New Year Reading Blues

Coming back to school after Winter Break is always tough for me. It’s not that I don’t want to see my students & colleagues – I do! – but, frankly, Ottawa in January is cold and dark. I would be just as happy to spend most of the month curled up under a bunch of warm blankets drinking tea and reading books. My students, I fear, would choose to spend their free time differently.

Before break, we were on a reading roll. My little class of 11 (now ten – long story) had read 55 books as of  December 4. We were up to 63 right before break, and I was seeing great signs of what I thought was an emerging literary life, at least, if you count Diary of a Wimpy Kid as literary – which I do. Some of my students had plans for their next book. Some were recommending books to others. Rupi Kaur’s poetry was getting passed around – and not only because it is a little racy. When we left for winter break, I was really pleased.

I had a great break. As it started, my own children and I finished our read-aloud of Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider. (An incredible read-aloud, although be prepared to encounter lots of complex pronunciation.) On my own, that first weekend, I tore through Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys. As our family headed off on vacation I read Debris Line by Matthew Fitzsimmons (a former colleague who’s written a fantastic series of action-packed thrillers), then Ami McKay’s fun new novella Half Spent Was the Night and finally Bill Bryson’s slim biography of Shakespeare. And, we finished our read-aloud of Funke’s follow-up to Dragon Rider, The Griffin’s Feather. So, um, yeah, that’s six books in two weeks. But one really was a novella and Bill Bryson’s book is full of information but it’s not really super-long… and we were on a plane…

I am not actually a crazy person. I really didn’t expect that my students would read much over break. The class I keep writing about this semester is not the “Academic” track and most of them do not identify as readers. But maybe I am crazier than I seem, because yesterday, as we were talking about our break, I realized that I was kind of hoping that they would have read *something.* So I was disappointed when only three of nine students said they had read anything other than social media over the holidays. That’s only 1/3. Even my student who most identifies as a reader didn’t read. The only silver lining is that one student was absent, and I’m betting he read something, so that’s four of ten. 2/5 – ever so slightly better than 1/3.

I really really really really (that’s four “really”s, if you’re counting) want them to be readers. And I deeply believe that a) they need to read more to learn to read well and b) that reading well – and even enjoying reading – is important. (To paraphrase Donalyn Miller, I’ve got the research. Here’s hers and there’s plenty more: like this, and this, and this…)

And guys, I did not want to write this blog post. Because there are only 12 more teaching days before exams. 12 days x 20 minutes of independent reading + me cheering them on. No matter how I do the math, I just don’t think that’s enough time to help them see that they can be readers, that they are readers. I just don’t know if one semester was enough. And some of them are *so close.* I feel like if we could just keep reading…

But we can’t. And I kind of feel like I failed them. I’m bucking myself up by reminding myself that this is the first semester I really went all in with choice reading, that I’m getting better and better at reading conferences, that I’m building my classroom library (and making extensive use of the school & public libraries when my own library isn’t enough), that the reading survey I did at the beginning of the semester suggested that many of the students hadn’t read a single book in the last year. We have made real, tangible progress.

I just don’t know if it’s enough.

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(I asked my husband to read over this blog post before I published it.  He reminded me that I’m not supposed to approach teaching like a major league baseball player looking to maintain a high batting average. Instead, I help my students get a little better every time they step up to the plate, and by that measure each one of them is better off today than they were at the beginning of my class. I hate it when he’s right, and when he uses baseball metaphors.  He also reminded me that everything looks a little darker in January when you live in Ottawa but grew up in the Southern US: both a figurative and literal truth. He’s also right about that.)

18 thoughts on “New Year Reading Blues

  1. Sometimes I need a reading break. If I’ve read a “heavy” book, or a book that really touched me, I need time to digest it and I also need to give my brain a break. I wonder if your students were doing this. They’ve read more than ever, and their brains need some time to consolidate. Maybe. But I’m betting a few will go on to be readers outside your class. You’ve done well! They won’t forget. Sorry – I have no sports metaphors. 🙂

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    1. I think I like you better because you lack sports metaphors. 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement. I know I’ll get over my disappointment – it’s just that I want this so much for them… Sigh.

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  2. I appreciate and empathize with the truth in your slice as I felt something similar when checking in today with a group of students. There *were* reading wins, to be sure, though balanced by what felt like too many opportunities missed. Those echoes are likely why I also appreciated your husband’s parenthetical encouragement — and not just because sports metaphors are right up my alley!

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  3. Before the break, I challenged my students to read one book and write one blog post. Only 4 of them did it, but that’s still success. I’ve learned that many families do not support reading the way I would or hope that they would. I agree with your husband that you are making strides. Give yourself a break. It’s hard to break the nonreading habit.

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    1. It really is hard, and I know I need to (and will) celebrate the steps we make, but I will admit to worrying that when I get them in grade 10 we’re starting very late. Well, better to get a few a few than none!

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      1. I had forgotten what grade you teach. That does seem late for making them readers. Take heart and listen to Jason Reynolds’ story. He was a very late reader.

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  4. I was born and raised in Northern Washington. Just a stones throw from Canada. Not that close but it sounded cool.

    I remember returning to school under rainy cold skies. Sometimes we’d get snow but no matter what we got it was grey, cold and wet.

    I’m pretty sure my classmates and I would have preferred home schooling until around noon or so. 🙂

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  5. You care so much. Your students are so lucky. I wonder how reading could be incentivized? How can scrolling social media also be a type of reading (depending on the content being consumed)? Has Wattpad ever come up in your class? Keep on keeping on… And keep on sharing the journey with us through your blog. I love reading your posts.

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  6. I hear you! I struggle with this too. How can students who loved to read and read voraciously in my class completely quit outside of it? I always feel like there is more I should do. I have changed some things I do in the classroom to focus more on helping students create reading plans and find access to books (getting them public library cards, sending them home with books over holidays, collecting books through the year that I can give them at the end of the year, etc.). But I think what I’ve really learned is that reading requires community and social support of some kind. Which makes sense when I think about my own reading life. It was never in the classroom that I found that support and community; it was always outside of it. So my community never went away when I switched classes. But when our classrooms are our students’ reading communities, it makes sense that many of them wouldn’t remain consistent, committed readers without that community. We need the support and example and conversations and book recommendations of other readers. The solution, I think, isn’t something we can do as individual teachers but rather a whole institutional change that needs to happen in schools so that every ELA classroom provides that kind of community for students.

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    1. Elisabeth! I forgot to write back to you last week. What a shame – your response has really been food for thought. The idea of reading as a community activity has been powerful for me this week. I’ve been able to reflect more clearly on what has worked this semester, what I can improve to help my students continue to read, and what I need to let go of because it is beyond my individual control. Some ideas I’ve developed include… field trip to the library to get library cards for my students; inviting this semester’s students back to class next semester to share a book they enjoyed or talk about how much they were able to read; encouraging students to write reader’s blurbs to put with their favourite book in the library and re-committing to an earlier idea to invite adults into the classroom to share our reading life in some way. Thanks for helping me start down this reflective path!

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  7. You have made them readers! You have thrived, not failed. Most likely, the students in your class have read more this semester than they have in the past few years, and developed the confidence to continue to nurture the spark you have ignited. You are amazing. And I’m constantly inspired by your commitment, passion, knowledge and drive. Gawd I love you. Lol

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  8. What a great post and a fabulous thread of comments! I’m leaving here with so much: empathy for your sorrow/worry, thoughts about the importance of community in reading/learning, and even a new appreciation for sports metaphors! The linked parenting/teaching article was great as well and I’m going to be thinking more about remembering that I’m “in it for the long game.”
    Perhaps there’s a nature analogy in all this as well—you’ve planted some seeds that are dormant now in the deep, dark Ottawa winter, but you’ve also fertilized them well and no doubt, given some time, some of them will sprout. You may not even see them grow, blossom or even bear fruit, but without you, the cycle might never have started.

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    1. Thanks. I found the comments on this post very helpful. I really came away with lots of ideas and new ways of thinking. Another good reason to keep blogging. And thanks for the nature analogy – should’ve guessed you’d be good for that!

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