By Penny Kittle
Guest blogger and Literacy for All speaker
This week, I have been happily immersed in reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. The story follows the residents of Mumbai’s slums as they comb through the city’s trash, hoping for a better life. I am captivated by Boo’s clear, honest storytelling. I see writing lessons as I read, ones I plan to pass on to my students. Exceptional non-fiction reading teaches so much more than content, but I wonder, who will read this book?
When the National Endowment for the Arts published “To Read or Not to Read” in 2007, many were surprised to learn that 49% of seniors in high school read little or nothing for pleasure each week. I know these students. They consider book reading to be passé and too often tell me, “I just don’t like reading.” Unless I can change this, they will continue to live in a book-impoverished world. There are signs of this everywhere. Last month as I went back and forth from my hotel to the IRA conference in Chicago I asked every cab driver what he was currently reading. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Then I met one—a college student studying journalism. He said it took him years to recover from his hatred of reading in middle and high school, but now he reads every day.
Too much is broken in our schools, but so much is still possible. We must meet resistant students each September with a passion for reading. Passion is contagious. I challenge each of my students to craft a reading life of whim, curiosity, and hunger. I expect them to grow as readers, increasing their stamina and the complexity of the books they choose. Sustained, individual attention to the readers in my room is a necessity.
Too many schools bypass pleasure reading in a rush to teach skills. We must have both. This month I’m also reading Deeper Reading by Kelly Gallagher. The book opens with a scene of how Kelly’s young daughters read a baseball game versus the deeper reading that he enjoys, since he has been studying the game for decades. Reading is like baseball, Kelly says, we enjoy it more when we understand the layers of complexity in a text. I agree with him, but I also know that the hours spent watching and enjoying the game made Kelly a student of baseball. It’s love first, and love lasts.
We’ve layered standards and expectations onto overstuffed curriculum in our attempt to make today’s classroom all things for all people. It can be tempting to seek shortcuts and miss what is most important in creating readers or baseball fans: seat time. Students need time to choose books of interest and read without the rush. Students need to deeply imagine and question non-fiction texts or unravel layers of an argument to more deeply understand it. Students need time with books, not with tests that accompany them and constant pressure, but with the ease of two girls at a baseball game beside their dad, wanting to learn more. Somewhere in our race to improve skills, we must remember how crucial is the simple love of books.
Penny Kittle is a classroom teacher in Conway, New Hampshire, and the author of Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. She has just finished writing Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, due out in November 2012.
Penny Kittle is speaking at this year’s Literacy for All Conference in Providence, R.I. on Monday, November 5 and Tuesday, November 6, 2012. Her sessions include:
- Designing Model Teaching Partnerships (a coaching session)
- Book Love: Building Reading Lives That Last (Grades 5–8)
- Lean in and Listen: Conferring with Writers (Grades 2–8)