What Are You Reading?

As any reader knows, one of the best questions to be asked is "What are you reading?" - at least under the right circumstances. On a plane or a bus, not so much. I'd rather be reading, thank you. But, when my students ask.... that's another animal entirely. Those times when I can share my enthusiasm for the written word outside of whatever book I've assigned them are golden. If I've done my job right to that point, it is those tiny moments that teach them about books more than the moment we finish discussing Book 6 of The Odyssey.

Yesterday, the entire 10th grade and their teachers went to a nearby camp for the day. There was swimming, blobbing, soccer, ultimate frisbee, battleball, eno-ing, and more. Also, after destroying some 15-year-old boys on the soccer field (slight overstatement), this old lady decided to sit down with a book. In that hour, I probably hand-sold the book I'm reading a dozen times. And friends, it is an easy book to sell.

First, I show them the "cover" of S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. The cover is actually a box/sleeve thing, but I start there because that is the name of the book: S. I remind them of who J. J. Abrams is (Lost, Felicity, Star Trek - which are, by the way, all things I have not watched), and their eyes light up a little.

Then, as I pull the physical book out of the black sleeve, I start to explain the concept. The idea for this book was J. J. Abrams' - Doug Dorst is the writer who brings it all to life. 

See, this book is called Ship of Theseus.

It's made to look like an old library book, down to the sticker on the spine and the aged pages inside. It is fiction, written by the fictional V. M. Straka. In S., it is the foundation of a grad student's research. The student, Eric, leaves the book outside his study carrel, and an undergraduate who works in the library, Jen, finds it, flips through it and his notes, and returns it to his carrel with a note penned inside:
Hey - I found your stuff while I was shelving. (Looks like you left in a hurry!) I read a few chapters and loved it. Felt bad about keeping the book from you, though, since you obviously need it for your work. Have to get my own copy! -Jen.
He writes back:
Here - If you liked it you should finish it. I need a break, anyway. (Leave it on the last shelf in the South stacks when you're finished.)
And thus begins a back and forth relationship in the margins of this book. Their marginalia pursues some serious scholarship questions as well as exchanging personal stories, and as their relationship develops, the mystery surrounding this book and its authorship does as well. There are codes, secrets, dangerous encounters (for both the characters in Ship of Theseus and for Jen and Eric), and lots of stuff inside the covers of this book (postcards, letters, photographs, etc...). S. is not so much a book as it is a reading experience. It is so clever and sharp, and I remain intrigued even though it is a literary type (political thriller-ish) I don't usually gravitate toward.

By the time I finish, students - all students - are fascinated. Their eyes are sparkling and they say things like, "I might actually have to read that book."

So, what am I reading? Come sit down next to me. I'll be glad to tell you all about it.

And I bet when I'm finished, you'll want to read it, too.


Unexpected Tears

The joke in my family has long been that I am dead inside. I don't cry at sad movies or sappy commercials or even at funerals. But there is one time and place where I can predictably find myself welling up:

At races.

Yep. If I'm a spectator at a 5K, a half marathon, a marathon, or a triathlon, you can count on me getting a little weepy. I know. That's weird. It is one of the weirdest things about my totally weird self. But it is also not weird if you think about it. Those races, especially the long ones, are a beautiful demonstration of the power we carry within us. There is, of course, the physical aspect. People are pushing their bodies to the limits, they are showing what it is to be strong, fit, lean, and fast. It is a thing of beauty. There is also the mental aspect, and often, it is this element that pushes me over the edge. When you consider the discipline, the focus, the sacrifices, and the effort these events demand - even for the totally able-bodied - you should stand in admiration. You should cheer their spirit and feel your own lifted as they run past. And when you can see the obstacles facing a competitor, when that runner is using a handcycle, or pushing a disabled adult child in a jogcycle, or running on a prosthetic limb, you should feel that spirit soar.

It is weird. But it is reflective of who I am, and Frederick Buechner has a word or two to say on that subject:
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next. 


On Reading Logs and Other Experiments in Teaching

This year, my high school students are getting credit for reading. Wait, you ask, isn't that what an English class always does? Well, yes. And no.

See, high school students are always being assigned things to read, being assessed on their comprehension of what they read, being made to slog through a book they might not have read on their own, and all of these are good things. I do not believe it is wrong to train a student in how to persevere, in how to be disciplined, in how to tackle something outside of his/her comfort zone; however, I believe we have been teaching these skills in the absence of those other, readerly skills we all know and use:

How to choose a book. How to enjoy a book. How to stretch yourself from one type of reading to a new genre or style. How to have an opinion. How to reflect. How to abandon a book that is not serving you well.

These are the marks of a mature reader, and unfortunately, school doesn't often teach these, so if a student is not a reader already, he or she will never learn how to be one. And though it may be naive, I believe every student is already more of a reader than he/she may think and every student can be a mature reader. Even students who "hate" to read.

In an effort to encourage, develop, celebrate, and stretch these skills, I have reduced the number of complete works we will read together to make room for them to read things they choose themselves. I've had them create a Google Sheets Reading Log where they must record all titles (books, audiobooks, stories, poetry collections, articles, blogposts, etc...) they read this year. They will set goals for themselves at the beginning of each quarter, and they will be assessed on how satisfactorily they meet those goals and the ones I've established for every student. I've required them to read diversely (not just all white men) and to read something from at least two countries of origin. I've asked them to read at least one item from a list of genres I provided and to use their goal-setting as a way to stretch themselves each quarter.

They get to pick. They are asked to rate what they pick. They are given the chance to DNF something and mark it in their log as such. They are, in short, doing what you and I do everyday.

It is an experiment. What if students fake it? How would I know? (in part, their weekly journals will do this, but it is still possible to fool me). What if students just don't do it? What if they still hate reading at the end of the year? (this last one is, of course, not just possible but likely in some cases).

But if just a handful of kids move from hating reading to seeing themselves as actively engaged readers, I will consider it a success. After all, what's more important: that they read every word of The Odyssey or that they appreciate words and writing in new and exciting ways?

I'm putting my money (and my grades) on the last one.