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Simone Larson: My Reluctant Reader

It’s time to read. This phrase, when uttered inside the walls of a classroom, can be met with a startling plethora of reactions: groans, cheers, shrugs, silent resignation. Who knew this simple statement held such power?

RoundTable columnist Simone Larson

My own relationship with reading is always evolving. Currently, it is a life line. Sometimes, I’d place it in the hobby category. Mandatory professional reading has its drawbacks. Reading for my book club culminates in a bonding and eating experience, which I love.

But the moment that changed my relationship with reading the most? Well that’s easy. It was when, before my eyes, I saw one of my students fall in love with reading for the first time. I saw the light switch on in his brain as he fully immersed himself in a good, old fashioned story.

The domino effect took over. Loving to read first changed his attitudes toward my class, then school, then himself. As I observed this phenomenon, I knew I was dealing with something much more powerful than I ever imagined.

The student in question? We will call him Reluctant Reader. This is a term we use in the biz in reference to kids who – let’s say – don’t particularly look forward to independent reading time.

They pick at the dirt underneath their fingernails, glance around the room, throw tiny pieces of perforated edges from their notebook at their neighbor. They spend as much time as you’ll let them staring at spines, “picking out a book.” You can identify them easily upon entry to your room, as they will either bring a different, never cracked book with them each day or have yet to ever enter with one in hand.

Reluctant Reader, or RR, never entered my classroom with a book. Each day would begin in much the same way.

“Hi RR, it’s so good to see you. I’m so glad you’re here.”

“I don’t have my book!”

“But I didn’t say anything about your book…”

“But I know what you’re thinking…”

Typically, my class would begin with independent reading. But in the case of RR’s particular class, I modified our schedule. Beginning immediately with reading time would set him off beyond reproach. With his class, we would wade in slowly. He liked to write, especially about his family or his day, so I developed prompts, and the class would often begin with writing.

Then came reading time. I could feel the hair rise on the back of my neck, the tension spreading through my body. It’s time for me to ruin this kid’s day, and my own.

My gut reaction? I wanted to skip independent reading altogether. I didn’t want to go through this anymore. This agony. Often RR would become irate. On good days, he’d put his head down and go to sleep, drool into the pages. Typically, I’d let him have a little power snooze. Then I’d gently tap him on the back and tell him to go get some water. Upon his return, we were back to square one.

Enter: Michael Vey and the Prisoner of Cell 25

One of my tactics when dealing with reluctant readers is to create a small stack of books and place it nonchalantly on their desk. On this particular day, I decided to implement this tried and true strategy with RR.

Each time he picked up a book, he’d read the back cover, and then drop it on the floor with an irritating thud. Deep breaths, I told myself, don’t react. You are calm. You are wise. You are patient.

I busied myself with something else. Then I peeked over. To my absolute wonder, he was reading. Hey was reading. I tried not to react. I shuffled some papers around. Don’t let your jubilation be known.

Each day that week after I uttered, “It’s time to read,” I held my breath. Yet each day, he would quietly walk over to his designated shelf and pick up his novel. Then he’d shuffle back to his seat and flip it open.

I looked around for that one kid. My fellow teachers know who I’m talking about. The kid who feels things deeply, who syncs up with you, who intuitively understands everything. They are one with the classroom environment. This kid and I made eye contact; we raised our eyebrows at each other, nodding. They did a tiny thumbs up, then glanced right back down at their book.

The good luck continued. One day, I noticed RR smiling to himself as he read, giggling. Another day, I saw a friend of his try to get his attention and was ignored. On the day he was set to complete his novel, I expanded independent reading to make sure he had enough time. We read for close to an hour that day. But I didn’t care, everything else could wait.

Upon finishing Michael Vey, he took a deep breath, set it down, looked at me and smiled. He had a big, infectious smile that I remember so well. I had tears. I walked slowly toward him and crouched down.

“Did you love it?” I whispered.

“Yeah,” he responded. “Do they have another one of these?”

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s a series.”

And just like that, a reader was born.

RR is now in college. I texted him this morning, asked him for the name of the series he loved, because I couldn’t remember the title. He’s been to dinner at our house. He told me he’s having a hard time deciding on a major. I told him he has time. I told him he should be a teacher. He laugh emojied, and then responded, I’m thinking about it.

This column by Simone Larson, a new education columnist at the RoundTable, originally appeared in Laron’s blog, Simone Says.

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