Good Books and Good Reading

Al Boerema prompts the conversation:

The topic for discussion this time is books and reading. Maybe you could write about your own experience of finding time to read, the importance of reading to you, or anything that hits in this area. And if you want to mention some new books that are important to you, add that as well.

On February 6, 2012, Rebecca De Smith starts us off:

Most educators agree that reading is a key skill children must learn. It affects every area of their school life and their adult life in significant ways. For some children and adults, reading is a pleasurable experience, but for others, it is a confusing, difficult, and not something they enjoy.

As a deacon in my church, I visit the elderly regularly. Two ladies I visit, both in their eighties, are lifelong readers; they always have a book at their side. We often discuss what we are reading, and we recommend books to each other. Sometime in their past, they were encouraged to read, were drawn into stories, and made a decision to keep reading, despite the busyness of life. That decision now sustains them, keeping their minds engaged and their imaginations sharp through long afternoons in the nursing home.

As teachers, one goal we often discuss is how to make our students lifelong readers. We should remember that becoming a lifelong reader can take many paths. My personal journey did not begin in a print-rich home, but rather in a two-room country school. Dick and Jane taught me to read, but reading practice came when I had to wait for my teacher to work with students in other grades. My desire to read came from authors like Frances Hodgson Burnett and Louisa May Alcott, who brought me into worlds unlike my own.

As an adult, my desire to read greatly outweighs my time to read. Because teaching demands both my days and my nights, finding time to read can be tricky. Often, I feel the need to read professionally in order to direct my teaching, so during the school year, that is my focus for selecting books. But give me a few days off or a long car ride, and I will read endlessly. Books still take me to places and introduce me to people that are exciting, mystical, and mysterious. They help me understand a part of life or nature I never would explore on my own. Books engage my imagination, show me a new perspective, and teach me how to live into the relationships around me. Books teach me truth, even when I am reading fiction. So I have made a conscious decision to keep reading.

Sharing this love, excitement, and need for reading with my students is an important way to encourage them to embrace reading for a lifetime. As teachers, we must all work toward helping our students see the joy and value reading brings into our lives.

Here are some books that I have read during this past year that have positively affected my teaching:

  • What Great Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things that Matter Most by Todd Whitaker
  • Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn R. Jackson
  • The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

On February 12, 2012, Christian Altena enters the discussion:

Among my favorite times in the classroom are those connected with reading—leading my students deep into a text, uncovering meaning, and making surprising discoveries. I don’t always do it right, but when I do and it clicks, my students are hooked—yes hooked—into close reading of primary texts, of all things! They don’t often take the opportunity to do this outside of the classroom. I sincerely think some of them are surprised to learn of the amount of thought that great writers put into their writing, and accordingly what great effort and time it sometimes takes to read.

Our students have been trained as readers in an age of tweets and status updates, of instant publishing of unprocessed, nearly reptilian responses to everything from the latest blunder of a politician, to something really important like the latest gaffe of a celebrity. We’re reading all the time, but as with our diets, we often don’t read enough of the “broccoli and brussell sprouts” we need to keep a healthy and trim mind.

It is so important to practice these skills and tone our reading minds. It is vital that our students be shown how to sit still in the presence of an idea; an idea that might have the power to change the world, yet is contained so perfectly in the grammar and structure of a sentence, down into clauses and phrases, down even to a single word! (I spend a good part of a class period exploring the meaning of the word “necessary” in the Declaration of Independence.)

Sometimes reading toward an active and healthy mind requires a little shock (or shot) to the system. As often as we can, appropriate to age and circumstance, we need to introduce our students to a challenging read. Of course, that necessitates that we ourselves are seeking out a text that will push us to another level. My wife is a librarian, and in giving a devotional to our faculty, she mentioned that reading (particularly reading difficult and even unsettling books) is beneficial for us as believers because it is a safe way to encounter terrible circumstances and evil people. Some are uncomfortable with this, but I think this has to be true. A writer I came across years ago noted that the only book in a Christian bookstore that reads as if it was not written by a Christian is the Bible.

At the very least, we should all be reminding ourselves continually what an amazing miracle the printed word is. We need to assure our students that wrestling with a text can be hard and sometimes unpleasant, but the rewards will be there for a lifetime.

On February 15, 2012, Mary Ashun joins in:

Sorry for my tardiness. I’ve been reading.  🙂

Seriously though, I’ve found that I’ve not been reading enough. Or is it that I’m not reading enough of what I’m expected to read, such as journals and experimental data? I’ve wondered a lot about that lately especially when I remember how avidly boys read the written word when it’s presented in a series such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians. What about girls? And what about the fixation on vampires and ghouls couched in romantic tales that adorn many a bookstore shelf?

Reading is important, but I wonder how to manage it, considering what some students are picking up to while away their time. In supervising student teachers during the fall 2011 practicum, I was struck by how much time was allocated to language arts in one particular classroom. My student teacher lamented that for the entire six weeks of her practicum, her teacher had not taught one lesson of science; it was all about literacy. There’s something wrong with this, I think. It’s not about the time that’s devoted to it; it should be about the quality of that time. This is where a teacher can design and organize the process so that students are not only taught the semantics, they are given the space to actually enjoy it.

Late last year, I was approached by an ardent group of African teachers, eager to use one of my novels as part of a Readerfest contest. I was thrilled. Students would read the book and take an exam based on the content. What? An exam? But Readerfest was meant to encourage reading; that’s what the blurb said about the competition. I must say I was slightly perturbed, because I thought that introducing an exam into a reading competition was a surefire way to kill interest. Apparently not! They have started visiting schools to share the idea, and students are definitely interested. What this has taught me is that reading for “fun” can take many forms, and can still include some of the rigorous assessments that we daily agonize over.

If you’ve been following my ramblings in earlier issues, you know I’m passionate about literature from around the world. I’m reading a novel now by Lisa See called Shanghai Girls, and it is set in China and America. After that, I’m going to be reading A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova. It has been described as the Russian equivalent of Angela’s Ashes. I just finished reading Chimamanda Adichie’s That Thing Around Your Neck, and each short story had to be followed by a day of “rest” as I pondered its profoundness. Happy reading, everyone!

On February 24, 2012, Tony Kamphuis adds:

Christian mentions “wrestling” with good reading, and I like that metaphor. A good book can catch you off guard, surprise you with what it has to say, maybe even make you feel like you’ve been put in a headlock! I’m not naturally drawn to books directly related to the field of education. Nonetheless, a recent reading of Mel Levine’s A Mind at a Time and the related Schools for All Kinds of Minds by Barringer, Pohlman and Robinson have certainly stirred up a passion in me as a school leader to seek out ways to do a more effective job for all the students God brings into our schools. These two books have twisted my head in new directions, and I think I’m better for it!

Another recent read is Al Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies. Now that’s a great workout! It’s always fun to read a challenging book and come away with the reminder that even difficult concepts can be grasped when unpacked by great minds and good writers. Plus, it is a welcome corrective to some of the popularized attacks on religion in general and Christianity specifically that we’ve had to absorb of late.

I think I’ve mentioned in the past how much I enjoy reading well-written periodicals as well, particularly when they include perspectives and topics with which I don’t normally come into contact. God has certainly created amazingly intelligent people, and there is always more we can learn from others. Maybe that is what I hope we can pass on to our students: that books (in any form—paper or e-books) and reading continue to open up a world of wonders, and if we peek in with a sense of openness and humility, we will stand amazed at what we find.

On February 26, 2012, Bruce Wergeland contributes:

It often seems that the captivation of narrative literature has lost its appeal in my classroom. Besides the constant distractions of the digital world, students are hesitant to open a book and read it from cover to cover. I wonder if they are unwilling to risk their imagination for something that they may consider to be untrue. Our “enlightened” western minds have digested a strong dose of skepticism towards narrated truth, and the literature of our writers—fiction or nonfiction—cannot compete with the prescribed concreteness of television news stories or the explicit and simplistic storylines of Hollywood movies. Books are just filled with “stories.”

Well then, what makes a story true?  Every genre of storytelling, from the stories of the Bible to the adventures of Calvin and Hobbes comics, offers a true perspective of our humanity because a person or event is presented that shares a life experience. The story is incomplete, open-ended, and unfinished; it is messy. The truth of the story is not in the author’s masterful ability to create a plausible plot and a provocative ending, but in the author’s inability to create authentic finality. Perhaps, the indicator of a true story is that it generates more questions than answers because what the reader is given in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters is simply insufficient.

The author of any story is unable to validate every single element in the story (by choice or by circumstance), and this underlying quality of narrative literature is a reflection of our humanity, and not an excuse to dismiss the story’s credibility and value. Ultimately, the stories we read entangle us in the chaotic truthfulness of someone else’s transparent adventure. As readers, we are called to remove our shoes and tread on the trails of another forest. An aversion to narrative literature (fiction or nonfiction) is parallel to the constant silence we may allow to flourish between ourselves and a neighbor whom we routinely encounter through the openings of a shared fence. So where does that leave our students?

My students must realize that the narrative literature they read is true. Not true in the sense that it is entirely factual, but true in the sense that it is written by a real person who has a story to share. The call of truth, like the call of wisdom, is embedded in every novel, epic poem, and history lesson. Our students must embrace the stories of humanity because these stories reflect and suggest who they are: unfinished, broken, but loved. The purpose of reading a good story is not to find truth as a treasure but to realize truth as the fabric of our created existence—both body and soul. The truth will transcend the print. Teachers must expose their students to narrative literature because it is in the “true” story that all readers find themselves waiting to be understood in the setting of creation.

On February 28, 2012, Tim Leugs brings the discussion to a close:

Hello everyone,

It is good to read that the rest of you have difficulty fitting in time for reading as well. I find that my time for reading is often limited to vacation times and long school breaks. In addition, reading alphabet books and board books with my two-year-old takes up an increasing amount of time!

At this point in life, I try to choose two books at a time: one nonfiction book that usually pertains to a subject I teach (but occasionally has to do with an interest of mine), and one fiction book, alternating between fiction that my students may recommend and novels of my choice. The time of year, though, does affect the amount of time it takes for me to finish. Although I try to get through a book in a fairly reasonable amount of time, the demands of teaching (as Rebecca notes), as well as jobs around the house, can easily reduce the amount of time I can dedicate to my own reading.

After I read your posts, I started writing today with similar feelings of regret for the time that I don’t spend reading. As I continued thinking about it, though, I found that I agree with your sentiment: the quality of the time spent in reading (whether it is a lot of time or only a few moments) and the life lessons we can teach through our love of reading are the important things we can impart to our students. Although I don’t always make my own reading the priority that it should be, when students come to me with books that they have really enjoyed, I can take the time to celebrate with them. Whether I have read the book or not, asking my students to tell about their favorite section or theme of their books allows them to see that I appreciate them working to enjoy reading. When I have read the book, I further appreciate sharing memories of the book with students, building relationships and showing how much I value both the reading experience and their interests (which, in turn, shows how much I value them).

The panel consists of:

  • Christian Altena, who teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
  • Mary Ashun, who teaches in the education department at Redeemer University College.
  • Al Boerema, who teaches in the education department at Calvin College.
  • Rebecca De Smith, who is the Discovery Room coordinator and the curriculum coordinator at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.
  • Tony Kamphuis, who serves as the executive director of the Niagara Association for Christian Education in Smithville, Ontario.
  • Tim Leugs, who teaches at Legacy Christian School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
  • Bruce Wergeland, who teaches at Langley Christian Middle School in Langley, British Columbia.