I am a reader. I read. All the time. Reading is what made me want to become a teacher.
I wanted to encourage kids to love reading the way that I love reading. How hard could that possibly be? I wondered naively after accepting my first teaching position. I had no training and no classroom experience. I’m sure it won’t surprise any of the graduates listening today that the reality of encouraging my students to give themselves over to books was much more like pulling teeth than I ever could have expected.
Why didn’t my students want to read? Often I heard the lament, “there’s nothing goodhere” (despite the plethora of brand new books in our classroom library) or “this book is boring” (though they had only read the first 5 pages). I would become exasperated.
There were books! The books were good, right? What was wrong with these kids?
The kids were not the problem. The kids are never the problem. What the kids needed was guidance, but guidance was not something that I was prepared to give. I hadn’t read a middle grade book since I was in the middle grades myself. I had this fantasy of being That Reading Teacher, a goal which, it turns out, takes actual effort to accomplish.
I learned this lesson through the expert modeling of my own teachers and mentors at Bank Street:
Lynne Einbender, Susie Thompson Rolander, and Mollie Welsh Kruger. They held children’s literature to the highest standards, shared with us the good and the disappointing, and invited our opinions, our wonderings, and our recommendations. Inspired, I started reading every children’s book I could get my hands on, and then I passed those books on to my students along with genuine reasons why I thought they might enjoy the book I was giving them. And it worked.
The kids read the books. Then they gave the books to their friends. They started to swarm me, asking what I thought they should read next and “did I have a book for them?”
They started to leave me notes on their reading logs that said things like: “I’m sooooo close to being done! Soooo frustrating!!!” and “Shelby, you should really read this book. It’s so good.” I have kids calling me over to their desks during our independent reading times to share favorite lines and leaving books on my desk that they think I might like to borrow. Sometimes it hits me all at once. I did it:
I’m “That Reading Teacher” now. But I wouldn’t have gotten here without “Those Reading Teachers”—the ones who showed me the impact a teacher’s readerly life can have on their students. So to Lynne, Susie, Mollie, and all of my instructors: thank you for a life-changing three years. And to the rest of you graduating today: congratulations, and good luck.