Wait time can totally be the worst. Or maybe I should revise that sentence to say that 24 years into teaching, I am still impatient with silence. Two weeks ago, I was helping a group of middle school English teachers unpack and plan with a new district curriculum meant to help shape how independent reading would fold into the other aspects of what was being taught. It was hard going, because we were collaborating through Zoom, and despite the fact that we are an established community of practice, our attention was split, our investment was low, and our resistance was high. The things the curriculum valued were out of sync with our values, but as I was asking the group questions, no one was calling that out. The silence was screaming.
And then, as I was diligently (and silently) counting to 10, I committed a sin. Without thinking about it, I turned the corner of a page of the curriculum guide, meaning it as a means of marking something for us to come back to. Three participants in the group gasped audibly.
My eyes scanned the Zoom “boxes” to see what had elicited the sounds. To my surprise, Madison was pointing at me, eyes wide and mouth open.
“You dog-eared the page, Sara!” she exclaimed. All eyes shifted to me, accusing me of what was clearly a readerly sin for which I needed to be held accountable.
I threw up my hands and offered my confession, and the silence filled with our laughter. There might even have been a snort or two in the group.
Tension broken, we took a beat together and, once we got past the “offense,” stepped away from the now-defiled curriculum guide and started to talk with one another as readers. All it took was one question, and we were off and running. “Who in this group has a much deeper and darker readerly confession that needs to be sounded?” The list was long and marked with differing degrees of misstep. I share it below, without our names, to protect the English teachers who hide behind these delightful confessions:
- “I read series books out of order. The first chapters catch you up on what you need to know.”
- “I have a shelf of classics in my home that I completely bought for show. I’ve never read them and probably never will.”
- “I will not write in a book. Ever. You cannot make me.”
- “I like picking the next book to read far more than reading them.”
- “I have left stains in books from my whatever I am eating or drinking when reading. Isn’t that like an annotation?”
- “I read junk. Full-out brain floss. Not a classic since undergrad.”
- “I check books out of the library using my son’s library card because kids don’t get charged the late fees.”
Each of these confessions added life and brightness to the room, and they sent us—as trusted, engaged English teachers—into delightful discussions about what real readers do, what we love about our relationships with books, and what we hope to unlock in the readers we learn alongside in our classrooms. Our confessions were secretive and playful, and seemed to call out “readerly sins” that were made even more dastardly because of our avocation.
Amidst the frivolity, we realized that this was exactly what was missing from the curricular materials in our hands—the level of play and truth that we had just delighted in together. The curriculum was full of checklists, frameworks, suggested readings, and continuums for development. It isn’t that it was bad. It just was lacking the spirit that we so needed it to bring to the readers we were hoping to thrill and feed and excite.
So, our silence shifted to an excited buzz as we started thinking about the practices and joyful indulgences that were behind each of our confessions. We talked about the love of libraries, the importance of curation, the invitation posed by a brand-new book that has yet to be opened, and the ways we had built intentional reading lives. And, as such, we started to not only dog-ear pages of the curricular guide but annotate directly on the pages, add new content, and tear some things completely out. We ended up with something completely unique to us—and marked by the practices we wanted to invite, evoke, and invoke. In a way, that became our biggest and boldest confession of all: that we had taken hold of what we’d received and reimagined it into what was true.
Author’s note: What follows is a sampling of the reading confessions shared by a group of seventh graders who were the first to try this activity. We were quite pleased that no one went so far as to read a series out of order:
- “I only will read books with covers that don’t have people on them.”
- “When I have a new book, no one else can read it until I do. Otherwise, it’s ruined.”
- “I am a last-chapter-first reader.”
- “I sneak read in church.”
- “’Just one more chapter’ is my favorite lie.”
- “I chuck books when something unforgivable happens. You don’t want to see my copy of Magnus Chase.”
- “I listen to audiobooks on the bus and nod like I’m listening to a great song. It’s my brain’s happy dance.”