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.