Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the student teacher looking around the classroom in astonishment. 9:30 on a Tuesday morning in mid-November and every one of the students in Grade 9 English was reading a book. Every single one. L had finally caved last week when I plunked a shiny copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes in front of him and walked away as though I didn’t care even the tiniest bit if he opened it. (Reader, I did care. I cared a lot. And I walked away anyway.) Now, for fifteen minutes, the regular rhythm of ocean waves filled the room (thank you YouTube) and we all read.
He commented on it later; I knew he would. A room full of 14-year-olds reading books is, after all, truly an unusual sight, and it was this young teacher’s first day with us. “How did you do that?” he wondered. I almost laughed. Those fifteen minutes are the result of a career’s worth of practice, a lifetime of reading and a lot of support from other people.
My classroom is full of books. A wonky combination of scavenged bookshelves line the back wall, full of novels and nonfiction, poetry and graphic novels, all shelved according to the eclectic organization that more or less mirrors students’ reading tastes. Books have been tossed into class bins, waiting to be picked up the next day. Books lean against the blackboard, begging to be chosen next. They teeter in uneven stacks on flat surfaces around the room, waiting to be reshelved. They linger in desks where they were stashed just in case the reader could sneak in a few extra words before class ended.
Some students enter this room and feel at home; others are less excited. By 9th grade, some people have already abandoned reading. Every year I ask, “When was the last time you read a book cover to cover?” Every year, I hear stories of reading lives gone dormant, reading lives that have never had a chance to grow.
“It’s ok,” I say, “it’s ok. There’s something here for everyone” and I offer books from childhood, books they used to love, books someone once read aloud or books they’ve seen as movies or books full of pictures. I tell them about stories that have made me cry or laugh out loud. I ‘fess up to my serious crush on Jason Reynolds and admit that I have read past my bedtime and that I still can’t read horror novels – then I show them the collection of horror novels that I won’t ever read.
I tell students that I am a scavenger. I frequent little free libraries and I know which public libraries sell books cheap. At garage sales I explain why I need to buy all the books for much less than they are asking. I convince friends to pass along the books their teens are done with. Once, a former student cleaned out her room and brought me all the books she thought other students might like. I even ask on Facebook (because I’m old).
And this year? This year I won a grant from The Book Love Foundation. I applied last Spring, knowing that it was a long shot – so many teachers apply; so few can be funded. When I found out that I had won the grant, I cried, and then I got to work making my list. The books arrived last week – boxes and boxes of them. Books by Indigenous authors and Black authors and Muslim authors and LGBTQ authors; books with characters who wear hijabs or who face monsters or who had a child while they were in school or who found success beyond their dreams. Books about sports and books about travel and books about memories and books about the future. Books you’ve definitely heard of and books I haven’t read yet. (That might have been the students’ favourite part. “Wait. You haven’t read this one? Are you kidding? I’m going to read it before you!”) So. Many. Books. Good books.
We unboxed the books together, and already the Rupi Kaur is tucked next to someone’s bed; two of the Maze Runner series are out; Alice Oseman is circulating; Girl in Pieces has a waiting list; Kwame Alexander went to basketball practice, and Tupac’s poetry may have lured in the one last reading holdout – the lone student who hasn’t really read anything yet. These books honour the students in the classroom. Thanks (at least in part) to the Book Love Foundation, the students know that they are valued and valuable.
As for that student teacher, I don’t think I’ll have to convince him that choice reading is magic. Oh, I’ll I need to let him know that in September we could barely read as a class for five minutes, but he’s seen what happens when people know that they can read what they want, for real. And once I shelve these new books, maybe I can help him start his own classroom library, too.
(FYI – these grants are made possible by donors. If you want to help support classroom libraries, please consider donating here.)