It is hard to imagine delving into the teaching world without ever having read the words and advice of some masterful teachers like Nancie Atwell or Penny Kittle and my heart yearns for a first year Do-Over. After only a few chapters of Kittle’s Book Love, I have found several reasons to change the way I have gone about teaching my seventh and eighth grade language arts classes. She is completely right about so many things.
It is easy to skip through grades six through twelve by playing school. Students are very able to pretend they are working and progressing by paying attention to the conversations of others, asking friends, and getting a few tidbits of information from CliffsNotes. They can easily go from fifth or six grade through graduation without ever actually reading what is required from them.
In all honesty, I was one of these kids. I hated assigned reading. What was the point? I could fake my way through a discussion about Fahrenheit 451 or Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, by asking my friends a few questions before class and either regurgitating the comments that others made or simply making up something that seemed logical like, “They realized Huck wasn’t a girl because he couldn’t thread the needle,” I spat forth when discussing how the disguise of Sarah had failed Huck (my teacher thought it was a brilliant observation). I hated that I could get by so easily. I vowed that if I were ever a teacher I would pay attention to my students and understand there was so much missing from many students education. It was my goal not let them pull the wool over my eyes. I read one required book between sixth and twelfth grade, Dalton Trumbo’s book Johnny Got His Gun. If my teacher had not made the link between Metallica’s
“One” and the book, I would have given up after the second chapter. He promised to play the video in class after we finished the book so that we could compare the two.
I planned on going into the Army and I was horrified by the story. I picked my job based on the fact that I wanted to be sure that I would not suffer like Trumbo’s character — armless, legless, and faceless in a foreign country begging for release rather than life — when the recruiter told me that Cavalry Scouts were in front of the military force and had a life expectancy of 36 seconds in a full-scale war, I signed the contract right away. I thought that either I’d be dead for sure, or collected by other soldiers pushing through the battlefield and returned home.
In the Army, I found myself with a lot of free time on radio watch and grabbed Anne Rice’s, Interview with a Vampire from a friend. At the age of eighteen it was the first book I read in three years. Over the next few months I had read all of the Vampire Chronicles. Looking back, I hated that it was so easy to fake my own education.
After discovering reading during my time in the U.S. Army, I wanted to become a teacher. I wanted teach kids how to enjoy learning English, not to hide from it. Then I hit college. I was not at all ready for the amount of reading. I enjoyed reading, but my pace and stamina was no where ready to digest a book every other week in American of British Literature.
Again, Kittle is right we are not preparing our students for life in general, let alone college, if we do not first give them a love of reading that they can develop over time to build stamina. Though I love Jane Austin and Shakespeare now, I would have avoided them like the plague in school I never got hooked on reading enough to explore the depths of either author. Those authors, as great as they are, are not the answer. They are a target to aim our students at while allowing them to read for the love of reading.
We can assess student comprehension through simple conversation, book reports can change from tedious actions to fun defenses of literature and non-fiction. I look forward to reading how Kittle gets her students to share what they have taken from a text.