2020 was a year I didn’t read much. The normal escape and joy I find within the pages slid out of my grasp as the world sent us constant reminders of our its cruelty and our own mortality. Reading was no longer an escape but rather a dreaded task, one more thing to do on an ever growing to-do list. One more thing I was supposed to fit in as my teaching life and outside life shifted on its head and somehow, some way, we were once again just supposed to make it all work.
I was reminded of how far I had slipped from reading as I spoke to one of my students in a private reading conference in December. His honesty was appreciated as he told me he didn’t really read much anymore, that reading wasn’t his thing and had never really been, and now it just seemed kind of pointless. I don’t know what he expected me to say but rather than fall into tropelike patterns exalting the validity of reading, I instead leveled with him and spoke from the heart, “I hear you, reading does feel kind of pointless right now. It feels like a lot of work. Not pleasurable. Not something that pulls and holds my attention. But what if we both make a commitment to read more? What if I start to read as well, so that we can work on it together?” I am not sure if he believed me, or if that promise even held a lot of meaning, but it was what I needed to kick start my own reading life again. After all, I implore my students on a daily or weekly basis to find space in their lives for reading so why not my own?
There are many promises I make my students every year. Deeply rooted ones that aspire to help them feel safe, valued, seen, and heard within our community, within our curriculum, and within our learning. Closely held ones that push me to grow as an educator and to always reflect on what I am doing, to try to do no harm but instead recognize my own shortcomings in order to be better than I was. There are many promises I repeat throughout the year, some small, others major. And yet some of the ones that are nearest to the work we do center themselves within our reading journeys. Promises that I don’t think just my students deserve to have made to them, but all kids really, in order to create learning communities that not just focus on the content we must cover but the human development we get to be a part of it. But sometimes those promises can get lost, pushed off the table as we are faced with yet another set of commitments thrust upon us, forgotten as we swim in our survival modes trying to simply make it through the day and yet, these promises, these rights really are at the center of the transformative literacy experiences students should be a part of, so what may these promises be?
I promise to read. While I am often asked how I find time to read the books my students read, there is no easy answer because I don’t find the time. I make the time, and much like every other person in the world, I don’t have a lot of it. Yet I do know that every day, I can read a few pages. Every week, I can read a chapter book, read some picture books and constantly expand my knowledge of the books available to be placed in the hands of kids and recommended to fellow teachers. I read because I ask my students to read, it is as simple as that.
I promise to stay current in my reading. I remember laughing alongside my niece when we compared our 9th grade English class required reading lists because while we span 22 years in age difference, our lists were nearly identical. In 22 years, no new books had been added, in 22 years nothing had apparently risen to the top of what deserved to be explored by students across many high schools in America. What a loss this is. Because I can tell you that every year, books that will someday be considered a classic text are published, just waiting to be discovered by those of us who choose books. Every year, there are books that will transform the lives of readers, just like many classic texts have done for some. Every year, there are new works that beg us to ponder deeply about the human condition, even at the elementary level. But we cannot know this if we don’t stay current in our own reading. So I pursue the new, not in a dismissal of the old but in the rampant belief that new books deserve to be taught, to be discussed, to be brought into our learning alongside those that have occupied the space for many years.
I promise to read broadly. If my reading life was only for myself, I would never read a sports book, I would never read books about dogs, or mermaids, or a lot of historical fiction. I would focus simply on the texts that I crave and leave it at that but since I know that my students look to me for reading recommendations and ultimately search the collection of books I curate in our classroom to find their next read then I need to ensure that what they encounter shows a broad and inclusive lens of the world. That means setting my own reading desires aside at times and reading wildly in order for my students to have the opportunity to do the same. I need to recommend all sorts of books. I need to know all sorts of books. I need to purchase all sorts of books. And I need to recognize the gaps that may exist within our experiences and whose stories are centered in order to be able to actively work on filling them. It doesn’t matter that I teach a very homogeneous population because the world is not homogenous, so neither should our book collection be.
I promise to remove harmful or outdated books. I am grateful to have access to many people who read with a different lens than I do, that read with a lot more knowledge than I bring, and that share so graciously of their expertise in order for all of us to grow. My promise, therefore, is to listen and to act. If a book that I have in my classroom collection is problematic, even if I didn’t see it at first, then the least I can do is pull it. If a unit is centered too much on the story of only one type of journey, then my promise is to expand it to, to seek out sources that can help me expand the unit or question the unit altogether. In this day and age, there are so many people willing to share their expertise, such as Dr. Deb Reese and Dr. Jean Mendoza, Dr. Laura M. Jimenez, Dr. Kim Parker, Julia E. Torres, Tricia Ebarvia and Lorena Germán of #DisruptTexts and the incredible group of thinkers from We Need Diverse Books founded by Ellen Oh, all we have to do is tune in and listen and to not take it personally when a book we may have loved or grew up with fond memories of, or even one we have recently discovered and loved, is given a critical review. Open up our ears, listen in and do the right thing instead of clinging to our notions of perhaps we can make it work, or maybe it is not so bad after all.
I promise to pre-read. While I used to love discovering a new read aloud alongside my students, I now see the exploration I cut myself out of by not reading it first on my own. I now see the shortsightedness of not sitting down with a book and truly pondering how it would weave into the tapestry of our year together, to truly wonder whether this singular text deserves to be at the center of the work we will do for several weeks. When we don’t pre-read our texts, we may not see the potential hard conversations that we need to prepare for in order to successfully navigate them alongside kids. The extra wrapping we need to provide for the texts, the images and other venues of exploration that should be taught alongside it. Yes, the thrill of a new discovery is something I miss, but I would much rather be fully prepared to unpack a read aloud by pre-reading the text.
I promise to be honest about my reading. I have said before that kids don’t need perfect reading role models, they need us, the flawed ones, that are readers even when we don’t read but that share about the struggles that we sometimes face when it comes to staying connected to reading. My students don’t need to know me as a perfect reader, instead they need to know that I too, sometimes, don’t have the energy, that I too, sometimes, have a hard time finding a book, that my attention wanes, that I get bored, that I get frustrated, that I sometimes binge-watch TV instead of picking up a book even though I know what is better for me. That my reading life ebbs and flows but that the one constant I do have is that I always come back to it. That I still give myself the gift of considering myself as a reader even if I am not actively reading.
I promise to afford my students the same rights that I hold dear as a reader. I have written much, and spoken at length, about the rights of readers. About how our students every year create their rights and it is then my job to honor and protect them. And so those same rights come down to the same promises I make every year to myself as a reader and to my students. I can abandon books, I can choose to not read a book even if everyone tells me to read it, I can choose to speak about books or not, to recommend or not, to forget about a book or not. I can choose freely and widely, and I can get access to books to those where access does not come easy.
It is easy to get lost in our reading when the world tugs at our fingertips, when our piles of work seem insurmountable, when even taking care of ourselves seems like too much work. I know I have gotten lost but only for a little while, the path is still there, we are still readers even if we step off of it. Our students deserve to be in rich literary driven classrooms and curriculum that is not centered around the voice of one, but instead the voice of many. Our students deserve to have their stories told in the pages of our books, and they deserve to see the stories of others unlike them. Not to have their reading journey shaped by only one voice, or only one way, but instead a reflection of the many paths that lead us into reading and keep us there for years to come.
There are many promises to make, the question is, how will we honor them?
I am excited to get to work with other colleagues around the world doing virtual and in-person coaching collaboration, and consulting right now. If your district or organization would like more information, please see this blog post.