Reading for Joy

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When did you begin to love reading? Was it a specific book? A specific person? What's behind your book lust? Now: how can we create that same love in every student? To repeat what I wrote yesterday: if we bring up kids who can read but choose not to, we'll have wasted our (and their) time.

To succeed at this — bringing kids to experience daily the joy of reading — we'll want to compile a long list of strategies, and pursue them all.

Some of the ideas on this blog are wacky, or at least sit on a WACKY—BUTTONED-DOWN spectrum. I like being wacky. Most of these ideas, though, are securely in the 'buttoned down' region: they're practices being done at good schools around the world.

These ideas are also crazy-incomplete. We're in need of more — please post your suggestions in the comments!

1. Fill the school with good books!

A surprising number of children's books are garbage. That sounds unfair, but: it's true. Such, at least, is my experience these five years (my son will be five in November) rustling through libraries and book stores. And kids aren't fooled: they won't pay attention to the dull ones.

Good books make kids rapt; bad ones make kids bored. Bizarrely, adults seem sometimes to be incapable of recognizing which are which. I've watched librarians and teachers read aloud truly insufferable books — stories where nothing much happens and no one much cares — and then be shocked (shocked!) that the kids are acting so squirrelly.

Good books grab listeners. 

And there are so, so many of these: stories and poems and picture books and reference books and novels. A college professor of mine pointed out that this is one of the under-appreciated joys of adult life: that there are more excellent children's books than anyone could read while still children.

Obviously, people will disagree about which books are good, and which are bad. No surprises there! We shouldn't frivol away our time looking for unanimity. Our rule, instead, should be this: We won't let any books stay in our school that aren't actively loved.

That way, our school will be stuffed full of books that teachers and students love. Reading can be about sharing loves.

2. Share beloved books!

I envision our faculty and students sharing their favorites — giving (very short) presentations on why they love certain books, and helping entice others to try them out. The presentations could be in the format of "You might love this book if…"

Everyone would participate — the secretaries and janitors included!

Then we could set the month's recommended books on a special bookshelf, along with a note of who recommended it, and why. This way, reading could sometimes be less a solitary act than a shared one. Books can be a way of connecting to the people around you.

3. Read aloud!

We need to show that people love to read, and the easiest way to do that is to actually show people loving reading.

We'll want to read aloud selections from wonderful books daily. Sometimes the goal can be to focus an entire class around an entire story — the teacher could read the whole of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (in one day) or Where the Red Fern Grows (over many days).

Other times, the goal can be to entice students to read different books — the teacher could read aloud the first quarter of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hatches the Egg or the first chapter of Lemon Snicket's The Bad Beginning.

Obviously, reading aloud isn't some revolutionary new tactic. People have been hearing stories for hundreds of thousands of years longer than they've been reading them! As a school that takes human nature seriously, we might capitalize on that. Loving to hear stories (and love to tell them) is natural, deeply embedded in the human brain. We can build from that, inculcating a love of books and reading, long before students are actually able to decode the (evolutionarily novel) squiggles in front of them.

(Note: this point is made to great excellence by Jim Trelease in his classic The Read-Aloud Handbook, which our school will be making good use of!)

4. Give kids time for personal reading.

Many schools have periods of individualized reading — variously dubbed SSR (silent, sustained reading), DEAR (drop everything and read!), and so on. This is a wonderful thing. We'll do it, too.

I wonder — and this might be a silly idea — if it'd be worth the effort to have the entire school coordinate its DEAR time. Would it proclaim our community's book lust if, for 15 minutes, our entire school was silent, with everyone (students, teachers, janitors, administrators…) reading to themselves?

Let me know your thoughts on this.

Additionally, we're planning to have very, very minimal homework each night in the grade school years — with an exception made for an hour of daily reading. More on this in a later post!

5. Make physically comfortable reading spaces.

Human bodies weren't designed to sit in desks. Any school that aims to be "a school for humans" needs to mull over this pretty deeply, and we will be — more on that later.

For the present: sometimes, straight-back chairs are perfect for reading, and sometimes they're terrible. Our classrooms should have many options for reading: sofas and soft rugs and exercise balls and stand-up tables and lofted beds.

Similarly, our classrooms should have options for lighting: bright light and soft light. And perhaps for sound: silence, and white noise, and soft instrumental music.


Those, anyhow, are the ideas I can come up with. I know I'm only shaving the top of the proverbial iceberg.

Fellow teachers, parents, and educational geeks — what ideas have you seen work? 

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA