Foster the People

[admittedly misleading blog post title and picture, although it's a great album]
Some of us are born and raised readers. Some of us took our books out to recess and some of us were told they couldn't read while their eyes were bloodshot from long hours spent in a chlorinated pool. Some of us had no problem spending long hours in the car on trips because it meant more time to read. And some of us actually got excited when the teacher passed out paperwork for book projects.

And some idiots of us couldn't give a rat's ass.

How do you make people read? Better yet, how do foster a love for reading (get it now?)?

During the last week or so I've been slowly reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston for work. The book is fantastic, for those who haven't read it, both in terms of the story and the language. And yet for some reason I've had to force myself to continue on. I glare at the paperback and accompanying pad of paper for question writing and note-taking, resenting the fact that finishing the book has become yet another item on my to-do list. 

And then that familiar feeling returns- this is exactly what we do to our students. I always feel a tinge of guilt when I enforce outside reading requirements and class reading assignments (that soon leaves when the power trip of dictating what they can and cannot read returns). As soon as something becomes an obligation at least half the fun is sucked out of if it, no matter how much you're going to learn or even enjoy it. Frequently at the end we can admit that the task was worthwhile, but the process often turns into a burdensome chore.

So what's the solution? How do we, as a society, promote reading? Personally, and many experts will agree, I believe that the love of reading usually has to begin during childhood and that parents are really responsible for cultivating this. I think this is something many want to pass the buck on to teachers over, but there is research that proves the need for families to embrace reading. It's essentially a good habit you're developing- if your child isn't expected to clean their room growing up expecting them to do it as teenagers is going to be a struggle. Parents need to cultivate a literary environment in their home starting as early as possible- read to your baby (not in the womb, though, that's just a tad creepy), take your toddler to story time, and never associate reading with punishment. Parents and teachers need to serve as positive role models, going out of their way to show kids that reading is interesting and not a "nerdy" activity. For leisure, kids should be allowed to choose their own books, but gently steered in the direction towards ones they might be legitimately interested in. 

Teenagers are tougher. Many supposedly hate reading because they haven't found books they actually enjoy, struggle with comprehension, or fear the social stigma attached to being a reader. I think helping them find time, or providing it for them, to read is also important. Giving them tools to understand what they read and the freedom to ask questions is also important. I've worked with several students this year on ways to find books that are similar to ones that they already like (other than just asking me or reading the same author over and over again). I think this is one area in which YA has actually been helpful- it's gotten many teens reading and will hopefully serve as sort of a bridge into actual literature. 

But what about what I'm going through with Eyes? My love of reading was definitely fostered by the people, but I still hate the feeling that it's mandatory. This is the really hard part as a teacher. I've tried offering extra credit to students that are ahead of schedule, giving ample time, and trying to positively promote the assigned books as much as possible. I must add, though, that reading for school doesn't seem to be an issue for some students- I'd say about half of my students don't complain or get behind.

As futile as it sounds, I think this will always be a problem. Some of us, myself included, just hate obligations, even if it's something we love. I was talking about this with a friend this morning, about how sometimes we make plans and as the date approaches we lose the desire to participate. Part of it's laziness, but personally, I start resenting the fact that something or someone is dictating how I spend my time. Again, there's no easy answer, except that sometimes we just have to suck it up for our own good and do things that might actually benefit us in the end. 

Like reading Their Eyes Were Watching God.


  1. I think you're right. I believe it's the idea that it is mandatory that makes it feel like a chore. That's why I won't run a half marathon. I can't deal with the dictated-ahead-of-time training schedule. I want to just up and run WHEN and IF I feel like it.

  2. I feel lucky that reading was always a part of my life and that I had good role models in my family. Though my brother had the same up-bringing, loved reading as a kid, but then totally fell off the wagon when he became a teenager. I was so happy to hear he recently took up the habit again now that he's in his 20s, but it made me realize that no matter how good your role models are, those teenage years can get dicey when it comes to this particular hobby. And even as a lifelong reader (who thankfully was never made to feel like my hobby was nerdy -- though I can probably attribute that to my somewhat sheltered Catholic all-girls school education!), there were still times when required school reading was a total drag. But years later, there are a handful of books I look back on with fondness and am infinitely grateful that my English teachers chose to teach them.