I’m reading Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone, and it’s inspiring my pants off, but I’m feeling very frustrated.
In this book, Atwell describes her middle-school English classes, where students spend a majority of their class time just reading books they have selected from her library, and then recommending those books to one another and discussing/writing about their reading experiences. The underlying premises are that “the single activity that consistently correlates with high levels of performance on standardized tests of reading ability…is frequent, voluminous reading,” that “children who choose books are more likely to grow up to become adults who read books,” and that “no child ever grew to be a skilled, passionate, habitual, critical reader via a fat, bland textbook.” If children are given the opportunity, support, and motivation to read for pleasure, Atwell insists, reading skills – and academic success – will follow.
To me, this seems intuitively to be true, and I’m hoping to find more research that shows it empirically to be true. But I have a problem.
Most of my students went through primary and secondary school without being in Nancie Atwell’s “reading zone” workshops, and without receiving any other opportunities to become “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers.” And I’m wondering if it’s too late for them, or if there’s anything I can do to help.
I have fantasies of proposing a research project to my college in which they give me a classroom (my own classroom!), money to start building a library (a library full of inviting, exciting books!) and permission to run some remedial intro courses as “reading zone” workshops. There are all sorts of reasons such a project will never be approved: there are no free spaces where I can set up a “library classroom,” there are “competencies” to be met in 101 courses that can’t be covered by students sitting around reading, and there is no money for books.
But maybe there’s a way for me to start introducing some of these principles into my courses.
For example, I’m revising my Personal Narrative course for the fall, and I’m trying to set it up as a kind of “book club.” We’ll all look at one memoir together – I’m thinking of either Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle or Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone. Then the students will be given a list of 8 or 10 memoir titles and first chapters (I would love some suggestions), asked which three they would most like to read, assigned one of their preferences if possible, and placed in groups according to the book they’ve been assigned. They will be given the task of “selling” their assigned memoir to the rest of the class. For their third and final reading, they can pick any memoir they like from the list and will have to write a comparative analysis of it and their second reading.
Not the same, I know, as sitting in a room full of attractive books and deciding, based entirely on your own taste, ability, and mood-of-the-day, which you’d like to read.
But maybe some of you have suggestions as to how you try to inspire your students to read and to love reading? Maybe you know from experience that young people who don’t care for books can – or cannot? – learn to love them when they’re seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old? Because I have a feeling that everything else I’m trying to teach them would take care of itself, if I could just teach them that.