Somewhere along the way, I got lost and I forgot what being a teacher of reading was all about.
Somewhere along the way I decided that I knew what were the best kinds of books for kids and I believed that it was my job to make sure that those were the only books my kids were reading.
Somewhere along the way I started to believe that the books that I was moved by were the only books that my kids would be moved by and that there was only one way to be moved by a book.
Somewhere along the way I began to think that it was okay for me to demand that my students push themselves to read books outside of the genres that they loved, while I stayed hidden comfortably within my own love for realistic fiction.
Somewhere along the way I started to falsely assume that certain books were worthy while books like graphic novels and humorous fiction didn’t count as real reading.
Somewhere along the way I became confused and truly started to believe that books that made my students laugh were not worthy of reading in my classroom. Because how could you possibly think deeply about a book that was funny or fun? And what was the point of reading in school if you weren’t going to think deeply?
Somewhere along the way, I got lost and I forgot that it was my job to help create life long lovers of reading and not just readers who read in the way that I decided reading was supposed to be.
I am so thankful that I realized how very wrong I was. And I am so thankful that I have started to find my way back to what I know.
You see, when I began teaching, I taught first grade. And in my first grade classroom, we laughed our way through books all the time. My classroom library was filled with all kinds of books. Books that could make you cry and also books that could make you laugh. Because at that point, I knew that what mattered most was that I had the right kind of books to hook each of my readers and to help each of my students fall in love with reading. I knew that it was important to have books that spoke to all kinds of readers. I knew that it was important to make sure that my students knew that reading was fun and enjoyable and also hard work, but work that was so so worthwhile.
And then, I started teaching fifth grade. And this is when I began to forget what I knew.
This is when I began to only choose books to read aloud that were serious and led to what I considered to be “deep thinking.” This is when I stopped looking for books that made me laugh and that would make my students laugh. This is when my classroom library began to feel so unbalanced with shelves full of bins of realistic fiction books while my graphic novel bins sat empty. This is when I began to think that books that made you cry had more worth and more value than books that made you laugh. This is when I began to think that preparing my students for junior high was more important than preparing my students for a life full of reading.
And the truth is, that for some kids, this worked. Some kids found plenty of books in our classroom to read. Some kids connected easily with the books that I chose to read out loud. Some kids had easily found a way to stay in love with reading in our classroom. But the truth is also that many kids did not.
Without realizing it, and certainly without meaning to, I was shutting out a whole bunch of readers from the reading community that I was cultivating in my classroom. I was sending the message to kids that I knew better than they did what books were best for them. I was pushing students out of being readers because I told them that what they liked to read had no place in our classroom. I set up our classroom library so that some students looked at it and immediately thought, “There is nothing for me here.” I was saying to my students, without using these words, that what they loved to read most had no worth or value in our learning.
And when I think about that now, it is enough to make me want to cry.
Because that is NOT what I had intended to do. What teacher would ever mean to do that? But that is exactly what I was doing.
So last year, I started to change. I started to even out our classroom library. I spent time in my own reading life pushing myself to read new genres. I made a promise to myself and to my students to read more graphic novels, read more books that were funny, read more fantasy and read more science fiction. And I invited my students to join me. I asked for their help. I let them be the experts in the genres that I didn’t know enough about. I listened to their recommendations. I read the books that they asked me to read. I laughed out loud as we read books that were funny together. I shared with them my struggles and I learned from my students how to get through them.
And slowly, my graphic novel bins began to fill up. And slowly, more books that made people laugh found their way into our classroom library. And slowly, my students taught me that there is all kinds of different thinking that goes on in the minds of readers as they read all kinds of different books. And if I only just was willing to listen to my students, then they were happy to teach me about the different ways that they thought about books. And I learned to see the ways that funny books could open up the minds and imaginations of my students. I learned to see the ways that graphic novels allowed students to feel successful as readers when they never had before. I learned to see that fantasy books required readers to hold on to so many important pieces of information and keep track of incredibly complex plot lines. I learned that no matter what the book was, or what kind of book it was, if a child finished it and loved it, then he or she was so willing to run and pick up another book to read. I learned to see that every single book that was read by every single reader in my room had value. Had worth. Had substance. Had a place in our reading community.
I still have a lot of work to do. I still have a lot of holes to fill in our classroom library. But I do know this. I now feel confident that I will be able to say to every single child who walks through my door this Fall, “I have the perfect book for you in our classroom library.” And if I don’t, then I will do everything that I know how to do in order to find that perfect book and hand it to my student and say to him or her, “I bought this book for our classroom library because I just knew that you would love it.”