Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.
Henry David Thoreau
My husband, Mark, is an expert fisherman. I have spent many days reading in the bottom of a rowboat while he mans not one, but two or three fishing poles. He used to be a guide, giving advice to help others catch fish. It amazes me when he is happy after hours of casting and reeling in his line over and over without having caught a single fish.
The way Mark feels about fishing is the way I want my students to feel about reading. In Readers Front and Center, Dorothy Barnhouse says, “We are teaching at a time when success is determined by whether our students can ‘get’ the ‘it.’” For Mark, fishing is not just about getting a fish, the way reading should not just be about getting an “it.”
How do I make sure my students don’t end up like the fishermen in Thoreau’s quote who think they are only after fish and instead share Mark’s love of the process? How can I teach them to find satisfaction, happiness even, in the act of reading and the pursuit of meaning without the pressure of always getting it right? How do I convey to students my belief that readers, not test makers, construct meaning from text? One answer is to select the first text we read as a whole class very carefully, because it is my first opportunity to demonstrate what I want for my readers.
For the past three years, I have chosen “Selecting a Reader” by Ted Kooser. It is a short poem describing Kooser’s ideal reader—a woman who comes upon his poetry in a bookstore, pages through it, and ultimately returns it to the shelf in favor of spending money on something practical. Selecting this poem as the first shared text of the school year intentionally communicates four important truths about reading.
Readers read things they love.
I deeply admire the way Kooser paints pictures with words. It is natural for me to convey my appreciation of “Selecting a Reader” as I read it aloud to students. Lines like “the loneliest moment of an afternoon,” and “walking carefully up on my poetry” beg to be lifted off the page and brought to life. I have practiced reading these lines aloud and know just when to change the pace of my voice—when to pause and when to slow down and speak softly. I am excited to read this poem with my students, and they can tell.
Readers construct meaning from text.
Selecting a Reader is filled with opportunities for multiple interpretations. I open the door for this discussion by asking my students what the woman looks like. They begin by telling me details that are listed in the poem: she wears glasses, her raincoat is dirty, her hair is damp. Although Kooser uses a lot of specific images, he also leaves plenty of details unspoken. So, I ask about those details next. What color is the woman’s hair? What color is the raincoat? From where did she take out the glasses? What is the weather like? Inevitably students have many different responses. We talk about who pictured dark hair and who imagined a woman with light hair. We discuss which response is correct. Students claim we can’t possibly know who has the right answer unless we ask the poet, giving me an opportunity to directly address my belief that readers construct meaning. We are all correct.
Readers are free to pursue meaning by rereading.
It is important to give students opportunities to achieve satisfaction with work they perceive as challenging to build academic self-esteem. Once a student believes he can tackle a challenge, he has more grit to struggle through the next one. Many students come to my classroom believing they are not good at reading poetry. It can be intimidating because of the figurative language. I see this as an opportunity to build academic self-esteem. Selecting a Reader has limited figurative language. It is a pretty straightforward description, making it easier to read and understand. It is also a very short text. Readers who do not have the cognitive skills to engage on the first reading of the text will have plenty of time and opportunity during discussion to reenter the text, uncover meaning, and feel successful.
Readers don’t always leave a text with answers.
I do not have Selecting a Reader completely figured out. I am amused by Kooser’s choice to select a reader who does not purchase his poetry, but I am also confused by it. I wonder if he means to say that he does not write poetry for the money, but rather for the chance encounter between his words and readers. I wonder if he means to be funny. I wonder if he has a particular woman in mind. Because I wonder about this text, I can trust that I will not steer students toward one correct interpretation. By still having questions about the poem after having read it more than twenty times, I communicate to students that it is okay not to have everything figured out.
Each time I share a text with my students, I intentionally convey these truths about the simple act of reading in pursuit of meaning. Each time I listen to Mark cast out his line and reel it back in, I think about my students reading to get more than an “it” out of a text, and I share his happiness. It is not about whether there is a fish on the hook when it is lifted out of the water. It is about the simple act of casting in pursuit of fish.