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The Need to Read (for Fun)

Recently, a dear friend invited me to participate in a book club. Well, it's more like a book date because each time it meets, it's comprised of different women. It's a reason for my friend to meet up with women she doesn't often get to see.

We're reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' new novel, The Water Dancer. The plan is that we'll meet for brunch on a Saturday morning in December to discuss our thoughts and observations around the book.

I'm currently (slowly) making my way through it. Not because I'm not enjoying the book (it is an intense, artistic, provoking read) but because my plate is full. Typically, I read before bed each night - some nights I get in a chapter, other nights I'm just too pooped and I get in only a couple paragraphs before my eyelids start feeling heavy. My reading schedule (the amount I'm reading) has nothing to do with my ability or desire and everything to do with the pace of my life.

And did I mention I'm just reading for fun?

In preparation for this book club, I'm not tracking the minutes I read or writing down any of my observations (although I am marking up the book itself). I'm not answering questions in advance or working toward writing an essay. There are no charts, journals, maps, or cards involved in my reading. I'm doing it because I like the book, the author, my friend, the act, and am excited to share my thoughts. In short, my time reading is nothing like the way kids read for school. And I love it.

Students - particularly secondary kids - are losing the joy of reading because of the artificial, constrained environments in which they are supposed to read. In my heart of hearts, I believe the assessment of reading (while necessary, I get it) is destroying our students' love of reading.

So as educators, what do we do? How do we wrestle back reading for pleasure in and amongst test prep, grading, and instruction?

Now I hear some of you saying, "That's a choice." But is it? Most secondary kiddos start their school day before 8:00 a.m., follow it with some kind of after-school activity or job, and then head home to homework, a job, caring for siblings, managing household dysfunction...I could go on.

Where in that packed day is there 30 minutes for pleasure reading? If they're assigned a book (or even more than one) for school, is it likely that they'll pick up a novel of their own to add to the pile they're expected to read? And notice, please, the books they are reading are assigned - most likely not self-selected. No wonder kids aren't reading for pleasure.

If we want kids to read for pleasure, we're going to have to model it and make space for it in our classrooms. Period.

I know that this sounds crazy - you barely have enough time to cover what's expected without taking class time to just read. But friends, you revolutionary educators, this is a must. There is space in your week to do this for your kids. Here is how I went about it.

When I taught 7th and 8th grades, I recognized that my kids needed time to read, so every Friday became Fun Friday - reading strictly for pleasure. In order to carve out this time, I had to be super efficient with my planning in order to cover what was needed. It started out a little rough, but eventually became much easier.

Each Fun Friday started off with sharing about something I was reading. Though I would always have a novel my students would read, I also included other types of texts - education books, magazine articles, blogs I enjoyed. This informal book talk introduced students to a specific way of choosing or thinking about a book - as something that genuinely interested me. After I went, I invited a couple other kids to share what they were reading. We didn't have a format; I didn't hand out grades; kids didn't track what they were reading or how many pages they read. They just sat down and read.

Over time, I invested in couches, bean bags, and comfy chairs to create actual spaces for reading. I'd also have other kinds of texts available - picture books, newspapers, magazines, comic books, poetry. Honestly, I didn't care what a kid read. I just wanted that kid to find something and engage. Yesterday's sports page? Fine. Tips on how to bag a boyfriend? Great. The point was reading for pleasure - to learn what interests you, to practice the act of reading.

I had the buy-in of my department head, which was so helpful. If you need supportive information to make your case before administration, visit the National Library of New Zealand's site and check out this article. You can also look at The Reading Agency and their research on the subject. Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, co-author of Reading Unbound, shares some great insights on reading for pleasure in an article for Edutopia.

Instruction is important. Skills are important. Learning is important. But we can't be short-sighted and focus solely on grades and scores, undervaluing the important of reading for a lifetime. A balance between long-term and short-term goals for our students is a necessity, one that high-stakes testing continues to threaten.

So fight for your students on this one - give them choices, show them what a love for reading looks like, create space and time for them to engage, and then cheer them on.

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