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.