bride, and wept as I read The Kite Runner.  I tried Crime and Punishment again, and found myself captivated.  Emboldened, I ventured into the Brothers Karamazov and loved that, too.  I revisited Narnia and Middle Earth, Toad Hall and Mole End.  I rode along with James Herriot to farms all over the Yorkshire Dales. I tore through weighty biographies of John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry S. Truman.  This past summer, I picked up a book that had been on my shelf for two years: Book Love, by Penny Kittle.

Kittle, an English teacher, emphasizes the importance of modeling and nurturing a habit for reading and a love for reading to students, particularly adolescents.  This, Kittle maintains, is crucial to empowering the students to successfully read classic texts, and to develop critical reading skills in general.  Before I had even made it halfway through the book, my mind had begun to overflow with ideas for the coming school-year.

I went through my calendar and set aside one class period each week solely for silent, sustained reading.  I made sure to clearly mark those days on the calendar so that I would not forget, and then planned the rest of my units with those dates set apart.

Then, I contacted our school librarian, and in collaboration, worked out the following plan:
On the silent, sustained reading day, the students will meet in the library and not in my classroom.  They will leave class-work behind and only bring computers or phones if they need music in order to focus, or require easy access to an electronic dictionary, with the understanding that they will be held accountable for the use of their devices, should they become a distraction.

Each week, a member of the library staff, or even other teachers, or coaches, will come in at the start of the period and share briefly about something they had read and enjoyed recently.  Of course, I will also regularly share recommendations with the students, as well.

Students may read fiction or non-fiction, sci-fi or fantasy, action or romance; they may even choose a magazine from the library's publications corner--they simply need to find something to read that will hold their attention for an entire class period, so that they can get a feel for reading for pleasure, and at the same time, build up the stamina to engage with the readings (whether speeches, essays, articles or novels) that they will encounter in English and Humanities class.  My hope is that they will develop a love for reading that will extend beyond this school-year and these days that I have set aside.

We had our first reading days this week--Wednesday for my first period English class and today for my Humanities classes.  The students seemed willing, even eager, to give the experiment a try, and for three periods this week, I enjoyed the most blissful kind of silence, as high school juniors all settled down to read something they had chosen for themselves.  After making sure that everyone had something to read, I picked up Steve Jobs' biography from the shelf and found myself absorbed, each class period ending entirely too soon.  I wound up checking out the biography, and look forward to having something to read for fun, myself.

This is my great experiment for the year, and while this is only the beginning, I'm excited and encouraged by what I saw on our first day of silent, sustained reading.  I will definitely provide updates as the year goes on about how this is working out!


  1. My comment is too long to fit into one I'll split it up in two.

    To the man who says he was not a reader,

    In the sixth grade, I knew a young boy who had been an avid reader, consuming a book a day. There came a roadblock in his journey of literature where he was no longer allowed to garner credit from The Hardy Boy books he loved but was challenged to stretch beyond what he knew and expand his reading repertoire. In an attempt to expedite the point-gathering-process that an accelerated reading program demanded, he tried to read Little Women - tried and succeeded. Yet, when he took the test to reap the harvest of his two week endeavor, the yield was sour and there was nothing to show for the work he invested.
    Jaded from the experience of being jilted by a book that the young boy was not all that thrilled to engage with in the first place, he took out his frustration by abstaining from reading from that point forward.

    Fast forward almost a decade and that young boy was now a young man, traveling the world and absorbing life in the full. Three years prior he had, against all odds, wandered into a bookstore in London and walked out holding a hefty tome he thought would make a nice souvenir; now finally he would turn that souvenir decoration into what would be an epic journey of far off places and thrilling adventure. Keep in mind that even to this time, the young man never really returned to reading beyond what was required of him, if even that (similar to your Pride and Prejudice experience). What he didn't know that day he cracked open the book and began reading was that he had embarked on a path that would take him two years to finish, and at the end he would feel as changed as the characters of the tale were through their ardor. Inside the back cover and on the blank page opposite are scribbles of all the words the young man came across that he did not know and would look up as he read the book. Words that so quintessentially fulfilled the message of the author that the young man could not believe so specific a word existed or that it could ever be used again elsewhere in literature. As he closed the back cover and that empty void of being without the next page to read filled his mind as oft happens, his thoughts wandered to a time long past.

  2. He remembered a good friend going with him to the school library to find a book to read when he reached the aforementioned roadblock in his journey. His friend wanted to encourage him to keep reading but also knew him well enough to offer suggestions of books that the young boy would like. Odd titles, at least that's what the boy thought, came from the mouth of his friend but in this memory he recalled one specifically - The Hobbit. His friend excitedly told the young boy about having just finished the book and how incredible the story was. He went on for twenty minutes about orcs and elves, battles and magic, poetry and prose trying in earnest to convince the young boy to read it. With melancholy the young man recalled this memory because he remembered how as a young boy the only two criteria to which he paid any attention were the title and the picture on the cover. "That?! What in tarnation is a Hobbit?" Yes, he said tarnation and remembered the twisted form of an ugly dragon on the cover. He looked back in melancholy because at that moment in time he wrote the book off and instead took Little Women off the shelf.

    Having just finished The Lord of the Rings, he realized how many years of Tolkien riddled text he had missed by ignoring his friend that day. How many worlds and hours of imagination lost because he chose based on his own lack of wisdom and experience rather than listen to his friend's actual wisdom. In that moment of recollection, considering his friend's suggestion to read The Hobbit, the young man was astounded at the level of comprehension and acumen his friend had at such a young age - and he certainly had the vocabulary to match it. It dawned on him how his friend had at the time created a logo of his name and encouraged the young boy to do so also, akin to that of JRRT.

    There was a level of influence that reading was already having on the young boy's friend that took nearly an extra decade to impact the young man. While there were years lost, there were still years ahead in which literature could be devoured. Nate, you were that friend and I was that young boy back in sixth grade. I'm sorry I didn't listen to you then but I do learn from you now. I have since deployed with the Navy three time and spent 15 months at sea on deployments around the world and there are two books that I've taken with me, two books that have spent as much time away from shore as I have - The Holy Bible and The Hobbit. Thank you for continuing your passion and for providing an opportunity to instill a love of reading for your Juniors. May they be far smarter than I and take your advice immediately.

    I look forward to hearing more about the results of your experiment.


    PS - I hold no grudge with Louisa May Alcott and also recommend young boys take the time to read Little Women, but only when they have other reading outlets as well.