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Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Power of Choice in Reading… and how these books (and my mom) taught me that power.



I am not an expert at many things (besides drinking Starbucks iced coffee), but I am an avid researcher, in that, if someone questions what I am doing, I try to have multiple pieces of research to back it up. I am getting my masters in K-12 literacy and have been researching more and more and this is where the thoughts for this post came to light.

I also post a ton of pictures on my Instagram... A lot of these pictures are pictures of my classroom library, books I've purchased for the classroom, and books my students are reading. As I've made the transition to 7th and 8th from 5th to 6th, my classroom library has also transformed in what it contains.

Because of this I am getting more and more of the following questions and statements

"Is that book appropriate for ___ grade?"

What do you think of _____ for the grade I teach?

"As a parent, I would never want my child reading that book!"
(I'd like to point out, that in order to have this thought about a book, you would have had to read the book yourself... meaning you got to make your own decisions and form your own opinions on the books without anyone telling you what to think or not to think).

I understand that there will always be parents who are conservative and will question everyone's decisions, but if anything, I just makes me feel bad for kids who won't be exposed to some possibly life-changing books, simply because of censorship. 

The true purpose of this post is really more personal than even research or professional based, and talks about why I view reading the way that I do. (Even though, by being a reader myself, I realize now that what I did to become a reader is based on best practice on research anyway).

My philosophy was developed and strengthened after reading, "Reading in the Wild," but my life growing up just all came to a head at that point. It wasn't like I had never been a reader, or didn't have the views as discussed and researched in the book. It was really like they all finally made sense and that I had a strong research base to back it up. 

Anyway, growing up I was a reader.

I went through ebs and flows. I read a lot in elementary, would read when I had time in middle and high school, then went through massive slumps in college, and picked it back up again as an adult; reading all types of books: kid-lit, young adult, and adult novels. 

I attended a private Christian school (who would have thought right?) in grades K-5 before going to public school. Before I tell this story, let me preface and say I LOVED this school, and my 3rd and 4th grade teacher is still my favorite…. BUT that doesn't mean I haven't become thoughtful about my time there, now that I am a teacher. This is where anecdote one comes in:

In grades 3rd, 4th, and 5th my teachers all read aloud Hatchet. 

First of all, I wish they had a picked a different book each year (I'm not sure why this was the choice-especially when I tell you the next part). Based on this alone, I wasn't really exposed to that much literature in actual elementary school. We were kind of censored because of the Christian values (thank God for my mom- but I will get to that). 

But here's the super crazy part. During my first year of teaching, I read Hatchet with a book club. I thought I knew it like the back of my hand, but there were all these parts in the book (the flashbacks) of Brian's mom having an affair. 

UMMMMMM what?! That wasn't in there when we read it!? I then started to legitimately have these flashbacks to third and fourth grade of my teacher having all these sticky notes in the book that she would move around all the time! You guys…. they were skipping all the parts about the affair!

To this day, I still question why they didn't just pick a different read aloud, but whatever. 

The point here is: Kids aren't stupid. In fact, they are smarter than us on most days.

I think about how some of my classmates had divorced parents and wonder how those parts could have been really beneficial for them in sorting through their own thoughts and feelings (which it has, for some of my students, because they connect to Brian and his thoughts). 

If anything, I learned that this "censorship" made me kind of question my whole elementary education, as opposed to valuing the decisions made. 

Just think about what happens when someone finally allows kids access to a book you wouldn't allow access to, or they realize the truth. They don't value your decision. They tend to question your authenticity and motives and why you think you know better… because honestly, we don't know better.

I would also like to say that I think my teachers at this school made these decisions because of the school's philosophy and core values of religion... but we also walked to the public library every single week to check out books, and not once do I remember these same teachers putting "limits" on what we checked out. I think it shows, you can be respectful of "choices" made my others, but still not keep books out of kids' hands when it all comes down to it.

I just wish I had thought to read Hatchet on my own back then ;). 

Okay…. second anecdote. 

I have the best mom in the whole world.

Sometimes she's scary :).

But in general, she had high expectations for us as kids, and despite how truly good of a kid I was, she almost always took the teacher's side first, usually gave consequences, and never really backed down. Basically she was a really good parent.

She also was the one who sent us to that private Christian school. She never talked bad about it. She never questioned the teachers' motives. But she continued to "let" us read whatever we wanted. I put "let" in quotations, because I don't think she thought too hard about it. She just let us read and knew that we had good teachers too.

My dad is great too, and I will get to that in a second. 

Here's another thing: 

My mom is one of the biggest readers I know, but not once in the history of my life, did my mom ever give me a book and tell me to read it. Also, not once in the history of my life, did I pick out a book and my mother say, "I don't think you should read that," or, "That isn't appropriate for you," or, "Pick something else." 

In sixth grade, when I was already what we would consider a "strong reader," I was devouring A Series of Unfortunate Events, which now, I guess, would be considered, "too easy." I went through a pretty serious Archie comics obsession in 7th grade…. and you guys… when I was in 8th grade, I was picking up Jodi Picoult (an adult author that I still read to this day) books and my mom went from picking up Archie comics at Safeway, to buying us (my 7th grade sister and I) Jodi Picoult novels when she came across them. All of this in a matter of about two years. 

On a similar note, she never told Mariah (my younger sister by about 13 months) to "wait" until she was older, to read the books I was reading. Mariah didn't really get into Archie as much, but we are both still devotees of the Jodi Picoult fan club. We tended to read the same stuff at the same time and to this day we still recommend books to each other. Just think if my mom had censored her, just because she was younger?!

Years later, my other sister Mackenzie (who's three years younger than me) ended up reading these same Jodi Picoult books. Some she read in high school, and some as an adult. Again, though, Mackenzie picked them up when they began to interest her. No sooner. No later. 

During this same time, my dad, an avid car and hunting magazine reader, and also newspaper reader, would read the comics in the newspaper, and then save them for me because I liked to read those too. My brother, who is actually a freshman in high school now, is a pretty big fan of hunting and car magazines too. Again, dad doesn't make him read them. Nico just does, because they are interesting to him.

The point here being: my dad doesn't read as many books per se (though he does love a good John Wooden basketball book when he sees one) but I still saw and valued him as a reader. He just reads in a different way.

My interests back then came from all over. 

I just read what naturally caught my eye or interest. My siblings did/do too. My parents did/do too.

You know, like real readers do. 

You want to know something? 

We ALL turned out just fine. We read A LOT. Some of us more than others. Sometimes it depends on the time in our lives or what we are into. My sisters and I did well in college, but also each struggled in some classes in college (like most people). I still read Archie (so does my dad). My sisters and I still read Jodi Picoult.  My mom doesn't read Jodi Picoult (and we don't make her). In fact, my mom, has very different tastes in books than my sisters and I, and often times when she tells us she hates a book, we all read it and tend to love it :).

I buy comics, picture books, kid-lit, young adult, and adult novels, and I don't even flinch. 

Sometimes, as a teacher, my brain feels like it's about to explode with all the stuff we think about when we are working on getting books into kids' hands so they become readers, because it was just never really a "thought" to me. I just read books and then became a reader. 

I didn't have a formula, or checklist, or a "Just Right Book" chart, or a reading level print-out, or an AR point system guide (ugh!) to help me. 

To this day, the only two pieces of literature I truly despise are Lord of the Flies and Romeo and Juliet, because I was FORCED to read them in high school. As a reader, and as a teacher, I can see how choice plays such a vital role (simply based on the only two "books" I despise). The choice was taken away, and I was quite resentful. 

And, now as a teacher, I can't even fathom the stuff my mother would have said if we had done Accelerated Reader, choice charts, censorship, and continual required novels back then. I think her eyes would have rolled back in her head. 

But this brings another thing to light: my mom is not a teacher. She's actually a banker. 

She hasn't spent her life researching ways to get kids into reading, or how to find just right books for kids, or even "best-practice" for creating life-long readers (even though she naturally did it). She was just a reader. My grandma (her mom) is also a reader. My mom tells me stories of how grandma would read those cheesy romance novels with the super buff guys on the covers :) and how mom would ask to read one. You know what? Grandma didn't say, "no" to my middle school mother either.

A lot of times, I see people comment on how it's different for a parent versus a teacher, but I would like to say  (excuse the phrase): That's BS. 

I was in a private Christian school for six years of my life, and also the daughter of a practicing Catholic (dad), but my parent's never came up with that as a reason to censor my reading and "protect me." I also NEVER read a book and thought, "Oh my God! My mom shouldn't have let me read this!" or, "My mom would be so mad if she knew I read this!" First of all, she just let me read. Second, readers are pretty good about just picking up books that look good, sound good, or feel good.

I mean, as an adult, I have read books, that I have been so mentally unprepared for, in the sense that I just didn't see some stuff coming, or realize that was where the book was headed. But isn't that the joy (and pain/heartbreak) of reading? The fact that a book can knock the wind out of you, no matter how old you are.

Half my reading time in elementary school was spent reading the Bible, and half my time was spent reading Archie comics. Half my time in middle school was spent reading adult novels and newspaper comics… because that's what I wanted to read. And I was just fine. In fact, I was a pretty well-rounded kid who, most importantly, liked to read pretty much anything.

Our kids and students live in a world that has all the things that are discussed in books. That's probably what gets them interested in the books in the first place. 

I hope for parents and teachers alike, we can understand that, if a child picks up a book and is actually reading it (despite its content) then that's what they should be reading. If it doesn't answer questions, or connect to them, or interest them, or is too difficult for them to understand, then they will stop reading it (or it will just totally go over their head). 

If nothing else, I hope we can always remember that: Readers are made through choice. 

Even if that choice has a very buff and long-haired man on the cover ;). 

Happy reading friends!

Martina