Friday, September 20, 2013

For the Fun of It by Dianne K. Salerni

School started for me at the beginning of this month. This is my 25th year of teaching, and on the first day of school I gave my 5th grade reading classes a survey on their reading interests and habits.

The first question on the survey was: How often do you read for fun and not for school? Thirty percent of my students circled Rarely or Never. Thirty percent. Almost a third.

I know not every student loves to read. Some struggle at comprehension. Some can’t sit still. I wish I could say that a lot of those students just prefer active sports activities to reading, but sadly more of them spend their time playing video games. The saddest of all, I think, is when students come from families where reading is simply not valued. I’ve had adults in the community complain to me about the Summer Reading assigned by my school (which is 4 books of the student’s own choosing). 

“Summer is supposed to be fun!” one mother told me indignantly. “I told my daughter she didn’t have to do it. She deserves a break.”

There are so many things wrong with that statement, I hardly know where to begin. Should I start with the idea that children are entitled to fun? Or that reading can’t be fun? Or should I begin with the idea that this woman’s daughter deserved a break after months of suffering through an education that girls in other parts of the world risk their lives for? And let’s not get into parents overruling a school assignment because it doesn’t sound like fun to them.

One of the most powerful tools I have for combating a negative attitude toward reading (especially when it is learned from home) is read aloud. It circumvents comprehension problems, homework non-compliance, and parents who don't encourage reading. I’m already compiling a list of titles to engage this year’s students.

Before the end of this year, some of the students in that thirty percent will:

  • Check No More Dead Dogs out of the school library because they want to find out who’s sabotaging the school play before anyone else.
  • Laugh out loud when Old Shep blows up and when they guess the ending to Little Britches’s poem, even though I don’t read that word out loud.
  • Gasp when they realize Mary Hightower lives in the “ghost” of the Twin Towers and when they find out who the McGill really is.
  • Argue over who lives and who dies, based on the Underland Prophecy of Gray.
  • Put their heads down on their desks in sadness and shame when they hear what Jack Will says about Auggie on Halloween.
  • Ask their parents to take them to the local library – possibly for the first time in their lives.

I’m getting ready to do battle with apathy, entitlement, and a lack of wonder and imagination. I’m going to teach them what fun really is.

Watch out, my lovely thirty percent. I’ve got some books for you.


  1. Best of luck to you! In my own house I have a range. Two kids who read about 4 books a week and one who it's the last thing he'll do. Sounds like you've picked some great books!

    1. The best thing parents can do to foster the love of reading is to model it. I know you do that!

  2. I have a son, who even though he reads every night for over an hour, probably does not report that he reads for fun--it's just the routine he follows. Everyone in our house reads at bedtime.

    He's definitely a reluctant reader, but we have so many books hanging out around the house, that the chances are, he finds something that looks good to read and heads into his bed early. But he might be telling his teachers he doesn't like to read, I don't know. He might self-report to be a part of your 30%.

    The culture at our house is that we all read--it's just a part of each day. But I know that isn't the case in all families.

    I sat through back-to-school night where the 6th grade English teacher said that the homework for the year was reading for 30 minutes a day. A parent raised her hand and said, "with all the things my child does all day, what if he doesn't have 30 extra minutes to read?" I was astounded and so was the teacher. After a moment of silence, the teacher said, "It's not extra, it's what the English homework is for the year--30 minutes of reading." The parent then said, "My son doesn't have 30 minutes of time to read each day." There was another moment of awkward silence, and then the teacher ignored the parent and went on with his presentation.

    Had the homework been a worksheet, or a paper to write, that parent would have been on board. But she saw reading just to read as superfluous. I don't know where to start with that attitude!

    1. Not every kid has a natural love of reading, even if the parents model it. But to actively discourage it?!

      And sadly, I'm not surprised that the parent you describe didn't consider 30 minutes reading a valid homework assignment. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say this was a parent who was already opposed to independent reading as a homework assignment -- extra or not -- because it wasn't viewed as important. Sad.

  3. I wish you the best in pursuing that 30 percent. It's good that you didn't just say, "Okay, that's 30 percent I just know not to try with." You're willing to share your love of reading - without being all smash-in-your-face with it - and maybe show that reading can be fun.

    1. Oh, I never write those students off.
      I view them as a challenge worth fighting for!

  4. Here's wishing you 100% success Dianne! What fantastic goals!

  5. Here's wishing you 100% success Dianne! What fantastic goals!

    1. Thanks, Katie!
      If I can convince even a couple of them to admit they LIKE reading by the end of the year, I'll count the whole school year as a success.

  6. I think it's wonderful that you've set the goal of making reading fun for your students. I'm the same as Heather, reading happens everyday at our house. We take books on car rides, to restaurants and leave videos/games at home.

    1. Brenda,

      My husband and I modeled reading (me, fiction -- him, non-fiction) so it's hard to imagine children who don't like reading -- but I face them every year.

      If I can change the mind of just a few of those kids, I'll be satisfied!

  7. I would be livid if a parent refused to have their child do the summer reading.

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  8. Yeah, it was kind of a slap in the face -- a statement that said, "I don't respect what you do."

  9. The only thing I can add is this-

    I didn't find the joy of reading until I was 16.

    I know that's not what very pro-reading parents/teachers wish to hear, but I think that's hopeful in the long run, and I urge those facing this at home or classroom: try not let apathy of reading for some kids discourage you indefinitely.

    Just make sure they're at least on par technically, so when the gates do open, the mechanics of reading won't get in the way.

    I'm not dyslexic or had problems reading from a technical standpoint. I just hadn't found the book I loved until I was older. I know some authors didn't learn to love reading for pleasure until they were older, and I wish there was more discussion in general about late blooming readers for NON-Developmental reasons.

    I often feel left out of writer friends I know who got read to as a child and found the joy and empowerment from books until later. But I try to remember that I did find it anyway, and that counts for something, and that's a joy of reading picture books in particular for me, the ones I've
    read recently reconnect me to my younger self, who would've loved them no less.

    Often I think the problem is we focus too much on the technical reasons why kids don't read than the emotional reasons why, and I feel high schoolers suffer the most in this regard. I know this is a middle grade focused blog, but I still feel that's a fair point to make.

    At least in elementary school and some middle schols, reading for pleasure is still valued, it all but dies in high school and onward.

    1. Taurean -- Maybe your teachers didn't try hard enough to find the books that would spark your interest! I'm glad you eventually found them on your own, though!

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    3. I don't think teachers were to blame for my lack of pleasure reading when I was growing up, it was more lack of access to the library without being "taxied" I truly believe had I been able to walk to a public library, I would've found the joy sooner.

      We had a school library in the various elementary schools and middle school I went/transferred to, but they were limited in its choices, unless you were REALLY into nonfiction, which as I kid I wasn't, despite the statistics that say boys read more nonfiction than fiction.

      That was not my reality!

      I do read and enjoy more nonfiction now, but I read more fiction, and I wish I'd known more boys like me when I was a kid.

      That might've been true to a point, Dianne, but overall I think it was also peer pressure that kept what little pleasure reading I did in my early teens close to the proverbial vest.

      When I did started finding books that spoke to me, I had to keep it secret, though I didn't have many friends growing up, this was something I never could share with them. Or more accurately, didn't have the courage to.

      While others my age had graduated to gritty YA novels and
      sex-driven films, I was still reading middle grade books, not because YA was "Too advanced" for me, but because the books that spoke to me were more often in the MG realm.

      Perhaps the kids you know (Whether your students or your peers when you were a kid yourself) were more accepting in your diverse tastes as a reader.

      If it got out to my peers in school that I still read animal stories (OUTSIDE the paranormal mold) it would be
      "Social Death."

      Now I've no shame about my tastes in books, I started my blog in part to help shed that shame, and find others like me, and three years in this errand I've met and made many e-friends in this regards, at least as far as books are concerned, though I hope to one day meet some of them in person.

      I'm just glad things for me on tha front are better now.

    4. Taurean -- I DO get the "social death" thing. In my teaching profession, I meet boys who would rather chew their arm off than have their peers see they enjoy reading. As a nerdy adult (and a teacher) there's not a lot I can do to help that except work at forging a private connection with those students.

      I can think of one boy who will never admit to liking reading, lest his reputation be shattered, but who I hope will be secretly pleased that his name, among others, is listed in the Acknowledgements page of the novel I worked on while I was teaching him.

    5. Thanks for replying back, Dianne.

      I didn't mean to sound like peer pressure was the end all be all for me, but just the opposite, while I wish my experience in school was far more positive than it was, it did allow me to love what I loved without letting others my age guilt trip me.

      That said, it's still nice when you can share what you love with others, and I was just making the case that some of us don't find that until we're older, but it means no less.

      But so often we eqaute childhood experiences as superior to any we have as adults, I felt I had to respond, because I feel my experience can't be the only one, even if it's not the most common among authors or lay readers, so I guess I'm a bit jealous of kids who find that fellowship sooner than I did.

      Any anger felt in my initial reply to your post was largely envy on my part, Dianne.

      But overall my point was simply this-

      Once out of the minefields of peer pressure, I learned to love what I loved without shame, and by consequence, allowed me to persevere with my forthcoming novel, despite a zillion parents telling me only picture books can do what my story does, but since picture books requires skills I just don't have, that would've driven me mad...

      That said, I know you and the regulars here know better. It's just nice to have the "last laugh" on this specific matter.

      I can't express how healing it was for me to meet fellow e-friends who love the books and authors I love,

  10. Wow. That 30% really got me. I can hardly believe that! How will kids survive school without reading? !!!

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    2. I get where you're coming from, Marissa, but I think Dianne was also making the general point that reading isn't just a skill like learning to walk or teaching your toddler to eat on his own, it's also entertainment and a way of exploring the world.

      She titled the post "For the Fun of it" after all.

      If some of that 30% just never found books they loved, that explains that apathy from the actual kids, along with whatever apathy the parents add to it, whether out of indifference, ignorance or surrender.

      I don't think the parents and teachers who are regulars at Project Mayhem are of this ilk. So there's hope, Marissa. Hope that's just as sincere sounding from a non-parent like me to the parents/writers here.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!