Note: This post is a personal reflection with more questions than answers. In no way is this post meant to be used as a way to to argue for lowering expectations for kids when it comes to increasing reading quantity. The research shows us again and again that access to great books and the time to read them in both supported and unsupported ways is what creates reading success. Both of these are also privileges and not something that all kids, still, despite the numerous years of research have access to as Donalyn Miller reminded me of. What this post is meant to highlight and discuss is when we teach kids who have access to books and set incredibly high goals that then destroy their reading experience. That change their reading experience into one that chases only books as a point, a notch, or a number, rather than helps support their development as readers who experience books.
Today our students did a midyear reading goal reflection, a quick check to see whether or not their reading goal for the year should change. A quick check for them to take the pulse of their own reading life. It is always interesting to listen in as kids discover that they are either reading a lot more than they thought or need to step it up a bit to make their challenge goal of reading at least 25 books in 7th grade. For some 25 books is not a big deal, for others it is a mountain that they are steadily climbing, slowly putting one foot in front of the other as they find yet another book to hook them to a readerly life. They know there is no punishment for not meeting their goal. They know it is meant as a motivator for them to increase their reading. It has taken several years and different iterations for us to reach a reading challenge that seems to be successful for nearly all. And today, was a day to check in on that challenge.
As I meander by the students, a girl asks me how I am doing with my reading goal; 105 books? They like to check in now and then to see if I am staying on track, even if it is just to marvel at the goal itself. 105 books?! Who in the world can read that many books? She is trying to keep up with me but she is only at 30. I quickly tell her that one of the things I am also working on is slowing down when I read and yet the look she offers me tells me of her disbelief. After all, if my goal is to slow down then how come I am trying to read so many books?
Today, that look really hit me. I usually shrug it off, it is not the first time a student stares at me in disbelief, but today amidst the slowness of the day it gave me pause. Why is my goal so high? Why am I trying to read so many books? I don’t need to impress anyone. I am not in competition with anyone. Sure I love to recommend books but I am not the only one capable of doing so. What started as 80 books a year five years ago only keeps growing and to what end? Why the need for the high number, when 70 or even 50 would suffice?
And so I sit tonight realizing the danger of my own reading goal. Of setting it as a quantity one rather than one that calls for me to challenge myself. With this goal of 105 chapter books for the school year, I am falling into the same old habits as our students do when we focus on speed versus quality; picking shorter books, skimming texts, forcing myself to read even though my heart is not in it. With the increase in quantity comes a seemingly decrease in enjoyment. Reading is now a task in order to reach my goal, rather than something I do to relax. My to-be-read bookshelf is now work waiting for me to complete rather than adventures beckoning me to join them.
I see this happen with students too who for some reason believe that high quantities of books mean that they are automatically stronger readers. For some of my kids who set goals of hundreds of books in a year who seem to be missing most of what they are reading. Now, don’t get me wrong, research, of course, shows the positive correlation between reading large quantities of texts and being a better reader, but at what point for some kids and even for some adults does it become detrimental rather than good? At what point does the hurried race after too high of a goal in order to impress encourage students to skim read, to skip pages, to develop poor reading habits rather than lose themselves in the experience? Instead of setting a goal that challenges them in a new way? How do we balance the need for students to read more, which many need, but also to read well?
There is a balance, of course, that sometimes gets lost in the school shuffle where kids’ reading lives are made into contests through public book challenge displays, leaderboards, and reading scores. Where it often matters more how much you read versus what you read and what you get out of it. Where students are celebrated for reading quickly, even if they didn’t fully get the chance to actually appreciate what they read. Yes, quantity, and increasing quantity and access to great reading material matters for all of us, but so does slowing down, savoring text, and actually enjoying the experience. This is how we help students become or remain the types of people who cannot wait to read for fun. Where is the balance?
So today as the students did their midyear goals, I changed my own. I don’t want to read 105 books this year. I want to read 80. 80 amazing books that I cannot wait to finish. 80 books that I cannot wait to share. 80 books that allow me to fall back in love with reading and see it for the great gift it is, not for the job it has become. And who knows, perhaps I will read more, but I am allowing myself to slow down. To sit with the books. And I cannot wait.
PS: It is not too late to join the winter book club study for Passionate Readers – it starts this Sunday. Come join the conversation with hundreds of other educators as we try to create reading experiences for all of the kids we have. Also, I am currently planning my summer speaking schedule, see this page for more information if you would like me to help reach your vision for creating a school experience where students are empowered and engaged.