When students tell me they hate reading, I no longer react in shock or dismay as I did at the beginning of my teaching career. During my years of teaching middle and high school English, I have heard this sentiment repeatedly from low-income and minority New York City students. I sense that many struggling students are traumatized by the idea of reading. While their lack of skills may have diverse explanations, this resistance is a defense mechanism developed over the course of their academic lives. Reading terrifies them. I’d also be terrified of books if I were a fifteen-year-old who could only read at a third or fourth grade level. For a bibliophile like me, the idea that books can inspire fear and dread, rather than excitement and wonder, is heart-breaking.
As the cultural critic Henry Giroux has noted, students’ resistance to learning is one of the few displays of power that they can claim in the classroom—they can simply shut down, withdraw, and resist. As a response to this resistance, I work assiduously to create a strong culture of reading and writing in my classroom that is respectful of all skills and abilities. I try to make reading as appealing as possible. On the wall outside my classroom door I keep a poster with the title and author of the book I am currently reading. Upon entering, students find themselves surrounded by books arranged attractively all around the room by genre and for easy access. I have made it a point throughout my career to amass a classroom library that gives me and my students’ pleasure. It is important to have high interest young adult books that will lure students into reading. I have also made it my mission to know what books are in the library, to read as many of them as I can, and learn my students’ reading levels and interests so I can suggest books they can dive into.
Knowing that this is probably the only time they can or will read for an extended period, I set up daily non-negotiable reading time in class. What I never do is tell a student they are at a particular reading level and can only read books at that level. This is the surest way to turn students off to reading even more than they already are. No teenager wants to be seen reading elementary school level books. It is also okay to let a student struggle with a book, especially if it is one that everyone else is reading. I make sure I support that student in a variety of ways during this process.
One surefire way to hook students into reading is by reading aloud to them. I have yet to encounter a student who doesn’t like being read to. My best teaching experiences have been reading aloud books like The Outsiders, Animal Farm, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sold, Black and White, Seedfolks, Twelve Angry Men, and many others. The discussions generated are always insightful, the writing in response to the books is inspired, and the skills taught while I read and stop to think aloud and share my thoughts are what students take to their own independent reading experience.
Another way I teach a love of reading is to read alongside my students for part of the reading time. I make no bones about my own passion for reading. My students realize at the beginning of the school year that independent reading time is sacred. They learn to value this time and to behave in ways that do not interrupt the reading experience. I also maintain a reading notebook, just like I ask my students to. The notebook is a place to keep track of the reading experience and where the reader can make her/his work visible. The reading notebook, my own and individual students’, can be used to teach quick lessons. For example, one of the first reading lessons I teach is that “Reading is thinking” followed by “Readers read with their minds turned on.” In my notebook, I keep track of the thinking I am doing as I read and share that with students.
I used to assign reading homework but realized that many of my students’ lives outside of school are not conducive to accomplishing this work: some students work after school; others go home to take care of siblings and may not have a quiet place to read; or more depressingly, home is a place where reading is not valued. Instead, I require kids to always have a book with them so they are ready to read whenever the opportunity arises—on the train to and from school, during lunch, at the library afterschool, or whenever they have a substitute teacher. Soon they are sharing books with one another, making recommendations, and seeing progress in their own reading lives. I post charts in the classroom to keep track of books finished, and little by little students begin competing and bragging about the books they are reading. It thrills me when a student arrives to class and proudly announces, “Miss, I finished my book!” or “I was so into my book this morning, I missed my subway stop.” Unfortunately, not all of my students become enthusiastic readers at the end of their time with me. Some are too disenfranchised to care anymore; they have given up hope in themselves and in school.
I read somewhere that the Puerto Rican champion boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho, killed last year in a drive-by shooting in Puerto Rico, didn’t learn to read until he was fifteen. Apparently, Camacho lived an unruly life on the streets of El Barrio in Manhattan, which included getting kicked out of one school after another, until a teacher taught him how to read and helped guide him into his future career. There are many like Camacho who are going through the New York City public school system with the most basic of skills. Some will be lucky enough to find a teacher who will help them succeed, some will do it on their own, but many others will not. I am convinced that reading can make a huge difference in the lives of these kids. We just have to break through that resistance and show them the gifts that reading can bring to their lives.