“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” -Audre Lorde
“...teaching the excitement and love of a subject, in addition to the so-called content of the subject, is the responsibility of the specialist, the teacher who has made a life and career out of teaching literature.” -Michael Clay Thompson
I believe in the role of the classics in language arts, knowing that such literature forms the foundation for language and thematic study. The beautiful language of Hamlet gives students a lens through which to view politics and humanity. Landscape and poetry frame the narrative of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, allowing readers to explore the wildness of the moors and the suspense of romance. I love the books, plays, and poems in the canon, and respect their placement. Not all literature worth reading, though, is housed within its conceptual walls.
Quality reading instruction does not begin with literature. It begins with students. English classrooms are magical places, but they have the potential of becoming sources of anxiety and boredom, places where journeys of the mind are hindered by scavenger hunts for literary devices or quizzes that impose compliance. I believe that we are responsible for all readers in our classrooms, and if students are not reading the books we are assigning, we have to reevaluate the reasons we teach them. Common texts are important, and there is merit to having a whole class conversation about one text. In such an environment, students have the chance to hear other perspectives, challenge their own thinking, and argue their opinions--skills needed for all content areas. There is, however, intense value and necessity in the development of a reading life, and without it, students will comply, or pretend to comply, with reading expectations, but they will never have an independent reading life that will sustain them beyond the classroom and into adulthood.
Like many educators, I meet students who have already developed a sense of book love, the ones who are constantly sharing book recommendations with me and sneaking popular reads out of my classroom library. Quite a few of these voracious readers have read classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Fahrenheit 451 this year; their willingness to read these works encourages me in my work as an educator. But I truly earn my stripes when I can lead my students to books that will capture their interest, the first obstacle in creating a reading life. When I take responsibility for every reader in my classroom, I am pledging to help students build and sustain a reading life.
At the beginning of each year, I give my students a reading inventory, asking them to identify books they have read, favorite authors, and genres that they find compelling. Non-readers rarely have a favorite author or book, but if I can identify their interests, I can usually get them interested in a book. Many times, I have created a preview stack, an idea I adopted from Donalyn Miller. I create a stack of 5-10 books, telling students that they only have to pick one, but if none of the books suit their interests, I will try again. Taking a brief ownership of their book selection lets them know that I am interested in them academically. I want to see them succeed, and I care about them. I’ve never had a student return a full stack to me.
Aside from independent reading, we also study common texts, such as classic short stories, poems, articles, Shakespearean monologues, and book chapters. Other times, we use these common texts to practice skills, such as analyzing character, understanding symbolism, and so on. I go in search of texts that align with student interests and are thematically related to popular books in my classroom library. Earlier this year, I used Poe’s Annabel Lee and The Tell-Tale Heart to teach characterization and metaphorical thinking. During a reading conference, Kyler, a supposed non-reader, asked me if I could recommend books that would be similar to the macabre nature of Poe’s texts. Our conversation led him to discover Stephen King’s books, and he is now our resident expert on horror fiction. After annotating a chapter from Sepetys’s Salt to the Sea, Anna developed a respect for historical fiction and lyrical writing. She can now be found perusing my classroom library on Monday mornings, searching for the book she will read that week.
Taking responsibility for all readers means knowing their interests and searching for the books that will captivate them. Our students will never know the excitement of reading unless we show them. We are the ones who can show them how beautiful stories really are. When we take responsibility for every reader in our classroom, we pledge to help students build and sustain a reading life. We are also committing to creating an environment that will give them time to read, discuss, write, and think about books. Part of that commitment means giving our classroom back to our kids, providing them with the chance and opportunity to choose their own books and create a wonderful reading life. But we can’t wait for others to show them or for students to find out on their own. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.