I’m at that age–that marvelous and sometimes scary age– where I needn’t set an alarm to wake up in the mornings. It’s a treat and a curse. The mornings, as I’ve graciously grown to love, are the best time to treat myself to some quiet reading and writing. But reading and writing hasn’t always been viewed as a ‘treat’ in my life.
Long ago, back in my early teaching days, a highly respected teacher in our building, known affectionately as “Q”, walked into my classroom before school and started talking up the current novel she was reading. She had been up late, devouring the last pages of her latest read and was dying to get home that day to savor the last chapter. She spoke, in a matter of fact tone, about how she’s the type of reader who gets to the first page of the last chapter and closes the book. She consciously decides to torture herself for a few hours-often switching gears to something completely different than reading-before she satiates herself with the final chapter to finish the book off strong. “Like the last morsel of dessert at a fancy restaurant,” I remember her saying. “You’ve just got to slow down and savor it because the ending only comes once!”
As I listened to her go on and on about her book and her reading life, I was becoming acutely aware that this colleague of mine was not only a phenomenal reading teacher, she was actually a reader herself who was hoping to strike up a conversation with a fellow reader about our latest and greatest reads. Gulp. I had nothing to contribute to this spontaneous conversation; in fact I was secretly wishing a stand up staff meeting would be announced to interrupt a shame that was creeping upon me faster than my impending recess duty. As she whisked out of my room with her excitement for the evening to come, I couldn’t help but wonder: could I say the same? Was I a reader? What had Q had figured out about me that morning?
That night I went home and stared at my bookshelf (read: a wall mounted board that doubled as a knick knack shelf) for some clues as to who I was as a reader. Clue number one: the singular bookshelf with the knick knacks.
I think you are getting the point here. The harsh reality of this experience, one that I now lovingly dub as “My Q Moment,” was this: my colleague inadvertently (?) held a mirror to my face for me to see that I wasn’t a reader. Yet each and every day I stood in front of my students preaching the importance of reading. I was a reading hypocrite. My kids weren’t avid readers, I had no real conversations with them about books and my reading instruction (and arguably all content instruction) reflected it.
The next morning as I drove to work, I envisioned how Q must have enjoyed her last chapter the night before. I pictured her sipping wine by the fireplace in her slippers and robe, novel in hand, and weeping at the fate of the beloved characters. As I parked my car (as far away from hers as possible), I went through my list of excuses in an ugly attempt to save face:
- She has no life. No wonder she has time to read.
- I’m a new teacher. I can barely keep my head above water. I have no time to sleep, yet alone read.
- She must have very few responsibilities at home to be able to read that much. I, on the other hand, am busy. I have no time to read.
- I’ve got lesson plans to write and papers to grade. I have no time to read.
- I’m exhausted. I have no time to read.
- Teaching is hard. I have no time to read.
- I’ve got to go to the gym. I have no time to read.
- I fall asleep when I read, so why bother?
- I have to keep up on my mindless TV shows because, well, I need to just veg after a long day. I therefore, have no time to read.
- Books are expensive. I can’t afford books.
- There’s no library near my house and the hours aren’t conducive to my schedule anyway.
- I’ll wait for the next break or summer. That’s a good time for me to read.
I was in a fast cycle- not unlike the 5 stages of grief. (See stage one, denial, in the above list.) Thankfully, my shame and understanding that I couldn’t avoid Q for very long helped me make it to acceptance (stage five) real fast. I decided to take action. That afternoon, I cancelled my date with the gym (and later Ally McBeal) to create a lesson plan for myself: high-tail it to the bookstore and begin to find my identity as a reader.
It didn’t take long to find that identity once I convinced myself that to actually be a reading teacher I had to be a reader. And once I started calling myself on the excuses, I started to savor the time I spent reading each day–just like Q. But what transformed my life (and my teaching) wasn’t only this commitment to being a reader. It was also the new found joy I had in my practice as a teacher of reading. I found my instructional practices were now informed by me actually practicing my instructional practices. I joined a book club. I started to visit the children’s library to peruse the new titles that were hot. I found bookstores and blogs dedicated to books that inspired me to make it a daily practice of sharing my reading life with my students. I was finding out about who they were as readers, which is formative assessment in it’s truest and most raw form. My reading instruction became guided by them, for them.
I’ve learned over the years that we don’t “have time” to read. We make time to read. We make time for the things we are committed to–and my “Q moment” transformed not only my commitment to being the best reading teacher I could be, but it changed my life as well. My commitment to being a reader and writer every day is an instructional practice I will never give up.
Q came back to my room later that year to ask ME for a book recommendation. As she was leaving, she paused and turned to me: “Did I tell you what I’ve been writing lately?”