Before school starts, my school, Oregon Middle School, does two days of locker drop off giving students a chance to bring their supplies in, try their new lock, and even poke around the building. My first year there, I was at work in my classroom on the first day of this event. The books were all meticulously displayed. Brand new picture books lined our whiteboards. The bean bags were fluffed and ready. Every bin had a specific book faced out. My reading poster for the summer was up and I could not wait to see the reaction of my incoming students. Surely, they would be excited when they saw all of the books waiting for them.
A mother followed by her son came into the room and introduced themselves. He was one of my future students and so I eagerly shook his hand and asked him if he liked to read. As soon as the words left my mouth, his facial expression changed to one of pure disgust. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I don’t read… thanks.” As if I had offered him a particularly disgusting food item. His mother looked at me and then added, “Yeah, he has not read much the last few years, we are not quite sure what to do.” I plastered a big smile on my face and told her we would work on it together. He did not seem impressed by my eagerness and asked if they could go now.
I left that day wondering once again why I had moved from the incredible oasis that is 5th grade to this new reality of 7th. What on Earth had possessed me to think that I had any chance in reaching 7th graders? That I knew anything about getting 12 year olds to read. There were days my first year that I cried. Feeling so lost in my mission to make kids like school again. There were days where I felt like I failed, that every thing I did made little difference and that surely one of these days those kids I taught would call me out as the fraud that I felt like. But they didn’t. Instead, they seemed to rally around me, around us, as we figured out how to make English a better class for them. As we figured out who we were together, who they were as individuals and how their new identities could involve being readers. I felt the urgency every day to make school better, as do so many of my colleagues, to make reading something worth doing, worth falling in love with. I still do. Even if kids still tell me that they don’t do reading, and good luck convincing them otherwise.
At the end of my first year, I had not changed that boy and his dislike of reading. There was no grand transformation or success story where all of a sudden he read every single night. That is not teaching. Teaching would be so much easier if we could see the influence that the learning may have on a child, but most of the time we don’t. So we can’t expect miracles every day, even if we hope for them, even if we work for them. Because if we do, we will only see ourselves as failures. As though we cannot teach well. Instead, we must hope for small changes that will someday lead to a big transformation.
That boy, he read, once in awhile. He abandoned books, still. He had a million excuses for why he did not have a book that day, but not always. So at the end of the year when he stopped me in the hallway, I would never have guessed the reason why. “Hey, Mrs. Ripp…have you read Gym Candy? It’s kind of mature but I really like it. The librarian found it for me. You should read it.” I stood there not quite believing what my ears had just heard. He recommended a book to me. Not because I asked him to. Not because we were in class. But because within the year we were finishing up he discovered that perhaps he could be a reader after all. That perhaps there were books for him.
So whenever a child tells me they do not read. That books are not for them. That they hate reading, I always think of the little change that perhaps I can help inspire. Of the small steps we can take together. Of how we may not see the transformation but that if we make loving reading an urgent endeavor then perhaps we are planting a seed. And one day, maybe years later, that child will not feel like they have to say “I don’t read…thanks” but will instead bring a book with them wherever they go because they cannot imagine not doing so.
If you are wondering why there seems to be a common thread to so many of my posts as of late, it is because I am working on two separate literacy books. While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher. Those books will be published in 2017 hopefully, so until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.