“Did you know there was a whole section in the library for nonfiction picture books about sports?”
This was not a question that one of my students asked. This was a question that I, myself, asked as I walked down the hallways of our school carrying an enormous stack of nonfiction picture books all about sports. Specifically about football, baseball and soccer.
I mean, I knew that our school library had lots of books. I knew that we had an amazing nonfiction section of our library. I knew that there must be books about sports in there, but a whole section? Who knew? Certainly not me. And how I came to find out is a story that starts with one of my students.
This year there is a boy in my classroom who is a self professed reading hater. He hates to read he tells me in our first few minutes together this year. His actions in class so far certainly seem to back up that statement. He spends much of his time with me watching the clock. He is a really good-hearted, sweet, energetic and fun kid. I love him very much. And he spends most minutes in my classroom wishing that he was anywhere else but here. During independent reading, he finds loads of things to do besides read. He takes multiple trips to the bathroom. He visits the drinking fountain. He finds things that he needs in his locker. He sits and bounces on our exercise ball chairs. He sits and does nothing. But he certainly isn’t reading.
In the first days of the school year, I tried to push several different books on him. He did read a few graphic novels. He did read The Crossover (who wouldn’t read The Crossover?) But still. He wasn’t making that switch that I see so many other kids make when they are exposed to the choice to read WHATEVER kind of books they want. He still wasn’t becoming a reader.
And then one day.
One day, I was writing down some observations of what my students seemed to be doing during independent reading. In these early days of workshop my conferring is still not my primary focus during independent reading because I am spending lots of time observing and supporting my students simply in adopting the habits of reading. I noticed that this one particular student was reading. After two more minutes, he was still reading. I wrote that down because until this day, I had not seen that kind of sustained reading from him. After ten minutes he was still reading. After fifteen minutes he was still reading. This. Was a big deal.
I had to find out what he was reading.
When I walked over, I saw he was reading a book about football. So I sat down next to him and I said, “I couldn’t help but notice that you haven’t looked up from your book for fifteen minutes! It looks like you have found a book you really love. Tell me about what you are reading.” After a few moments of conversation, I said to him, “Wait a minute. So do you mean that you actually really enjoy reading nonfiction books about sports?” And he told me that he did. He told me that he really enjoyed reading books about football, baseball and soccer. It turns out that all this time he WAS a reader.
What I quickly realized was that it wasn’t that my student wasn’t a reader. It was that I did not have the kind of books that he needed in order to be able to show me that he was a reader. I did not have a SINGLE nonfiction book about sports in my classroom. I had several bins filled with FICTION books about sports. But that is not what he was interested in. That was not where he was.
Now, several years ago I would have probably told him that those were great books to read at home, but that he needed to find a longer chapter book to read here in the classroom. Several years ago, I would have forced him to choose a novel in addition to his nonfiction sports books. Several years ago, I would have let him read his sports books one day and then demanded that he read something that “gave him more opportunities to think” the next day. Several years ago, I would have failed this reader.
I would have sent the message that the kind of reader that he happens to be is not good enough for this classroom. I would have sent the message that there was not space in our reading community for the reader that he is. I would have sent the message that the reading that he loves is not “real” reading. I would have done so much harm because I would not have been willing to meet this student where he is. I would have made this about a problem with this student instead of about a problem with my own classroom library.
Luckily. Luckily I know better now. Luckily, I have read the words of Donalyn Miller in The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. Luckily, I have read the words of countless others who have written about the power of choice in reading. Luckily, this year, I did things differently than I would have done several years ago.
I headed up to our incredible school library. To visit our incredible school librarian. And I told her what we needed. I left the library that morning with a whole stack of incredible nonfiction picture books. And there is now a bin in my classroom, created specifically with this one child in mind, where he will be able to go and choose books that match the kind of reading that he wants to be doing. I will fill this bin with books from the library for now until I am able to order books of my own to store in there for this reader and for future readers just like him.
Two days ago, a day after I introduced him to the new bin of books, I was helping everyone getting settled in for independent reading. I was writing down some observations when I saw this student get himself set up with his book and then grab the bathroom pass and head out the door. He saw me noticing him and he walked back over to me and his exact words were, “Don’t worry Mrs. Lifshitz. I am not trying to avoid reading today. I actually WANT to read that book. I just have to go to the bathroom first!” And then he went to the bathroom and came right back and started reading.
The thing is, I DON’T want this reader to ONLY read nonfiction books about sports. I want him to read so many other things. I want him to try a novel and I want him to try nonfiction books about other topics. I want him to be moved by the power of reading a story. I want him to learn about the lives of other people through a book. I want him to see himself reflected in the pages of a book. I want so much for him as a reader.
And I also know that he will NEVER get any of that if he never experiences the power of loving what you are reading. I will never get him to take reading risks if he doesn’t feel a huge amount of success in reading first. I will never be able to gently nudge him outside of his reading comfort zone if he never has a comfort zone to begin with. If he never experiences feeling comfortable at all with what he is reading. I will never be able to create a lifelong reader if I am not willing to meet him where he is and then patiently wait until he is ready to be pushed further.
This much I now know. And so this reader. He has a chance now in my classroom. He has a chance to be seen by his classmates and by me as a reader so that, maybe, he will start to see himself as a reader too.