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.

Sam Asks: What Does It Mean to “become” a Reader?

rnfk“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have read that opening a thousand times and thought long about that second part, the no judgement part. Less frequently I think about the first part, the idea of someone older and wiser giving you a tidbit of information that is lasting and meaningful. I have had this experience a few times, mostly from my parents and other mentors.

A few weeks ago someone said something to me that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. He certainly didn’t mean to give me so much to consider; he was merely stating a fact. Yet what he said to me has left me to think even more deeply about a topic that I already think deeply about: reading.

The statement was made by a student of mine. I was getting ready for the day and so were my students. From above the usual morning chaos of unpacking backpacks and hurried conversations between friends I heard him say, “Oh good you’re here.” I didn’t know whether he was talking to me or not, but I took a shot and looked up. Sure enough I was being addressed, “I just wanted to tell you that I’m tied up in a book series now,” he said excitedly, “I’m a reader now.”

Call me over-emotional, but I almost dissolved into tears right there in homeroom. Because that’s the goal right? Get kids to identify as a reader? To give them a lifelong love of books?

I mean, yea, it is…and two years ago I would have thought he was “done.” He loves books. He’s a reader. Mission accomplished.

But just being a reader…that’s only the beginning. I was so overcome with emotion not because this student had come to the end of his journey to become a reader, but because for him this was the beginning. Saying out loud, “I’m a reader now,” is in many ways the first step to someone’s entire educational and intellectual life. To be a reader is to question, explore, challenge, seek, wonder, and change. To be a reader is to say yes to the world, to accept the failures and successes of others as your own, to take others, both real and imagined, in and make them part of your life.

From that first admission of “I’m a reader now,” comes a lifetime of putting yourself in another’s shoes and thinking more deeply about lives unlike your own. “I’m a reader now,” means that soon your bookshelves will fill up and overflow. “I’m a reader now,” means spending hours in the bookstore narrowing down your pile from 100 books to the one you can’t leave the store without.

When does it happen? How does it happen? Is there a certain type of experience you need to have, like crying when you try on the perfect wedding dress? How do you know that you are now a reader?

I have personally gone through phases in my life where my reading volume is heavier than other times. For example, during college my reading volume was low, except for the required text. I was definitely not a reader. I actually thought that my reading days might actually be over.

That is, until I met Maximum Ride. And Katniss Everdeen. And Thomas…just Thomas. These are the main characters of Maximum Ride by James Patterson, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner. In my post grad year I read every single science fiction/dystopic thriller I could get my hands on. I couldn’t keep myself in books, which was bad because I was living with my parents and pursuing a degree in education full-time! But…I was definitely a reader. I read over 100 books that year, a feat I have not been able to match since starting my teaching career.

While I was in this high reading volume phase of my life I started thinking even more deeply about the themes and messages within the text. I began to see patterns across authors, series, and genres. I began to make theories about an author’s purpose and revise those theories as I collected evidence from the text to make my thinking more exact. It wasn’t until later that I realized these were all of the same skills I was training my students to utilize. This is what it means to be a reader, a thinker.

The best part? I was not the only person to make this discovery. All of the research on childhood literacy suggests that the more students read, the more they think about reading, and the more their little brains grow to understand, question, and comment on the world around them. We want students to identify themselves as readers so that they can read huge amounts of text and do huge amounts of thinking.

What he told me was “I’m a reader now.” What it really meant was, “I’m a reader now. I’m a thinker now. I’m going places.” I for one am happy to be along for that ride.

Sam Asks: Where Has Reading Taken You?

10006937_10100599367070623_6774052526976724838_nA few weekends ago my family and I took a little trip to Boston to visit some friends. It was a perfect fall weekend in one of my favorite cities. Just like every other twenty-something parent with a smart phone I took countless pictures of my baby girl so that all the folks back home could feel like there were with us. Plus…that face…I can’t even talk about it, she’s just…ahh!

Ok, back on track. When I was pregnant we started reading to Scarlett Liv every night, a tradition that we continue to this day. Every night my husband and I pick a book and take turns reading to our little bundle. I am proud to say that the kid has so many books that they can’t all fit in her room! We have a ton lining the walls in our basement and next to the bathtub and near the high chair. Scarlett is drawn to books. She loves to point to different pictures and words and we love to show her what they mean. It is a great joy to watch her fall in love with text and to engage with reading so early.

The best thing about being a reader is that you get to travel to so many places and experience so many wonderful or terrible things that you would not otherwise understand. Most of the time these travels are from the comfort of your own home, but on special occasions you find yourself in the setting of one your favorite stories. I got to experience a bit of that this weekend with my family.

Boston happens to be the setting of two books that have become a staple in our nighttime ritual. The first is Goodnight Boston by Adam Gamble. This formulaic bedtime story guides readers through a full tour of Boston’s best sights from morning to night, spring to winter. We love this book and all of the others in the Goodnight series. The second Boston book we love is the classic Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey, a charming story of a mama and papa duck looking to start a family in the great city of Boston.

On our tour of Boston we were able to see two places from Scarlett’s reading life, and though she won’t be able to remember being at the Aquarium or Boston Public Gardens, I will. I was there the first time that a book came to life for my baby, and I have the picture to prove it!  I know this will happen to her again and again, and I can only hope she’s as nerdy as I am so that the experience will mean something to her!

The more that you read the more that you’ll know, the more that you learn the more places you’ll go! – Dr. Seuss

I’m sure Dr. Seuss meant this more so in the metaphoric sense, but I’m loving it today because of its literal meaning. Reading takes you places.

Read. Go.

Go. Read.

Where has reading taken you? Literal AND Metaphoric places welcome 🙂

Happy Reading!

Sam Asks: When Do You Breakup With A Bad Book?

I recently read a book that I wasn’t thrilled about. Ok, honestly I HATED IT! I knew I wasn’t going to like it on the first page, pretty much from the first word. Ten pages later I despised its vague story line. Ten pages after that I loathed the ridiculous language. Ten pages after THAT I was vocalizing hatred for the underdeveloped characters. By 50 pages in a thought occurred to me: when do you breakup with a bad book?

Let’s say you’re on a first date with someone. There definitely aren’t sparks, but it isn’t a disaster so you think, “maybe I’ll give him another chance.” On the second date he says this one thing that’s really weird. Really, really weird. However, you say, “maybe he’s just nervous around you.” That thought is actually kind of flattering so he probably deserves one more try. On the third date his breath smells like onions, combined with the fact that he “really prefers the movies over the books, especially in the case of The Great Gatsby…” and that’s when you know for sure that this isn’t going anywhere.

But in books where do you draw the line? I think for me it comes down to the characters. I like it when I can see the character walk off of the page and into my life. I like it when I start talking about them as if they are old friends of mine (this confuses the heck out of my husband!) In this book I couldn’t have cared any less about the characters. They were flat, dull, and infuriating. It simply didn’t matter to me what happened to these people so I stopped reading right then and there.

I know I figured out my loathing on that first page, but something in me had to keep going. I wanted to like this book so I gave it more than a fair chance.

What about you? When do you throw in the towel? What’s that one element of a book that HAS to be there for you to keep reading?

Sam Asks: What Do You Read To Your Children?

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source: fierceover50.wordpress.com

We had been dating for about a year when Steve asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I was an English and Drama double major after all, so I supposed it was a serious question to ask someone who you’d been seeing for such a long time. My parents have always encouraged me to “reach a little higher” to “collect as many stars as I could,” and I had made this clear to Steve in previous conversations. Therefore I think he was as surprised as anyone when I answered simply, “I want to be someone’s mom.”

It’s not that I don’t have ambitions for my life outside of raising children and running a home. I value my students and my job in the classroom. I love each story they polish and hand in. My heart swells when they write me little notes or letters that say I made a difference to them. I like doing things that will help improve my teaching and cast the widest most meaningful net in my instruction. However, I feel that this job spoke to me because above all I was meant to be a mom.

The past few months have been very emotional for me because early next year I will finally get my dream job, being a mom. Honestly, I already have it. The decisions I make now about diet and exercise don’t just impact me anymore, I have a whole other set of lungs to worry about. And worry I do. I’ve read TONS of books already from what to name the baby to what and when to feed the baby, it’s all out there! I’ll tell you all about my thoughts on “those books” some other time.

My husband and I have been doing a lot of thinking and talking about what’s in store for us in the next year. A lot of it we can’t even imagine, I think it’s one of those “you have to go through it” type of things. But some things we can prepare for, and one of those things we’ve already started to work on: this kid is going to be a reader.

Every night before bed we’ve been taking turns reading through some of our favorite childhood picture books. It has been quite a good way to learn even more about each other, and after 6 years together that’s something we never take for granted. I have loved hearing about Steve’s favorite stories growing up and have enjoyed sharing with him some of my memories of my father reading. I noticed tonight that I have even taken on some of my father’s Norwegian intonation in stories he read to me countless times.

We have both come to look forward to this nightly ritual and have been doing our best to keep it interesting. We do silly voices, act it out, dress up, the works! There has been much laughter in the Tisi house, which I think has brought us even closer.

Tonight was my turn to read to Steve, Pepper (our two-year old Yorkie), and the baby. I chose a classic story from my childhood: The Story of May by Mordicai Gerstein. This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of a young spring month, May, who goes on a journey through the calendar year to visit her father December. He and her mother April simply couldn’t get along and so the family decided the months should be organized in their own places to keep the peace. What I love about this story is that it is so elegantly crafted. Gerstein personifies the months into larger than life characters that feel like old friends, or close family. His use of language is gorgeous and it’s the type of story that begs to be read aloud. I can remember falling asleep to the sound of my dad’s deep, slow as molasses rumble for August. I can remember feeling an inexplicable chill as he whispered a frail old voice for grandmother November. This book meant so much to me growing up and the fact that I get to share it now with my own family brings tears to my eyes (maybe it’s just the hormones…)

I think that reading is such a social event, we can see that each time we stop by this or any other blog. I notice that in the halls outside my classroom. I hope this baby is a social reader, as readers see the world in such a special way.

I smile thinking about how, even now, months before this baby is here it has already become a staple of my family’s evening routine. I am so excited for everything that is ahead for us. I can’t wait to grow a little library that will help inspire an active imagination and inspire this little peanut to do whatever it is they want to do! For now we will have to do the dreaming on the baby’s behalf; we will have to choose the stories.

Happiness is a house where the best question of the day is, “So what should we read tonight?”

With all that said, I ask, what books do you do read to your children? What stories impacted you as a youth?

Sam Asks: What About Biographies?

biologoBiographies. I have been thinking a lot about this genre lately and have come to the conclusion that there really needs to be better definition within the biography genre. Let me explain.

Last week I went into the biography section at the library and I was frankly puzzled by what I found. Biography isn’t a genre that I tap into much, so I haven’t been in that part of the library in quite some time.

I’m not sure if I’m way off base here, but I just don’t like the idea of Justin Bieber’s biography sitting on the same shelf as Madame Curie, Mother Theresa, William Shakespeare, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Beethoven, etc. My expectation of biography is that the person being written about has done something truly special to earn themselves a place in the library. This is not to say that these celebrity type people have asked for their biographies to be written, as they are of course authored by others. I’m also not saying that there isn’t any value in knowing exactly what Sandra Bullock’s childhood was like…because I’m sure it was fascinating. I would just like a section for “famous people who are very popular because we see them everywhere” and a section for “people who made a difference.”

I think there is something to be said for a person like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. who put their lives on the line for what they believed in. Who stood up and said something that many people didn’t have the courage to say. I think that those innovators and inventors like Edison, Einstein, and even Bill Gates have accomplished feats of greatness that deserve a certain level of respect. For me, seeing the One Direction crew in the company of people such as these makes me pause for a moment.

I still remember my 5th grade biography project. It was 1997, so the US Olympic Gymnastics team from Atlanta was still a pretty big deal. Obviously, I chose to read about Dominique Moceanu. I remember reading about her life, diet, and training schedule and thinking about how cool she was. Cool. I think that pretty much sums her up. She is a really talented, athletic, cool person. I think she is definitely biography worthy. However, I don’t think that she’s of the same caliber of biography as Winston Churchill.

What I’m trying to say is that the biography genre generally needs to be more specific. Within fiction there are categories: fantasy, science fiction, realistic fiction, and so on. I suppose biography is a sub genre of non-fiction, but I think we can do better. So far I propose these categories:  cool people, famous people, people who changed the world (so broad, I know…I’ll work on it!)

What do you think? Is one huge biography category enough? Who was your elementary school biography project about?

Sam Asks: What’s Your Balanced Reading Diet?

In Ms. Gati’s 6th grade reading class, we follow a strict reading diet. This is in an effort to facilitate healthy growth of our thinking and schema. Favorite or “default” genres, authors, and topics are put into the category of “doughnuts” and “pizza,” while challenge genres, authors, and topics are our “broccoli.”

Earlier this year I shared with my students that for me science fiction is a “doughnut” genre and Rick Riordan is a definite “pizza” author. I decided that in order to lead by example, I would participate in my challenge to them: read three “green veggie” genres, authors, or topics in between each of my favorite ones.

So far, it’s been a bit of a challenge! As readers I think our natural inclination is to pick up books that have familiar aspects. My students have found that in reading different genres, they have been able to extend their thinking about certain themes. They have noticed that topics and lessons transcend genres and have been able to draw some very insightful conclusions.

As a group we have seen ourselves grow. In the beginning, we all abandoned far more books than we do now. I think we were afraid of trying something new. We didn’t like the idea of powering into a text that we would have previously thought of as boring or not interesting.

I try to check in with my students as often as possible to make sure that they are reading a broad range of text. In turn, they check in with me. It has gotten to a point where they insist that I leave the book I’m reading on my desk each week so that they can inspect it for genre, author, and topic. I have had to sneak a few science fiction books in on my Nook to avoid being scolded!

Thus, in an effort to hold up my end of the bargain I have moved into a genre that I rarely read, realistic fiction. The Bracelet by, Roberta Gately is a book that deals in current events. Not only is this book “green veggies,” but it was also written for adults (I typically read YA). My students were so proud!

At the close of this post, I have a question and a challenge for you:

Question: What is your reading junk food? What is your green veggie?

Challenge: Next book you choose – let it be something outside of your comfort zone. Balance your reading life, it’s challenging and fun 🙂