As we work to cultivate a culture of reading, sometimes it's not enough to just model reading and share your reading...sometimes students need a little more active encouragement to read. A little extra nudge, or a little straight up teaching on why reading is important. Maybe we assume too much--they've always had books held in front of them, but not been told in so many words what, exactly, all the benefits of reading are, or helped to experience those benefits.
My school is encouraging reading in middle and high school by designating 35 minutes every Thursday afternoon as “Drop Everything And Read” (DEAR) time in homerooms. But few values are deeply embedded by proclamation, so in my role as curriculum coordinator, I have become chief modeler, sharer, and encourager. I've provided every 6th-12th grade English teacher, as well as anyone else who wants it, a poster of the excellent infographic “Why Read: 10 Reasons” from Gallagher’s web site. Once a month in staff meetings I am letting teachers experience a reading activity or mini-lesson. It helps us realize the joys of reading, share them as a professional community, and offers homeroom teachers ideas to implement in DEAR if they want. In August, we did our own book pass or “book speed dating” activity. Several teachers walked out with books to read, and several used the activity in DEAR time.
In September, we talked about first lines. I modified one of Kelly Gallagher’s mini-lessons on the first reason, “reading is rewarding,” from his book Reading Reasons. I modeled a couple of my favorite first sentences from—one from a classic novel and one from a contemporary. Then I gave every teacher a book with a relatively interesting first sentence, and we conducted an “amazing first line” tournament bracket—pairs facing off to determine which of their books had the more interesting first line, then pairs of pairs, etc., until we had 3 winners.
I loved circulating among the discussions and hearing things like “This one is more poetic, but this one makes me want to keep reading more,” because the point was less to choose the best lines than to think about what makes a good first line. I made a Google Doc of the 2 I shared and the 3 the group ended up with, and shared it with the group, inviting people to add their own favorites if they wanted. It was, indeed, rewarding to see how many people had first lines of their own they were invested enough to contribute. Here’s the list we came up with:
- It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen)
- Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. (Little Bee, Chris Cleave)
- Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. (Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston)
- There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis)
- If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. (The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket)
- I always get the shakes before a drop. (Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein)
- The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. (The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G.K. Chesterton)
- No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. (A Grief Observed, C.S Lewis)
- Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville)
- I saw Byzantium in a dream, and I knew that I would die there. (Byzantium, Stephen Lawhead)
- Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams)
- All beings begin their lives with hopes and aspirations. (Thrawn, Timothy Zhan)
- Jasnah Kholin pretended to enjoy the party, giving no indication that she intended to have one of the guests killed. (Words of Radiance, Brandon Sanderson)
- Lizzie Hearts, the Princess of Hearts, daughter of the Queen of Hearts, heir to the throne of Wonderland’s Card Castle, captain of the Ever After High Croquet Team, and hedgehog enthusiast, was holding a knife. (Ever After High: A Wonderlandiful World, Shannon Hale)
- My mother named me after a cow’s rear end. (Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin, Liesl Shurtliff)
- Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. (Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell)
- I know I’m not an ordinary 10-year-old kid. (Wonder, R.J. Palacio)
Do you have a favorite first line? Please share it in the comments below. Whether it’s colleagues contributing to a list of favorite first lines or a grandson beseeching, “Gamma, peez weed,” I’m blessed to be part of many communities that model, share, and encourage reading.
P.S. If you want more information on reasons to read, to help encourage yourself or your community to read, here are some places to start:
- Free Voluntary Reading, Stephen Krashen. The title of the chapter is “Eighty-Three Generalizations about Free Voluntary Reading.” It takes 4 pages to list the 83 generalizations, and then another page of 15 guidelines for free voluntary reading. You can view this chapter by going go the Amazon link above, clicking on the book where it says “Look Inside,” and then flipping pages forward to the first chapter.
- “Don’t Underestimate the Power of Pleasure Reading: Literature can teach students empathy, research suggests,” Jeffrey D. Wilhelm and Michael W. Smith, 22 Jan. 2014, Education Week.
- “Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Function: Reading a novel has the power to reshape your brain and improve theory of mind,” Christopher Bergland. 4 Jan. 2014. Psychology Today.
- “10 Benefits of Reading: Why you should read every day.” Lana Winter-Hebert. Lifehack.