Reading Memories that Last a Lifetime

By Franki Sibberson, Guest Blogger 

A couple of years ago, I was tagged in a Facebook post by one of my former 1st grade students. Moriya had grown up, married, and had her first child. She tagged me with a photo of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff and said, “I dusted this book off to read to Rose yesterday - I can't get it out without thinking of you!”
Since then, we’ve had several Facebook conversations around books. I continue to be amazed at how conversations around books are lasting and have circled back around from the conversations between a student and teacher and are now between a parent and child.
I am thrilled that Moriya grew up and makes it a habit to share her favorite books from her first grade year with her young daughter.  These quick conversations on Facebook remind me that as classroom teachers, we are not just growing readers. We are growing readers who will grow readers who will grow readers. Our goal is to support habits of lifelong reading that will grow over several generations to come.

I have been thinking a lot about my exchanges with Moriya and how the reading experiences we had in 1st grade have impacted her role as a mother to two young children. Moriya was in my first grade class during one of my first few years teaching. This was the year that “leveled” books like Mrs. Wishy Washy started to be published in the United States. It was a time when levels were a useful tool for teachers, rather than a way to hold young readers accountable or to limit students’ reading experiences.
Since that time, levels have become a driving force in many classrooms and have changed the experiences students have as readers. Moriya didn’t choose If You Give a Mouse a Cookie because she knew it was at Rose’s reading level. She didn’t choose it because she remembered reading it and getting all the questions correct on the quiz. And she didn’t read it because in 1st grade she had received a prize for reading it.  She pulled it out because she had joyful memories around it.
As teachers, we have huge power to build joyful experiences around books.  However, we also have huge power to take the joy out of reading. We never know when a book, an experience, or a conversation can plant itself into the lives of our readers in ways that become a permanent part of their literate lives. Our beliefs, our choices, and our conversations sculpt the reading lives of each child in our classroom. We can’t sacrifice the goal of lifelong reading for more short-term goals.
I first worried years ago when a student told me that because he read at such a high level the year before, the class relied on him for the points they needed each month to get their pizza lunch. 
And I worried a few months ago when I get an email from a teacher asking me for research to support read aloud as her principal had decided that it is a waste of instructional time.
And I worried again  last month when my cousin called. She was struggling to find a book for her 6th grade son. He needed a book that was historical fiction and that matched his Lexile. Because her son is reading at the college level, his Lexile level was higher than most books that are either appropriate or interesting to a 12 year old.  I suggested amazing books like Countdown by Deborah Wiles and The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis, but both were “too easy” and would not be approved by his teacher.
And I worried just the other day in the bookstore when I overheard a parent tell a child that she had to pick another book because the one she seemed excited about was “too easy” and “not at her level."  I realized that the focus on levels, the tool that was intended to be a support for teachers, now impacts conversations between parents and children in bookstores and beyond.
These conversations all represent restrictions placed on readers that limit reading and paint a less authentic picture of reading. When Moriya was in first grade, it was easier to focus on creating joyful reading experiences for our students. There were not as many mandates and the joyful experiences around books were a natural and expected part of classroom life.
It is a bit more challenging these days as so many mandates and programs are attempting to get in the way of our most important work.  It is just as possible (and even more important) to create those memories now.  But it takes a bit of intentionality in order for the joyfulness around reading to not be crowded out by the testing and mandates given to us as we move children up reading levels. I have found the following things to be helpful for me as I’ve kept my focus on joyful reading experiences in the classroom:

  • Be a reader of children’s books

I have found that reading children’s books is the key to building joyful experiences around books. The more books I know, the better able I am to hand a book to a child that he or she will fall in love with. The relationships I build around books are often anchored in personal book recommendations.

  • Build Routines That are Purely for the Sake of Joy

Honoring routines such as read aloud, #classroombookaday, Books and Breakfast and Lunch Bunches invite children to merely enjoy a book in a reading community without it being tied to a minilesson or specific goal. Making time for these routines give children lots of time to have joyful experiences around books.

  • Honor the Books Our Students Love

I’ve learned to read and share great books with my students, but I also listen to my students talk about the books they love. So often, the books that hook a reader are not the ones I consider to be the best quality or the books with the most depth. Honoring all books in a child’s reading life helps them build an identity of reader.

  • Share Our Own Reading

I’ve always relied on my own reading life to guide my teaching.  Sharing my own reading experiences authentically is critical to helping my students know me as a reader and to build their own identities as readers. 

  • Honor True Choice

Choice is choice. Choice is not choice within a leveled basket or choice limited to a Lexile range.  If we want our students to grow up to be readers that have skills to choose their own reading material and to understand what they read, choice is critical. Often levels and Lexiles are used to help students grow as readers but when we limit reading choices, they are not independent.
Recently, Moriya sent me a private message on Faceboook. She said, “
Hi Mrs. Sibberson! I have a ‘reading to children’ question and I thought of you immediately because you're an expert at this sort of thing.
Rose, who is now 3.5, hardly lets me read a book because every other sentence she interrupts to ask me questions. On one hand I want to foster her curiosity and help her to better understand the story, but on the other hand I want her to learn to be quiet and listen for the answer. Would you stop and answer every single question? Or would you explain that she needs to listen to the story?”
I laughed because in first grade, when Moriya raised her hand, she always began what she wanted to say with, “I have two questions.”  It was one of the things I first loved about Moriya and I loved that Rose was already showing signs of this same curiosity.
I responded and let Moriya know that the most important thing she could do was to make every reading time a positive one for Rose. That there was no right or wrong way to respond to her questions but that it was the relationship and joy around the books that matter most.
The memories we build in the classroom are memories that our students will carry with them for a lifetime. As teachers we have the power to choose whether those memories will be around books and relationships or whether they will be around levels and limitations. What kind of memories will we create?

Franki Sibberson teaches 3rd grade in Dublin, Ohio. Her books include Still Learning to Read (Stenhouse) and Beyond Leveled Books (Stenhouse). She blogs with Mary lee Hahn at A Year of Reading. She currently serves as Vice President of NCTE.