Sam Asks: What Influence Does Our Reading Baggage Hold Over Us?

Everyone has baggage. It’s just a fact. Every book you’ve read, relationship you’ve had, and song you’ve heard add up to your life experience. It’s what makes you who you are.

Everyone’s baggage looks different. Everyone’s baggage affects them differently. There’s no telling what’s in somebody else’s suitcase, even people you know well, or think you know well.

A colleague and I had an experience with this recently. We were co-teaching a lesson in close reading to about twenty 6th grade students. The idea was that the students would investigate the theme of an article about the tragic AirAsia crash. They would jot their thinking on Post-It-Notes, and then sort them into theme based categories before finally crafting a central idea statement, which reflected their new understanding about the article.

It sounded great on paper. EXCEPT: we didn’t account for the baggage. OUR baggage. My colleague and I are readers. Readers of news, radio, Twitter, you name it, we read it. Thus we had heard A LOT about the AirAsia crash. We had seen the pictures of grieving families. We had listened to hour upon hour of coverage that tried to explain what had happened, what the black boxes revealed, how the people must have suffered in their final minutes.

So, our post it notes reflected the plane crash. The tragedy. The lives lost. What more could have been done to save them?

But, as we walked around the room watching the students work candidly with the text we came to a nauseating conclusion: their post its don’t look like ours. The students were not focused on the crash at all. They were focused on AirAsia’s boss: Tony Fernandes. The students had collected a number of character traits that all related back to Mr. Fernandes. They even pulled direct quotes from the text…all about Mr. Fernandes. 22 students, and each and every one of them had seemingly abandoned ship and started rowing out to sea towards an island my colleague and I were trying to locate on the map.

Where had we gone wrong? Why were they missing it? The question troubled us through the entire day. At lunch we regrouped, we tried to name the problem. We couldn’t.

After school we met in her room for an hour and tried to talk it through. Why were they focusing on the character and not the crash? What did these traits have to do with the message and theme? Had we over-conditioned them to look at character? And then it was clear. It wasn’t them at all. It was us.

We had brought our”reading baggage” to the article: the narrative that we had readily consumed prior to presenting this lesson to our students. When my colleague and I read the article, our baggage made us miss the point. This wasn’t an article about a plane crash. This was an article about a leader. It was about the qualities that made Tony Fernandes the best person possible to lead his company through this tragedy. The students had seen what we had not. The students came to the carpet that day and saw the article through unbiased eyes. Their focus was only on the author that day, and they were right.

I think as readers that it is important to recognize when our own reading history impacts the reading we are doing in the now. We need to step back and focus on this author, this time. It’s the only way we can uncover the message the author intended us to receive.

Perhaps the best way to allow our reading minds to soar is simply a matter of reminding ourselves to take the time to empty our suitcases between departures.

10 thoughts on “Sam Asks: What Influence Does Our Reading Baggage Hold Over Us?

  1. That is a really interesting point. For each book we read, we should read it without comparing, contrasting with other books, or saying – Oh he writes like so and so, or she reminds me of this. Never really thought about it. But you are right, open a book for the first time with a clean slate.

  2. Very insightful! It takes a brave and intuitive person to admit to having this type of baggage at all. I have similar problems with people who have or haven’t read certain authors, or who grasp concepts from books I’ve read that I missed, and that made me upset they’d missed MY insights. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Reblogged this on Reflections and Refractions and commented:
    It reminds me so much of what I learned in reading courses. if children are to become proficient readers, we must allow them the freedom to explore a text through their lenses. Excellent read–and so glad you were able to figure out how to continue the discussion on your students’ terms.

  4. I think it is a matter of perspective. There are times we need to focus on our writing and be very narrow in terms of subject, there are also times we need to be more comprehensive and detailed and even refer to other sources to provide a “big picture”.

  5. we all gather different things from the same text because of our past experiences. It can be very frustrating when you are trying to get someone to see your point of view but also very beautiful because that’s what makes words so special.

  6. I think it’s kind of awesome that adults were able to learn from sixth graders, and that you openly admitted it. I know that there are multiple reasons why it’s better for younger people to learn from adults, because we don’t know as much as we think we do. but sometimes if adults open their eyes, they can learn from us. It’s just cool to see someone say it.
    I also think you made a really good point that I never thought of, and that I’ll have to personally keep in mind when reading. Thanks for the post and I love your website!

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