the vulnerable art of reading

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Today’s Morning Pages prompt is brought to you by Ana and Holly. They’ve asked us to think about the role of reading, not only in the ELA classroom, but also in our personal lives.

I’m always a little amazed when I hear my students–most of whom are studying to be English teachers–say they HATE to read. (You can literally hear the sense of loathing dripping from their voices.) Being the weirdo kid who always had 4 little Scholastic book order paperbacks stacked neatly on the corner of my desk, I don’t get it…when it comes to reading for pleasure, that is. When I was 9, I was so panicked that reading material wouldn’t be readily available, these were my insurance books. I’d race through my story problems and reading worksheets every day so that I could get to the real stories–the books I’d chosen for myself to read. Even now, anxiety sets in the moment I finish a book if another one isn’t readily available. (Just thinking about it right now is making my palms sweat. In this case, I consider it a lovely problem.)

So it was a surprise to me as a reader to feel an aversion to reading setting in almost the minute I signed on to be an English major. This was promptly followed by an existential crisis. What was happening to me? What was I doing with my life? How could I teach students to read if I was losing the lifelong love myself? Was this some terrible, irreversible allergic reaction?

Right now, I’m reading the powerful little book called The Vulnerable Teacher by Ken Macrorie, which is sadly out-of-print. According to Macrorie, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my allergic reaction as a student. He refers to any assigned book as a “little prison” and is horrified to recognize that an English professor, he had become an unwitting warden.

Happily, my allergy to reading disappeared when I graduated from college, but it was only latent, returning with every subsequent degree I pursued. Even when the book was one I would have willingly devoured if I’d picked it up on my own, it turned into a bread-and-water ration once I was assigned to read it.

What’s this all about?  What makes assigned reading a grudging task? What can we as English teachers (and future prison wardens) do to avoid prompting an existential crisis and slamming the jailhouse door on what can otherwise be one of the most enriching pleasures all of us share, or we wouldn’t have gotten ourselves into this business in the first place?

Morning Pages time is up right now, and even though I have more thoughts and some solutions that have been successful more or less in my own classroom, I’ll stop here to hear what my students have to say. After the discussion, I’ll make a list of their ideas in the comments section below this post.


One thought on “the vulnerable art of reading

  1. blogessor says:

    Our post Morning-pages discussion was rich indeed! Students had lots of thoughts. Among these were:

    * imagining the “ladder” of reading, that is, helping students find the appropriate rung of difficulty represented by a particular text, one that feels manageable and that will eventually motivate them to move on up to the next rung.

    * recommending books to individual students that you suspect they’d like. This tiny act can demonstrate that a teacher cares enough about you to consider your interests.

    * being so passionate about the book you’re teaching that students can’t help but excited, too

    * thinking of imaginative ways to help students relate to the books they’re reading, such as designing projects that require them to immerse themselves in the era (e.g., turning your classroom into a “gin joint” when reading the Great Gatsby, with the “gin” being water, of course)

    * organizing books around themes students will find relevant and finding contemporary texts, especially digital and multimedia texts, that relate to those themes

    * recognizing that texts aren’t just print-based! Films, advertisements, songs, tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media, etc., can also be “read” and interpreted.

    * providing time to actually read in class, such as DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) time. We also realized that some students will need support in using this time wisely if they aren’t already independent readers.

    * setting up your own classroom library and stocking it with books you think your students would love

    * letting students be the “book pushers” by creating ads, book talks, book trailers, etc., and sharing them with their peers in class

    * at least some of the time, allowing students to choose what they’re reading. One way to do this is to provide opportunities for “managed choice,” as Richard Allington calls it. Managed choice is the idea of letting kids choose from a *menu* of books that you’ve compiled. This strategy can be especially effective with kids who don’t see themselves as readers and can become overwhelmed when the choices are unlimited or undefined.

    * developing structures like book clubs that allow for choice and emphasize the social interaction involved in reading. I shared a teacher magic trick, which is asking students for their top 3 choices from a list of 6 or so that you provide, then forming their book clubs accordingly. This trick hasn’t failed me yet in that students inevitably get one of their choices. It provides them with the satisfaction that their needs have been considered and has the added benefit of allowing teachers to consider other factors, such as social dynamics among students, as they form book clubs that will (hopefully) work well together.

    I’ve written a couple of books about using book club clubs in the secondary ELA classroom. The Book Club Companion ( has tons of strategies that are appropriate for use with any book, and Tough Talk, Tough Texts ( focuses more specifically on books focused on culturally sensitive topics that even adults have difficulty discussing without coming to blows or clamming up. I hope you’ll check them out!

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