During a recent study of Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More (Burkins and Yaris, 2016), the facilitator encouraged participants to jot notes or sketch on blank bookmarks as reflections of our learning.
Throughout the book, the authors use dance lessons as a metaphor for how learning to read works. As aspiring dancers watch proficient ones with a desire to emulate them, to navigating increasingly challenging choreography, so young readers develop skills along with a desire to read for the sake of it. My chapter was “Independent Reading: Learning to Love to Read,” in which independent reading is compared to a dance recital. Students have practiced and the teacher watches from the wings, not interfering when there are missteps, but “noting ways to fine-tune the their next performance.” The line that struck me most: “Most important, teachers let students read, allowing them the glorious luxury of falling in love with books.”
That got me thinking about my early reading life and the hand that teachers played in it.
In fourth grade, my teacher began the year by reading Charlotte’s Web to the class. Naturally we wept at the death of Charlotte (don’t we all, still?). I was so captivated by the story that I bought a copy at the book fair, to reread it to my heart’s content. This teacher knew what she was doing: she ended the year by reading Old Yeller aloud to outright sobbing from the class. I had to read the book again on my own, to grapple further with Travis’s extraordinary courage and the horror of the decision he had to make after that old yellow dog had saved his life. Old Yeller was outdone only by my own discovery of Where the Red Fern Grows in the school library – I cried every day for weeks after that one. I remain eternally grateful to Mrs. Cooley for hooking me with the power of story.
My fifth-grade teacher suggested that I read the Little House series. I loved Laura so much that I sometimes wore my long brown hair in braids and had my mother make sunbonnets for me (to wear at home, not to school). Laura was real. She wasn’t perfect and she knew it; I admired her backbone and the way she faced challenges. I also loved going back in time, reveling in Laura’s descriptions of the natural world and everyday life long ago. There’s such poignancy in the line “Now is now. It can never be a long time ago” (Little House in the Big Woods). As a child I pondered that line, knowing the story took place over a hundred years in the past – then realized that, in the pages of a book, time is preserved, all that happened is still unfolding, those who are gone still live. In the pages of an engrossing book, at least, now is now. How wise my teacher was, guiding me to books that would make reading part of my everyday life.
I was given lots of opportunity to explore books in the sixth grade. That year I was scouring the school library shelves for titles I hadn’t already read when I encountered an especially intriguing one: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “Sounds interesting,” I thought, taking it from the shelf, never suspecting what a defining life moment this would be. When I opened the cover, the magic poured out and pulled me in; I devoured every one of the Narnia Chronicles with an insatiable hunger. I loved them for the beauty of the setting, for their Britishness, for the author’s gift of turning a phrase and his humor, and most of all, for the hope they contain. I was encouraged to reenact scenes from the book for my classmates: I roped a friend into portraying Jadis while I dressed up as Aslan, complete with mane and tail. It’s the old good vs. evil theme, resurfacing many times throughout one’s academic and life experiences.
The influence and insight of my of my teachers, along with the freedoms they gave me, had much to do with the reader I am, with person I am, today. They provided me the “glorious luxury of falling in love with books” – as you can see in the bookmark above, my tribute to them. I was never much of a real dancer, but metaphorically speaking – as a reader – I dance each day with wild abandon and absolute joy.
Reflect: Who helped you fall in love with reading? Write about this experience – and if these people are still living, write to thank them for their great gift to you. If you teach: How can you better provide “the glorious luxury of falling in love with books” for your students?