A sister is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost.
My younger sister Jenny hasn’t always thought of herself as a reader. In her mind, good readers were the people who could easily write papers on Odysseus or Othello. Although she might not have felt like a reader in school, Jenny’s past was full of books. When she was little, she read and reread every single Beatrix Potter book — she loved the animal characters, especially the bunnies. As a teenager, she loved The Golden Compass and Harry Potter series. Then she reached adulthood, and she did not read as frequently. However, recently she discovered The Catcher in the Rye and reread it several times. Since this was the first book she’d been passionate about for a while, I wanted to build on this love.
Jenny lives in Chicago, while I’m in Portland. I went to Powell’s Bookstore and then sent her Franny and Zooey, so she could try another one by JD Salinger, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Like The Catcher in the Rye, Chbosky’s book is a coming-of-age story – in fact, the narrator, Charlie, describes reading The Catcher in the Rye. After receiving the two books, Jenny read Franny and Zooey first, and loved it. Like me, she appreciated the witty exchanges the characters have in this book. I hadn’t known she’d started The Perks of Being a Wallflower until I awoke one morning this summer to see a text message from her: “I love the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I would like to be Charlie’s friend.”
I immediately texted her back: “I’m so glad you like it. Charlie is one of my favorite characters.” For the next few hours, we continued to exchange short texts regarding her progress in the book. Jenny had only started the book the night before but had gotten hooked. The next day, she went to her waitressing job, and whenever she had a moment between customers she was reading a page or two, then texting me with her progress. When she reached the end, she wrote: “I just finished and wow his last and final letter is beautiful. I don’t want to cry at work but it really is one of the best books I have ever read.”
The text message exchange left me feeling jubilant. I realized that by exchanging messages about the book with my sister, its meaning had suddenly deepened for me. I also loved the paradox of it all: we were using our phones, a medium that many worry is destroying literary culture, to exchange ideas about a book. The texting wasn’t replacing reading — it was adding to it. Although school hadn’t made my sister view herself as a “real reader,” her thoughtfulness and passion clearly showed that she was.
One message struck me. Jenny wrote: “You are really talented as an English teacher, and you know all the books that are a great fit for me!” When I first read this I immediately wanted to discount it. That’s my little sister talking. She’s actually never seen me teach. What does she know?
I thought about it some more, and realized that although my sister has never taken an education class or worked in a school, she understood instinctually what exactly it means to be a literacy teacher: it’s learning enough about your students to help them discover the right books, then letting the reading itself work its magic. During the school year, when I am overwhelmed by new district initiatives, responding to 150 papers from my middle school students, conferring with parents and students, and attending more meetings than I care to count, I tend to forget this. I’ve thought of her words throughout the summer, and I’ve decided that when the school year starts up in full force, I need to copy and tape them to my desk, reminding myself that whatever else I’m feeling pressure to do, my main job is to talk with students about books, and find the ones that will get them reading.
I hope my exchange with my sister will spark your own memories. What books in your life were also social experiences, connecting you with other people? When have you witnessed a “non-reader” fall in love with a book? Did you have a reading experience this summer that will stay with you, and that you might share with your students and staff? And finally, what matters most to you about literacy teaching, and how can you hold on to this belief, no matter what the year brings?
This week we’re featuring resources for building community with technology. Plus more as always — enjoy!