Friday, February 10, 2017

Reading: Do It; Talk about It

Hidden Figures
I just told students two books were dull. What was I thinking? Me, the English teacher, who wants students to devour books! Thursday night I was kicking myself.

By Friday night, two students had add one of those books to their GoodReads “to-read” shelf, and one student had added the other book. No students had shown any interest in the book I thought I might actually be able to interest someone in.

It made me laugh, but it also made me think: Maybe we don’t need to “sell” books to kids as much as have a reading life ourselves and share it with our students. 

Here’s what happened: This week I found myself two weeks into the new quarter, and I hadn’t done any book talks yet. Partly because for the last month I’ve been bogged down in the same two books. Books I want to have read, but, well, I get drowsy actually reading them. So Thursday I scanned my shelf for a book I’ve read fairly recently and haven’t book talked yet. 

The Boys in the Boat
My eyes fell on The Boys in the Boat. I hadn’t expected it to hold my interest the way it did—what did I know or care about the sport of crew and the 1936 Olympics? Yet it drew me into the main character’s story, and the stories of characters who touched his story, and wove together a lot of history that the book made me care about through introducing me to the people who had lived it. 

As opposed to Hidden Figures, which I’d really expected to love—the stories of women, and mostly black women, who while the men were off at World War 2 became the unsung brain-power that drove the research behind NASA’s precursor. Why did it keep putting me to sleep? Maybe because, unlike The Boys in the Boat, it tried to tell the stories of too many people too equally. They didn’t have separate voices. I admired and cheered for them all, but I couldn’t keep them straight. I’m glad it’s been made into a movie: More people will become familiar with those women's stories that way. Maybe more girls will be inspired to follow an interest in math. 

Yes, I wandered all those byways in my book-talk which definitely ran longer than the planned 2-3 minutes. Then before we settled into our independent reading, I briefly showed the students what I’d be reading—Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Really long, old, and dry—but since I live in Okinawa, how can I not have read “the definitive work on Okinawan history”? And I’m really excited that I’m currently on page 411 of 475—gonna finish this weekend!

The next day, giddy with relief that I hadn't killed all interest in Hidden Figures, and also truly curious about how I hadn't, I asked one student why he had added Hidden Figures to his “to-read” list after the negative press I gave it. He said, “If it has anything to do with NASA, I have to read it.” (Glad I know that—I have a couple of other recommendations for him now!)

So that is my tale of the anti-book talk, or “Don’t Worry about Making Students Like Reading—Just Do It and Talk about It.”

Which leads to my last question: What are you reading, and how are you sharing that with students?

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