It seems like ages ago that we were asked in ‘Methods’ class to think about how to grow readers and writers in our future classrooms and share those thoughts on our blogs. I did think about it. A lot. Most of my list centered on “how not to” instead of “how to.”
- Don’t make kids write about ridiculous topics they don’t care about. (“Would you rather be a squid or a starfish?” writing prompt….I’m looking at you. Everyone wants to be a seahorse because seahorses are awesome!)
- Don’t cover student papers in red ink just because they don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re, or any other easily correctable spelling or grammar issues. (Teachers if you do this regularly to my kids’ papers instead of utilizing mini-lessons, you better be ready for any parent-teacher communications with mistakes to be sent back to school corrected with a red pen.)
- Don’t force students to pick from the two books in the school library that are classified at their reading level. (Guess how many books my kids choose to read at school? … the number rounds down to zero. Guess how many books my kids read at home? … approximately a gazillion. Guess how many of those were at the proper reading level? …. I have no flipping clue and I don’t care. Why should anyone?)
So how do I think teachers can grow readers?
Surround students with books and expect them to read. A lot. Whatever they want. Reading is not an optional activity. Let them keep trying on books until they find some that fit. Don’t make them write reports about those books or devise crazy projects to prove they’ve actually read those books. Ask them about those books. You will know if they are reading.
This is why I am a reader. My Mother surrounded my brother and I with books when we were growing up. It was the only bribe ever offered for good behavior. My Great-Aunt Sis dropped off her retired classroom library at our house and so did my Aunt Marcia. I read all those books, plus the sets of Time-Life non-fiction books my Dad favored and all the trashy romance novels belonging to the woman I babysat for. I talked about those books with whoever else had read them. (Except for the trashy romances with Diane.) I still do.
What about writers?
Expect kids to read a lot and then let them write about things that matter. I have never met a kid without a story to tell. Even my autistic nephew who can’t verbalize those stories to another person has stories he tells to himself while he paces. If you are lucky enough to overhear one, you will find that his stories are full of world building and imagination.
I think about how terrified I was the first time I shared a piece of writing I cared about in a workshop. My eyes never left the page, my hands shook and my voice broke as I read. When I finished the room was silent. And then Ted Kooser told me how engaging the story was and how I should write more. He observed that I wrote with honesty and no fear—as my hands continued to tremble. (Yes, the first writing workshop I went to was led by Ted Kooser. How lucky, and scary, is that?)
For months afterward in the local writing group that formed from that workshop, my hands continued to shake and my eyes were glued to the page when I read my work. Sometimes my friend, Jamie, and I would read each other’s writing out loud for group response, when we knew that we couldn’t get through our own because it was too personal and meaningful. Those in the group responded as readers, with kindness, with excitement, with shared emotion, with help for the story, not with red pens and grammar corrections; and I did the same for them. They wondered about reversing endings and beginnings, adding bits of exposition in between my minimal dialogue and asked for more pages of stories not yet written. They were always thoughtful and almost always right.
I think this is how you grow a writer.