“….well, I didn’t finish any books last year…”She turns to me and smiles.
“What do you mean?” I ask, not sure I have heard her correctly, after all, I know what amazing work they do in 6th grade.
“….I just stopped reading them, I didn’t finish them. I got bored…”
She puts the book down that she is abandoning and starts to look for a new one.
I love book abandonment. It is something I preach should be a taught skill to all kids, a right even. If you don’t like the book, don’t read it, it’s as simple as that when it comes to building a love of reading. And yet, this year, we have been exposed to a new level of book abandonment. A whole group of kids who never, according to their own recollection, finished a book of their own choosing last year. Not one, not two kids, but many. And they really don’t like reading. And the pandemic shutdown didn’t help their habits in any way.
Perhaps you have a group like this as well?
And it is not for lack of trying. Many of my students will pick up a book to try, some gladly, some more reluctantly, but many simply don’t find that right book. That book that transports them further into the pages than they have ever been. And I see it in my own reading habits that seem to have been altered by the pandemic. My attention span is shortened, my stamina for making it through slower part is nonexistent at times. I look at my own shelves and see more work rather than adventures waiting to happen. Books are no longer calling my name as loudly as my TV or gaming console.
So how do you re-establish, protect or create the joy of reading, when you really need students to experience a whole book from start to finish? When you know that somehow our readers need to stick with a book but you don’t want it to be out of force because that typically doesn’t change habits long-term but instead just cements the pre-existing tenuous relationship to reading?
In conferring with many of my students, the obvious place to start is their book selection process. When I ask them how they find their next read, many of them confess to only doing a few things, mainly look at the cover and then start it. They grab and go, often a new book every day or every couple of days. They go into it thinking that as long as they grab a book then that is all they need to do right now or that is all the have space for right now. And yet, in this hurried book shopping, often with pressure from the teachers in the room giving limited time comes one of our missed opportunities. When book shopping is not given enough time, the conversations that need to happen with our serial book abandoners have no room to take hold and grow. It doesn’t allow them to leisurely browse, to flip through the pages, to consider things like the length of the book, the font, the text size, whether it is a stand alone or a series. They haven’t reflected much on their likes or dislikes and what draws them into stay for longer periods of time. And so when their book shopping results in yet another less than stellar book, it just adds further proof to the notion that all books are boring, that reading sucks.
So reading identity is once again where we start. How well do they know themselves as readers? What do they like to read? What is their reading pace? What do they abandon? Is there a pattern? Are they aware of their own habits at all? Have they had pleasurable reading experiences at any point? If yes, what was it? If no, why not? I start by interviewing them and taking notes, then I also have them reflect on themselves as readers and we track this information. I also check in with them more, how are they doing with the book? How are they liking it? Getting kids to recognize that book selection carries many components starts with a reflection of self and where they are on their journey.
Book selection comes next. What are their book shopping habits? We refer to the lesson we did at the beginning of the year and help them book shop. Who are their book people? How do they find books to read? What are their preferences? What is on their to-be-read list already? How do they browse a book to try it on? Thinking of all of this can help them with their next selection. COVID has added an additional layer of complication to this and so we have been browsing books by me pulling them out and acting as concierge of sorts, spreading opened books out in the room so they can read the blurbs, see the font and text size, helping them glance without touching. Opening up our room to more book discussion and recognizing where everyone is on their journey. Slowing down and making space for all of this may seem like wasted time but it is exactly what needs to happen.
Track their abandonment. While all students are expected to write down finished or abandoned titles, we are finding that many of our serial abandoners do not, so we will help them do that. This is so they can start to see their own patterns; when did they abandon a book, why did they abandon it? How far were they? What type of book was it? What strategies did they use before they abandoned it? They can track this on this form or we can simply discuss when we have our reading conferences, This is only something we will do with these serial abandoners, not students who abandon a book once in a while. What can they discover about themselves as they look at this information? I also know that some of our serial book abandoners are not on our radar yet, so this survey will help us identify them so we can help. We often then set goals together, if they are in a pattern to only give a book 20 pages then how long do they want to try this one. Looking at their own patterns and habits help them discover where they can tweak and try new things.
Teach them stamina strategies. Many of our students give up on books the minute they slow down or “get boring” as they would say. They don’t see the need for slower parts to keep the story going. They also, often, miss the nuances of these “slower” parts and don’t see the importance of them. So a few stamina strategies we will teach are asking why the story is slowing down and paying attention to what they have just figured out about the characters. Another is to skim the “boring” parts for now so they can get back to the story. While this is a not a long-term solution, it does help keep them in the book and hopefully also helps them see that the book does pick up again. They can also switch the way they interact with the text, perhaps they can read these sections aloud, or listen to an audio version for those parts. I have also had kids successfully read two books at the same time, declaring that when one book got boring they simply switched to the other one. This ping-pong between books may seem counterproductive but for some of my most set in their ways abandoners, it changed their reading.
Realize we are in this for the long haul. Too often our gut reaction is to restrict. To select books for the students to read no matter what. To set up rules where they are not allowed to abandon the next book they select or determine how many pages they mus read, and yet, I worry about the longevity of these solutions. What are they really teaching? So instead, we must dedicate the time and patience it takes to truly change these habits. We surround students with incredible books, we book talk recommendations, we give them time to read, and we give them our attention. We continue to let them choose even if we are wondering how developed their abilities to choose the correct book are. Becoming a reader who reads for pleasure, or who at least can get through a book and not hate it, does not always happen quickly. We have to remember this as we try to help students fundamentally change their habits with books. Restricting them in order to help them stick with a book can end up doing more damage than good as students don’t get to experience the incredible satisfaction of having selected a book and then actually finishing it. And so realizing too that we may not see the fruits of the labor we invest into our students’ reading lives come to fruition is also part of the journey we need to be on. Because recognizing that when a child abandons book after book after book is not a weakness but rather an opportunity to study and reflect further on their journey as readers invites us into this work more delicately. It reminds us at the core that we all carry emotions within us when we read or not read and that for many what may seem as an easy decision or a cop out is instead a way to shield themselves from more negative experiences.
I know that this year, I will once again be transformed as a teacher, I already have been. That these kids that I am lucky enough to teach will push me in ways I haven’t been pushed before. My hope, what I really hope happens, is for every child to walk out of room 203 thinking; perhaps reading is not so bad after all. Perhaps there are books in the world for me. A small hope, but a necessary one.
I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help.