Beginning and Nurturing Reading Lives by Jaime Lewandowski

How It Began

Jaime Lewandowski

It was awkward at first: we knew that parents-to-be could read to their unborn child throughout pregnancy, but it felt strange for 30-somethings to be reading Dr. Seuss on the couch at night.  Even the dogs looked at us funny.  And when our son was born, it was still a little unnatural to pick up a board book and read to him while we rocked him to sleep.  After all, how could he possibly understand the story?  And how would 10 minutes of reading to a newborn really improve his vocabulary or instill a lifelong love of reading and exploration?  But, we stuck with it (it helped that at our baby shower, guests gifted us books for the baby’s library instead of cards).  

As our firstborn grew, reading with him became part of our daily routine.  And when he was old enough to grab the books himself (always kept on shelves or in baskets that he could reach), he studied them in silence, brought them to us to read (over and over and over), and even danced on them in the kitchen.  And since by then reading had become such a big part of our lives, it was a no-brainer for us to continue it full force throughout my pregnancy with his little sister.  It was no longer uncomfortable to read to my growing belly because I had a toddler listening, too.  Even the dogs came around, relaxing to the sound of familiar stories.

 I wonder now if the extra reading our daughter heard in-utero (while I read to her brother dozens of books a day) accounts for her early reading prowess.  I would like to take some credit for it but I suppose I was just trying to keep my toddler occupied while I held her close.  There are a few things, though, that I feel better pointing to as actions my husband and I took to encourage the voracious readers that our 4- and 6-year-olds have become.  Their reading life began before they were born, and we purposefully nurture it now.

We Read Together

We still read aloud each night, and often during the day, even though our children can read to themselves.  That closeness is part of what makes our reading time so special, and the conversations sparked by the stories give us new worlds to explore.  Books are read in a big, comfy bed while we are all cuddled up; by the fireplace on a cold day; to the dog as she lounges in her favorite spot; on lazy Sundays on the couch; at school during special parent-reader days.  I grab my own book and read silently next to my 6-year-old as he devours our newest library haul.  My husband reads over coffee and the kids bring a book to be close to him.

The Lewandowskis sans Jaime.

We Grow Our Home Library

We knew that we wanted our children to have access to their own books, ones they could chew on, sleep with, throw, keep in the car, and learn to love.  And as they grew older (and gentler), we supplemented our home library with our town’s library.  We are regulars there, often requesting specific titles through interlibrary loan.  And when we bring our treasures home, I know I can count on each child slipping off into a cozy corner to read quietly.  We also gift books to friends, and put them on holiday wish lists.  Anticipating our monthly book club box, magazine subscriptions, and book orders through school are other ways that reading brings us joy.

We Engage

At each opportunity, we sign up for summer reading programs and school reading challenges.  Incentives for time spent reading or even engaging in non-reading activities (like playing outside, baking for a neighbor, or visiting a museum) make it fun to participate.  Following various reading websites and the Instagram feeds of folks who recommend age-appropriate books is a free and easy way to keep the kids’ to-read list growing.  When authors we love come to visit the library, we show up to get our much-loved books signed.  Last summer after we read a book about Ferris wheels, we took a trip into the city to ride one!  And did you know that Santa schedules visits at local bookstores?  When he does, we make that our special time with Saint Nicholas.  New this year: I volunteered to help in my son’s school library.  He loves knowing that I’m there, and I love perusing the shelves and sharing ideas with the librarians.

What We Avoid

From time to time I am asked which reading program we use with the kids, or what kinds of flash cards, worksheets, or phonics apps we prefer.  While our son’s kindergarten class did encourage the use of a great iPad reading program, we do not do any formal reading instruction at home.  We have also so far chosen to avoid keeping reading logs.  When one came home early in the school year, I knew in my gut that some of the joy our son felt in reading on his own would be lost if it was tied to the clock.  His teacher was supportive of a more loosely-based system for keeping track, and that worked well for our family.  We want reading to be something our kids choose to do rather than it feeling like an obligation.  

I suppose it all boils down to a purposeful approach to fostering a love of books in our children.  By making reading a part of our everyday lives and supporting our children’s interests through books, we have laid the foundation for strong reading lives that will continue to grow.

Jaime Lewandowski has worked in higher education for 16 years.  When her children were born, she resigned from her position as a college administrator to become a full-time stay-at-home-mom.  She also works as an adjunct instructor and faculty trainer for a university on the East Coast.  In her role there, she focuses primarily on supporting adult learners as they pursue their degrees and facilitating faculty training sessions for those new to online instruction.  Few things bring her more joy than putting new books in her little ones’ hands and listening to them read.

The Pleasure of Difficulty by Peter Anderson

Peter Anderson

I have three English teacher confessions. First, I don’t like Shakespeare. I’ve never taught any of the bard’s works and I’d rather keep it that way. Next, I don’t enjoy poetry. I’m more of a maximalist, so the art of compression has never tugged at my heartstrings. But my biggest English teacher confession is that I didn’t enjoy reading until I was in my mid twenties. This isn’t for want of trying. My parents and teachers were indefatigable, pelting me with books from every imaginable genre and topic. I just wasn’t interested.

That changed after an unremarkable dinner at my dad’s apartment during my senior year of high school. My father, a college professor, always kept three items on his dining room table: three dessicated pomegranates, two stacks of papers, and whatever book he happened to be reading. The books, which he swapped out without comment every week or so, never interested me. He didn’t mention them and neither did I. One evening, I noticed a particularly hefty book with an eye-catching cover: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I thumbed through the pages, intrigued by the miniscule font and copious footnotes.

“Hey. What’s this about?” I asked. My dad paused; I imagined gears crunching behind his gun metal eyes.

“Hmm. It’s complicated,” he said.

“Would I like it?” I replied.

“You’re not ready,” he said. His tone was factual, not derisive. I nodded and the conversation moved on. Almost ten years later, I was at a Barnes and Nobles on a date when the memory of that evening at my father’s house popped into my head. Drunk from first date endorphins and adrenaline, I dragged my companion to the store’s fiction section, whipped out my phone, and called my dad.

“Hey, Dad! Remember that time you had this big book on your table and I asked if I could read it and you said I wasn’t ready?”


“The book was really colorful. It had clouds or something on the cover, I think. And it was big.”

“Oh, yes. You’re talking about Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. What about it?”

“Am I ready now?”

“… Yes.”

Elated, I bought the book, cut the date short, and scampered home to read. Infinite Jest was unlike anything I’d ever experienced: hyper intelligent, hilarious, and heartrendingly sad. I struggled to make sense of the book’s serpentine plot lines and shifting perspectives. Then, after the first 300 pages, it all started to click. Characters began to solidify and the multiple plots shifted into place. The book asked a lot of me. I kept a vocabulary journal next to my bed and filled the pages with words like “ascapartic,” “homodontic,” and “anfractuous.” I cobbled together timelines and kept notes on who did what to whom. By the time I finished it three months later, I was hooked. I joined the DFW listserv, bought a couple signed first-editions, and started reading it a second time.

Infinite Jest changed my life in profound ways. The book follows a hyper-articulate adolescent and an ex-convict as they struggle to survive the nightmare of millennial America. It resonated with me on a cellular level. It helped me understand who I am and how I want to respond to life. And most important for this post, it set up a basic pattern of reading that continues to this day. I want whatever I’m reading to challenge me. I’m not interested in reading for the sake of pleasure. I don’t look to books for relaxation or escape; I’m just not wired that way. I look to books for growth.

I see books as repositories of knowledge. I surround myself with them, stacking and shuffling titles from one pile to the next depending on my project or mood. They’re constant reminders of everything I want to know and everyone I want to be. Whenever I get into a new topic, I start out with the touchstone texts. Then the fun begins. I trawl through bibliographies, casting a wide net and snatching up as many related books and periodicals as my wallet will allow. As soon as I feel myself getting comfortable, I shift to another topic and start over again. The relentless pace isn’t necessarily enjoyable, but that’s the point. I need to feel destabilized and challenged.

During the school year I read almost exclusively young adult and middle grades literature. I love these genres, but I only read them so I can recommend books to my students. Otherwise I’d spend every reading minute eyeballs deep in nonfiction books on topics like pedagogy, philosophy, race, and history. Currently I’m splitting my time between contemporary middle grades books and essays on critical race theory. Reading about kids suffering through the growing pains of adolescence is enjoyable, but nothing comes close to the nerve-searing satisfaction of serious study.

Like the characters of Infinite Jest, I am always trying to escape myself. I use books as escape pods to propel me out of the narcotizing orbit of my own solipsism. Since ADHD shot holes through my memory, I rarely remember what I read. But that doesn’t matter, I don’t have to remember. I have the books. They’re always ready to teach me. All I have to do is grab a highlighter and open one up.

Peter Anderson has been teaching middle school English Language Arts for nine years. He also works with the Northern Virginia Writing Project as a teacher consultant and occasional co-director. You can reach him on Twitter at @MrAndersonELA or through his blog at


Reading  and Teaching 1984: What if Some of Them Don’t “Get It”? by David Schaafsma

David Schaafsma, University of Illinois at Chicago

Recently I reread 1984 by George Orwell, which I had read the first time in high school in the sixties, have taught many times, and had not reread for decades. I saw that the book was perhaps the best selling book of 2017, which I was pleased and somewhat hopeful about; it signaled a kind of move to reading as resistance. Other darkly dystopian books were also popular, resonant for some with the current U.S. administration: It Can’t Happen Here—Sinclair Lewis; The Plot Against America—Phillip Roth; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui—Bertolt Brecht; The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood, and so many others, many of which I pretty conventionally reviewed on Goodreads.

However, I looked around and found there were several thousand often angry and dismayingly insightful reviews of 1984, both when it came out in 1949 through today. I had taken copious notes in my recent reading of the book, and had copied out terrifyingly prescient quotes from 1984 on the abolition of science, of thought control via the media, and so on. I was ready to write my review.  But I thought about Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” a dark satire about how to solve the Irish famine:

I have been an English teacher for more than forty years. I thought of how students on the right might read 1984, and quickly and somewhat impulsively wrote this darkly satirical review:

1984 is a stoopid and borring and depresing book mz Jones made me read in school that is clearly an attck on the Pressident of the United States Donald Trump. They think they are so smart they can call him Big Borther (Big? He aint fat, his dokter just sed he was fisicaly fit, so there!) and say he lives in Oceania instead of Amerika! You cant foowel me! I know this is Trump!  We elected him, so get over it! God wants Him to be Pressident, my preachur even said so. You r living on the Greatest kuntry in the werld I don’t know what you got to wery about you must have been in the sixties with all those riots aginst the guverment you should all go back to your s***hole kuntries if you don’t love Amerika.

Big Brother is watching you, it sez? Oh, come on. Why worry about that? If you just watch tv and football and have a couple drinks, why do you care if they watchin u?

One part that is stupid, the anti-sex league! In this Great kuntry you can grab anything and anyone you want and have sex with porn stras and nuthin bad kin happen 2 u. Why would we be aginst sex, if you can have anything you want?! All these wimin in the streets, they should be hapy men will even like them! And didn’t the Pressident just give them a tacks brake! Aren’t more women bein hired now?! Fox Nooze even said so. You odn’t need the ERA or whateve my teacher sez, I don’t think wimn should make what I do as a guy! They are wimmin! Comon!! I no for a fact you can’t make them happy! They are clearly mad for no rezin.

What I like the book 1984 sed is that Newspeak or whatever they call it will make the words smaller and ezier. My teacher said to put in kwotes it will be bttter in my repert so here goes 

“The beauty of Newspeak is that each year the vocabulary is getting smaller and smaller! The range of thought gets smaller and smaller. When the language is appropriately small, the revolution will have become complete!”

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” I agree with this cuz I hate werds I never speak I just want to wacth tv and toss a cupple back with my boys.

I don’t know what all those werds even mean, but I want smaller words, and less of them. I know they say Trump speaks on the 4th grade level, I dn’t even know what they mean, he is the Pressident, he can speak on any level he wants he needs to speak so we can understand him don’t he?

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength?” Is this stupid or what? I am strong and can ded lift like 525 pownds! Does that make me ignorant?

But I did like the torture parts. I want to do that to people who are portestin our duly elected Pressident and old white libtards even a guy who sez he was a Repubican Jeff Flake who sez Trump talks like Stalin! Who is Stalin!? I don’t even think he exists! Buncha lies and fake nooze. I aktualy want to tortur this guy Orwell for writin this book and my techur for makin me read it its so stoopid.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

 I say good some people need to be stamped on like people from s***hold kuntries.

I like how they ban books in it because all I watch is tv my football and Fox news with my beer and I am good. Books are too hard they need to make things ezier so this kuntry will be Great again. I am so hunover aftir that game but I perfer that because thinking is hard and makes me sad sometimes.

This book was like anuther book the libtard Englsih techur Mz jones Forced us to read, Farunhite 451 where they burn books which was stupid 2 they call the guy a firman and he burns books haw so stoopid! How do they come up with this crap?!

But it made me think this is whut we shuld do is burn this book, it only makes some people mad and confoozed!!

Like these kwotes I hope will get me a btter grade tho I don’t understand them:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Like huh?!

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” Like The Art of the Deal, maybe?!

“We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. . . Power is not a means; it is an end. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. . . Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” 

Huh? I say agin: Why kant they use ezier werds like in newspeak they said they were gonna use smaller wrds! Liars!

Here’s one I really don’t git: “The only way to preserve a hierarchical society is through poverty and ignorance.”

Another kwote I don’t understand: 

“To think is the only hope.” Winston said this. What could he possibly mean?! 

In retrospect, a couple days later, I have some second thoughts about the review. I think it is provocative, probably divisive. Occasionally nasty. I’ve never taught a student quite like the imagined author of this text, though I certainly have and have had students and family members who express these kinds of ideas, and who actually voted for Trump. I’m a teacher, and see myself as a good person who would never—okay, rarely—vent about a student in the staff room and would not typically make fun of one of my own students. I have been fearful and angry about the current administration on a daily basis, and something in the review reflects those emotions, of which I am not particularly proud. I would never post a piece of writing that an actual student had done such as this, nor would I publically castigate a student for embracing views different than mine. I was initially worried about how some of my Republican family might respond to the review, those few that still follow me on Facebook or Goodreads. I don’t intend to be mean-spirited, but maybe it reads that way, even to me at times.

Still, I posted it, and think it could be useful in the debate about these issues. I think we who teach English embrace a kind of romantic view that reading is knowledge that will change the world, by which we mean most people’s minds. Yet sometimes a text can confirm one’s views, and why would we hope that all people would respond identically to a piece of literature? Isn’t this one of the things we most fear about 1984, that any kind of media–including writing–might make us think alike? But some people read and see the opposite of what we intend:

I recall teaching Our America by LeAlan Jones in my Young Adult Literature class as an anti-racist text about living on the south side of Chicago, featuring honest portrayals of those living there, sometimes sympathetic depictions of loving families, sometimes painful portraits of violence and drug addiction.  Having taught that book to future teachers, I have heard stories of their teaching the book in their all- or mostly-white classrooms, with a few of their students seemingly having their racist views confirmed by the book! I thought of Our America and similar responses to other texts I have taught as I wrote my review. I thought about how young readers just don’t sometimes “get” the intentions of teachers and authors and what that means for us as teachers.

In my Facebook feed, my former student Sarah Donovan fairly quickly posted a thoughtful and insightful response to my satire, including a review of 1984 by one of her seventh grade students that seemed to “right the ship” for me in my fearful and angry and despondent reading of the book, a hopeful view for those that are anticipating teaching or have taught the book. In Sarah’s class, choice reading is a priority, so students develop to-read lists and have class time every day to read and confer with Sarah about their reading experiences.  They also respond to their reading however they wish, and Matthew, the student who read 1984 by choice, chose to write a letter to his teacher.  Here is Matthew’s take on 1984 (shared with his and his mother’s consent): 

January 19, 2018

Dear Dr. Donovan,

As you already know, I have been progressing through my book in a sluggish manner, as I have only read 48 pages since my last blog post. I am still reading 1984: A Novel by George Orwell.

While I have only read about 50 pages this week, that surely doesn’t mean that I am not interested in the book. Actually, far from it. When I start reading this book, I don’t want to put it down-the dystopian theme and engraved message to be afraid of big government honestly intrigues me. The only issue that I am having is that there are usually 300-350 words on each page, which can make it take longer than usual to finish a normal amount of pages in one reading. As the book is about 300 pages, I am predicting that this may take me longer to finish that I would’ve expected.

In this reading, I as the reader followed the main character, Winston, through his place of work in the Outer Party, which is similar to the middle class, except they all work for the government. In this case, Winston works in the Ministry of Truth (Minitru in Newspeak*) where he rewrites old sources of media that the Party declares “doubleplusungood”** and “not true”, which is also a brainwashing tactic. We also take a dive in to the lower class of Oceania. Oceania is the mega-nation where Winston lives. He enters a Prole community, and starts talking with a older man hoping to get some justification in his mind that the world was not always as the party says it is, where before the revolution, everyone was worse off, and the world was run by greedy, cruel capitalists, with their top hats. I stopped reading at this point.

Even though they have lower socioeconomic status, the Proles, or lower class of Oceania, are better off than the Outer Party members, or the middle class. One of the parts in this reading that really spoke this to me was here, “..but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party. It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings… The great majority of Proles did not even have telescreens*** in their homes. (71)”

What this quote shows me is that even though the Proles should be worse off, as they are overworked, robbed of a decent live, and live in overcrowded slums, they are more free than the middle class. They are not constantly spied on, as the Party does not expect them to form their own political opinions. The thought police aren’t constantly on the lookout for thought-criminals, and they can do as they please, without interference from the Party, or Big Brother****. As the Party itself says, “Proles and animals are free. (72)” Thus, I can fully claim that the Proles are better off than Outer Party members, if you view having first amendment freedoms as being more free than your fellow comrade****** whom does not.

Best of wishes,


P.S.: Please view below for an explanation of the astixed words.

Astrix explanation:

*= The Party’s made up language to help brainwash their people, and eliminate words such as “freedom”, “Peace”, or any word that could allow people to make a free thought.

**= A Newspeak word that substitutes words such as “Excellent”, “Splendid” or “Superb”.

***= A T.V. like item that has a screen that allows Big Brother, or anyone with access to view the other side; a spy camera with a T.V. attached.

****= The leader of the Party. Thought criminals debate whether or not he is a real person.

*****= A substitution for Mrs., Mr., or any surname that is enforced by the party to bring everyone down to the same level, as with the principles of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.

David Schaafsma is a Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he directs the Program in English Education. He teaches courses in English teaching methods, graphic novels and young adult literature. He’s the author of five books and is a former editor of the journal English Education. He’s published numerous articles on community-based literacy, but also increasingly increasingly writes fiction and poetry. He’s the father of five children and has five siblings living in three states. He lives in Oak Park just outside Chicago. He as rated 5744 books on Goodreads!@DavidSchaafsma1 

I Read for Me, I Read for My Students by Travis Crowder

In my office rest several boxes, filled with remnants of my childhood–books from my earliest reading days and pages of hand-written stories, ones held together by frayed and faded blue thread. Every so often, I dig through these boxes. Even now, as I glance at the contents, I see a story I wrote in 9th grade, a “This Book Belongs To” sticker that I received from my 2nd grade teacher, and dozens of picture books. These boxes contain the foundation of my reading life, and every time I peruse the contents, my mind fills with the moments that helped me fall in love with books and reading.

Travis Crowder
Travis Crowder

I was introduced to the beautiful world of books by my mother, a voracious reader who loved to read stories aloud to my sister and me. We would climb into her lap before bed, light from the lamp illuminating the pages before us, delighted at the prospect of another tantalizing tale. Sometimes we wandered through mystical lands, other times we traipsed through forests with magical creatures. The lyrical quality of my mother’s voice would coalesce with the story, and I desperately wanted this time to last forever. I was mesmerized.

After the lights throughout our small house were extinguished and everyone else had fallen asleep, I would gather the books my mother had read at bedtime and reread them. Books such as Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Apt. 3 and Maggie and the Pirate by Ezra Jack Keats, Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard, and Freckle Juice by Judy Blume were some of the first stories I remember hearing. I was a precocious child and gravitated to more challenging reading even in my early elementary days. I devoured books. If a book promised a good story, I was willing to try it.

My bookshelves soon filled with many novels. These books gave me friends when I was lonely, helped me vanquish foes when I was afraid, and provided me with the resolve to withstand the harrowing moments of adolescence. I answered questions I didn’t know I had, and because of my reading life, I began developing questions of my own. Books were my happy place. And honestly, they still are.

More important, though, were the lessons I learned and the ideas I gathered from these books. Now, as an adult, I continue to read. Every year, I make a personal pledge to read at least 100 books. My professional life consumes the preponderance of my time, but I still carve out time for reading. It’s a non-negotiable. Under the weight of graduate work, National Boards, a personal blog, writing commitments, and a book deadline, I managed to meet my goal last year. How? Because I prioritized it. My friend, Jennifer, often tells me that we prioritize the things we value. I value reading, therefore I make it a priority.

Even as an adult, I face demons, fight insecurities, and seek solace. Books ease the frustrations of life, and as I disappear into beautiful narratives, I know that the stories I encounter will give me the help I need to conquer my trials. That’s what stories do. And I trust them.

I read for myself. But I also read for my students. As a reading teacher, I feel compelled and obligated to read and recommend as many books as possible. My students trust my recommendations because for many of them, I am the only reader they know. I read new books each week and as soon as I finish, I bring them to class, share them through book talks and read alouds, and pass them along to readers who are mesmerized by them. Kids need that.

As much as I want students to acquire skills that will enable them to interpret and analyze literature, I’m more concerned that they develop a reading life that will take them far beyond my class. I want them to fall in love with Ryan Dean West in Winger, follow his antics, see his pain, yet learn that life often confronts us with the unexpected. I want them to read The Hate U Give and become angered by the lack of social justice in our world. I want them to read All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook and be humbled by their privileged circumstances. These books offer valuable lessons and insight into our world. That is what I want them to experience. That is why I continue to read, even when my schedule is burdened with writing deadlines, endless meetings, school work, students essays, and lesson plans. I read for me. But I read to help them find friends, vanquish foes, and find resolve, too.

As I press forward with my reading pledge for this year, I know I will hit slumps. These slumps usually hit me after I read a wonderfully crafted novel or a gorgeous professional book for language arts teachers. Knowing that my students will benefit from my reading life causes me to scour my shelves, search for recommendations, and reach out to students to ask what they’re reading and what I should read next. I inspire their reading lives, and many times, they inspire mine. I have a powerful responsibility to my students; I want them to grow as readers, but I also want them to build a substantive reading life. That will serve them far beyond my class.

If I can but light a spark in their reading lives, I know it will grow into a beautiful fire. Here’s to another year of reading.

Travis Crowder is a 7th grade English/language arts and social studies teacher in Hiddenite, NC. His first book, Sparks in the Dark, co-written with Todd Nesloney, is a professional book that explores the ways reading and writing can become a campus-wide reality. It will be available this summer. You can listen in on the podcast, Sparks in the Dark, now.


It was a beautiful and rare, sunny afternoon in Seattle, Washington. I was walking down a hallway with Jane Addams Middle School principal, Paula Montgomery, when she stopped suddenly and stepped into a classroom. We had been chatting about that afternoon’s professional development that I’d be leading for her school’s English teachers. I assumed she was stepping into the classroom to redirect a student (the class had a substitute teacher that day). She did in fact address that student, but not for the reason I had thought. She pulled him aside and proceeded to ask him if he had finished reading Lois Lowery’s,  Gathering Blue. He nodded excitedly in affirmation, and they went on to talk for a few minutes about why they both thought it wasn’t as good as The Giver,  the first book in the quartet. Then, she smiled warmly, and made him promise to stop by her office the next day to pick up another of Lowery’s books. This whole conversation took place in less than three minutes and yet had an impact that would last far beyond.

In many of the professional development sessions that I lead, teachers often share their concern and frustration that their students won’t read. I hear the same scenario described in most every district I visit. Teachers explain that when they provide class time to read books of choice, there’s a large number of students that either don’t bring a book, bring a different book each day, or bring the same book all year (as long as the teacher doesn’t notice) and “fake read.”

I believe we can change this. I believe that we can intentionally create a climate and culture in every school, in every classroom, where every student can’t help but get swept up in the excitement of reading. Call it book “FOMO”, fear of missing out. This culture and climate cannot exist without adults who read.  Jim Burke, author of The English Teacher’s Companion (Heinemann, 2012), says, “Nothing sells reading, like a teacher that reads.” If the adults in a school read, more of the students in that school will read and not just assigned reading. I’m talking about being authentic and self-engaged readers. I’m talking about the “I stayed up too late to finish my book” readers.

Here’s some of the ways I have successfully helped to encourage, nudge, and even at times, cajole school leaders and teachers into being the adult readers their students need them to be.

  1. This first strategy shouldn’t come as a surprise. I model living a reader’s life. I carry with me a small stack of books everywhere I visit. In that stack there’s the current book I’m reading (right now that’s Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance) a few “hot” YAL books, and maybe a book that I think might appeal to someone in the group that day. It’s not enough for me to just talk about the books I’m reading, there’s something different about having the actual book out on the table. Invariably, someone will ask me about one of the books, at which time I leap at the chance to give a quick book talk. In just a few minutes, I’m selling or “pitching” the book. But more importantly… I’m selling adult reading. If I’ve finished the book and someone shows an interest in reading it, I’ll give it away. I do this partially because I just love giving books away, but also to message that books are to be shared. Too often, I see adults get overly possessive with the books in their schools. They worry if they let students take them home, they won’t get them back. I recently heard Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009), say she’d rather lose a book than a reader. She’s a smart one, that Donalyn. 
  2. In addition to modeling living a reader’s life, I also cite research that proves that in schools where adults individually recommend books to students, students read more. When I want to encourage a school to take action, it helps to build my case with research. Research shows that reading is relational. The catch is, we have to know what to recommend, and the only way we can do that, is to read ourselves. In a study published in The School Library Media Research, author, Bernice E. Cullinan cited the following: “However, research also suggests that some teachers are not knowledgeable about children’s literature; they are not able to introduce students to the wealth of books available, and they may not recognize the effects of their teaching methods on students’ attitude toward reading (Short and Pierce 1990).” In short, having a teacher that reads, matters-tremendously.
  3. As well as being able to recommend the right books, we have to have the right books. I help teachers envision enticing classroom libraries and come up with resourceful ways to build them. If we want students to read, we have to be able to say, “I have just the book for you!” and then immediately put that book in the student’s hands. Our libraries should hold a wide variety of books that reflect the diversity and uniqueness of our students. Our books should be windows and mirrors for our students. We shouldn’t shy away from buying and recommending books with challenging content. Nothing builds empathy like reading. If we want our students to build empathy for their peers, and themselves for that matter, we must encourage them to read books that center around real social issues. Issues such as racism, drug abuse, depression, bullying, suicide, violence, pregnancy, etc. The same principle applies to adults. If we want to better empathize with our students we should be reading books like Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick,  The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. Being able to hand the just the right book to a student at just the right time, may end up having an impact of which we may never know the depth.

I’ve been a reader since before I can remember being anything else. I never go anywhere without a book. I’ve survived some of the hardest times in my life by reading. When I look back on my upbringing and ask how I became the reader I am, I attribute it to the adult readers in my life. I was extremely lucky to have teachers who were readers and constantly put the right books in my hands. (Thank you Mrs. Shumer, for handing me The Thorn Birds in ninth grade!)

I believe the most important work we can do is to empower our students to become readers. That work cannot be done without being an adult that reads. So, get reading. Oh, and follow me on GoodReads to find out #whatstheteacherreading.

Maria Losee is a national level consultant that specializes in improving student achievement by supporting districts in analyzing teaching and learning in order to create professional development for district leaders, coaches, and teachers. Her work includes designing and leading professional development sessions for both large and small groups, supporting teachers in planning for purposeful instruction, modeling classroom lessons, providing side-by-side coaching, developing effective assessment practices, and writing Common Core aligned units of study. Maria has a wealth of experience coaching Elementary and Secondary teachers not only in English Language Arts, but in content area disciplinary literacy as well. Her blog is The Literacy Maven.

Introducing My Debut YA Novel, Alone Together

Today is Friday, which means Story Time in my junior high writing classes; students share their writing in an open-mic forum with student-hosts facilitating the stories and celebrations. Today, I stepped up to the mic in front of my biggest and most beloved critics: my seventh-grade students. I wanted them to be the first to hear from my debut young adult verse novel, Alone Together. Scott made the introduction, and Alex recorded my reading to commemorate the event. (It is a really big deal to share and really scary to read your art to a room full of people, and they’ve been doing this since August.) My critics were kind as they showered me with celebrations and support.

So, introducing the first few pages of my debut novel, Alone Together. Now available for pre-order on Amazon Books. Release date May 1, 2018. (My friend April Dippy Berbari is designing the cover, which will be revealed soon.)…

Please, apologize to me.

Broken Heart

Originally published a year ago, this story from my classroom has been on my mind of late. It still resonates because I, as an English teacher, will always represent for students Reading–its joys but also its traumas. And there are times that I forget and take personally a student’s resistance to me, to the class. The apology, sometimes, is MY best offer at peace to find a path to reframe reading for some, to listen to the ghosts of reading past.

“What is your favorite restaurant?” I ask as we begin Thursday’s English class.

“Panda Express.”

“What? No, Chipotle.”

“Does Starbucks count?”

“And in which stores do you buy your clothes?” I ask.


“Forever 21.”

“What about your favorite holiday? Which is it?” I persist.


“My birthday. It should be a holiday.”

“Yes, I wish we could have a parade to celebrate every life. I am asking these questions because I want us to think about the culture of our lives here in suburban Chicago — the places we eat and shop, the holidays we celebrate with friends, the games we play, the language we use to have this conversation. This culture is our comfort zone; it’s what we know.

“Now, what would have to happen in your life, in our country, for you and your family to move to another country — to migrate to a very different culture and abandon your comfort zone? Imagine all the people who are pushed or pulled to suburban Chicago from a place with all different restaurants, stores, holidays — and a different language. For some people fleeing from war, they are immersed in our culture with no support or guidance in how to navigate our ways, and this can cause stress — acculturative stress. They need to find ways to assimilate or fit into our language, our restaurants, our stores, our holidays. What does stress feel like? What does stress do to you?” I ask.


“My heart races.”

“I get a twitch in my chin.”

“I get irritated with everyone.”

” I shut down.”

I listen carefully and note all the eighth grade heads nodding and a few heads down tolerating my questions. I continue, “I tend to shut down when I feel too stressed, but eventually, when I realize the stress is not going to disappear, I try to find solutions,” I say. “I’ve been immersed in another culture a few times. Once, I went to Israel and stayed with a family who spoke Arabic. They not only spoke a very different language, but they had different beliefs about how women should behave and dress. I observed carefully and did my best to fit in — doing what I saw the women do. But I was stressed. And over winter break, I am going to Iceland with my husband. I am already feeling some of stress about the language, food, and even bathroom differences, and I am just going to visit,” I say trying to offer examples of acculturative stress and assimilation, two terms we are using in our exploration of immigration literature.

No regreses,” Juan mumbles, eyes down.

Ojala,” Jose mumbles to Juan, eyes glancing at Juan.

“Juan and Jose,” I say in a strained whisper. “Please go into the hallway.”

As Juan and Jose (pseudonyms) quickly stand and depart, I continue but can feel my heart racing and my voice beginning to quiver, “So, I’m looking for some warm boots for my trip as a way of assuaging my stress. Now, today, I have a video I want to show you to illustrate immersion or what it might feel like to be immersed into a new language– it is a short film. Please write down on the sticky note — immersion, assimilation, and acculturative stress. Then, after the film, write down an example of each based on the film’s main character.”

We talk a little bit about the meaning of each word. I write the definitions on the board and begin the short film. All this time, I am thinking about Juan and Jose and what I am going to say in the hallway.

Embed from Getty Images

I turn off the lights, take a deep breath, and go into the hallway to “talk” to Juan and Jose. Only I don’t really talk. I empty my hurt onto the stained carpeting hoping they might see how their words broke me in that moment. I want them to see me.

“Please, apologize to me. Please,” I begin with a quiver in my voice.

“I’m sorry,” Juan says, looking me in the eye now. Jose is turned away from me kicking at the wall softly, avoiding my hurt.

“You said you don’t want me to come back from my trip. I feel so hurt that after all this time together, you can say this. I try so hard to be a good teacher for you. The film, the books, the groups, the extra help.”

I am not looking for an answer. What could he say? He has a teacher standing in front of him who has all the power, and he has never seen me this way. He must be stunned, but I proceed to empty all my hurt onto that stained carpet– perhaps pain that had been repressed- whispers of self-doubt, murmurs of failure. The tears are coming, and I can’t stand in the hallway another second without losing it, so I return to the classroom, which is dark because of the film, so no one can see my flushed cheeks and red eyes. I guess I respond to stress by crying and not really problem solving like I said earlier.

Juan’s words were not really for me; they were for the people sitting around him; they were his way of, yet again, rejecting all that is reading, but I did hear him, and he did hurt me with his words. I over-reacted. I am feeling that guilt rising, and I am trying to keep my tears from Juan and Jose because my reaction is not their burden to carry, so I blot my spilling heart with my cardigan pulling it closed like protective skin and leave a puddle of hurt (and guilt) to soak into the carpet as I return to the classroom. I don’t bring Juan and Jose with me, and I am not sure why. I need a minute to compose myself.

I watch final scenes of Immersion, with the other twenty-five eighth grade students who are half way through their immigration books: A Step from Heaven, Of Beetles and Angels, Inside Out and Back Again, A Journey of the Sparrows, Lupita Manana, Shadow of the Dragon, La Linea, Girl in Translation, Behind the Mountains, and Outcasts United.

I try to pull myself together as I watch the film. Moises, the main character, is about to take a state test in math, only he can’t read any of the word problems because he has just arrived in California from Mexico and doesn’t speak or read English. The school has just moved from a bilingual program to an immersion program for their English Language Learners. Moises uses his dictionary to write a note to his teacher asking for the test in Spanish. His math teacher recognizes Moises’s math skills and asks her principal for the test Spanish, but he refuses.Moises continues to study his math, carries his dictionary everywhere he goes, and tries to join in with his peers in a game of kickball, only to find out the rules change daily. Another student notices Moises’ frustration and suggests Moises skip the test by asking to go to the bathroom and then sneaking out to go get some ice cream. (You can watch the film to see what Moises chooses.)

From the film Immersion
From the film Immersion

As soon as the film is over, I have regained some composure and know what I have to do. I ask the students to make notes about the film as I bring my laptop into the hallway for Juan and Jose. I want them to see the film. I actually chose this film because of Juan, knowing how much he prefers listening to reading. They are sitting on the carpet now, after ten minutes of being in the hallway.

“This is the film I wanted to share with you today. I hope you like it,” I say as I set the laptop on the carpet between them. They are sitting right where I stood moments before, in my puddle. I don’t make eye contact but I muster a smile.

I know in my fractured heart (ojala) that their comment to me was not personal. This is what I say to myself all the time, and this is what I say to teachers who share similar stories with me. I am a symbol of reading and English class, and for them, English class is not a place they belong; it is a foreign country with a language and culture all its own. And they don’t want any part of it. Their resentment toward me is a form of acculturative stress.

The ice cream boy in the short film learned to cope with his acculturative stress by avoiding, sneaking out, finding alternatives like ice cream (who wouldn’t prefer ice cream to a state test). Juan and Jose, well, they resisted with negative comments that day, but generally, their acculturative stress manifests as avoidance, anxious laughter, and class disruption (which impacts others, too).

As English teachers, we embody all that is English, but the connotation of that word, that symbol, depends on each student’s past experiences with reading and English class. For some students, we represent peace, discovery, and joy, but for so many more of our students, we represent a country that has rejected them at some point in life. We represent a place into which they were immersed without support, made to feel dumb or slow. We represent that person who put a number or letter on their ability and then asked them to sit still with a book with muddled symbols. We represent that dreaded logging of reading time, red marks on their papers, big zeros or “F’s” scrawled next to their names. We represent an impossible or unappealing way of being in school and beyond.

As I watched that film, I knew what was happening with Juan and Jose. I knew how I fit into it all, and I cried because of it. I like to think my classroom is a safe space, that I offer support and encouragement to every “visitor” hoping they will eventually feel our classroom to be like a home of sorts. But despite my efforts, there are students who still feel like unwelcome guests in the world of reading I create. That is personal. That hurts. I hurt.

It was wrong to banish Juan and Jose from my classroom for those 30 minutes, but I don’t think it was wrong to show them my hurt. The classroom door was essentially an immigration wall that I built that day, and I have to apologize for, in that moment, embodying all that I criticize about the system.

While I may represent “reading” or embody a system that has failed them, I am not, in fact, that system. I am a human being capable of pain, a person who feels. Their words hurt me. I think they needed to see that the way their stress manifested that day had implications beyond them, but the way I handled it essentially reinforced their beliefs that I am the system. And I was asking questions about restaurants and stores some don’t have the means to patron, and I was talking about traveling to Israel and Iceland, places some don’t know and many can never go as long as they are undocumented.

Clearly, I have work to do in helping them see not only my humanity but that of their classmates with whom they share that space 40 minutes a day for 175 days. Clearly, I have work to do in helping them see their place at the metaphorical table. I will begin with an apology to each of them.

The night I have a date with my husband, Dan. We like to walk down to the local Italian restaurant for some half priced appetizers on Thursdays. Lately, our date nights sound a lot like conversations you might have with a travel agent as we prepare for two weeks in Europe over Christmas and New Years. It is usually fun to imagine all the possibilities, but as the trip gets closer, we are both feeling the stress of the uncertainty of traveling to new places.

“I have an update about Iceland,” Dan, says as we get started on the bread basket.

“I do, too,” I jump in cutting him off a bit. “Apparently, some students don’t want me to come back from Iceland,” I say, starting to cry again. I know I will carry Juan and Jose’s sentiments around with me for some time.

“What?” he asks, and I proceed to tell him the story.

Ripping off a piece of bread, I confess, “About half, maybe more, of my students hate reading. I don’t think they hate me, but I am reading to them.”

“I never knew that. Really? Half? You talk about a few students each year who worry you, but half?” he doesn’t believe me, which is strange because he hated school, especially reading.

“Yes, maybe more. Sometimes, like today, I feel like I am paying for what school, testing has done to them. But the truth is that they are paying for it. Reading stresses them out. It is one more thing to do. It is sitting still when they want to wiggle around. It is being a student, being a thinker, being a grown up when they are not ready to grow up. And for some, it is not wanting to fail, so it is safer not to try,” I explain.

Dan responds with silence and a side of compassion. I put down the bread and try to hold back tears. I know I just have to do what I can to re-story the narrative of rejection into a narrative of belonging.

Of course, I will return from Iceland and plan to bring a souvenir for Juan and Jose. The souvenir will be symbolic of an apology never made by the system that made them hate reading. It will be symbolic of the apology I asked for from two young boys who don’t know the roots of their resistance. It will be my apology to them for banishing them from our class for 30 minutes on that cold December day. There are a number of apologies that have to happen here, but, more importantly, we have to find ways to heal and move forward.

Broken Heart

The next day, students had their immigration book group discussions. I joined Jose’s group and read with them to clarify the ending of La Linea. Jose helped explain a few Spanish phrases to me. He translated the phrase “canas,” and I showed him my gray hair. Unfortunately, Juan was not able to stay with his group for long and was “banished” again. I called him at home this weekend, a story for another blog post.

I know words hurt and have the power to peel back your protective layers to expose your heart and even old wounds of failure and insecurity. I think it is okay to show that to your students. It humanizes us. It humanizes our work. Let some of that pain spill onto the already stained carpeting in your school. It will blend in. And then look for ways to repair your heart and theirs.If you want to hear some of the immigration book group discussions, check out these recordings:

Discussions of Of Beetles and Angels, The Journey of the Sparrows.

Discussions of Shadow of the Dragon, A Step from Heaven.

Discussions of Of Beetles and Angels, Inside Out and Back Again

Discussions of La Linea and Tangled Threads

Discussions of Girl in Translation, Uprising, and Song of a Buffalo Boy

Discussions of Lupita Manana and Behind the Mountains

You Can’t Drive 65: An English Teacher Reading in (Late) Middle Age

This month on Ethical ELA I am featuring the reading lives of my teacher-friends to inspire us to read more in 2018 (and for some great book recommendations). Last week, we heard from Brian Kissel, and this week we welcome my dear friend, professor, and mentor David Schaafsma, Professor of English and Director of English Education. I first met Dave in 2001 when I resigned from my job as a social worker to pursue a teaching degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He helped me develop my voice and practice as a social justice educator. And when I was close to resigning from my job as a teacher in 2010, Dave welcomed me back to UIC to pursue a doctorate degree and write my first book. I am forever grateful to Dave for helping me find my way back to the work of being and becoming a teacher and introducing me to the art and therapy of narrative inquiry. Please welcome David Schaafsma.

David Schaafsma

You might wonder what your reading life will be when you turn 65. If you have kids, they are long out of the house, you are retired. Sure you have liked reading YA lit and teaching Macbeth with your students, but hey, you can now read anything you want! Though my AARP shares the dismal news that teens read far more than oldsters, that the average reading for those in years 65+ is ONE book a year, sigh.  So I think I may be “off the grid,” as they say, having turned 65 myself a couple days ago. I have five kids, two somewhat older ones, 21 and 18, with disabilities, who visit on weekends, and three who are 10, 11 and 13.

I also (continue to) direct the Program in English Education, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, and I also teach the YAL and Graphic Novels classes here.  I try to stay fresh with those courses; this past fall I taught my YA class with a focus on romance, which historically has not been any area I read in (I got ideas by asking former students, current English teachers, for suggested readings, so all those books were first time reads) I am still very much enjoying teaching (Not nodding off in class yet! Not teaching from yellowed legal pads!) and I have all these kids, so I am electing to teach (at this point, since I am still healthy, running, taking no medications, knock wood) for at least five more years.

I am lucky in that I seem to have the same energy and commitment and passion for reading that I have always had. I am lucky in that the kids in this house all love to read, so there are hours of quiet. I also wake early and stay up late to read and write. And it’s true I have only 50 college students versus the 150 public school students I once had, but I also serve on several MA thesis and dissertation committees, and I am still writing. But I have always made time to read, many years involved in active book clubs, but mostly reading (besides class texts, of course), largely alone.

Maybe most importantly, several years ago I joined Goodreads, which has helped my personal reading in several ways:

1) I wanted an app—like a running app, which I also use—to track my reading, and encourage me to read even more, and more widely, and that worked. I get lots of great reading ideas from my Goodreads friends and so my To Be Read pile expands exponentially;

2) I read YA, picture books, literary fiction, mysteries, poetry, graphic novels, climate change books, and so on, all now categorized, and try to read a range of books all the time;

3) I also read so much that my memory for the plot/themes for some (okay, many?) books is pretty hazy, so I elected two or three years ago to review (and quickly, I have a family and a full time job, remember) EVERY book that I read, just to see if I could do it; and

4) I confess I realize I am aging, and though I sometimes keep a journal, it is hit or miss, so I began to think of my reviews as a kind of reading autobiography to leave my kids and grand kids, if they are interested.  Sweet, yes?

I note that these days I am reading fewer “professional” books such as I have actually written; that’s interesting to me. I am still active at NCTE/CEE, but I feel myself (though teaching a grad course on the teaching of writing this spring co-taught and largely planned by a couple graduate students/ good friends) sliding steadily out of my profession. But I am working on a couple books (one a collection of Growing up Stories, one a novel about fathers and brothers), so I read for the purpose of informing those projects. I  read books on autism because of my sons, I read dystopian books now because 45.

Here is my 2017 yearly reading report, in case you are in interested, posted (also) on Goodreads:

The Year That Was: 2017

I had a truly amazing/crazy year in reading, with my usual comics reading, peppered by my usual dozens of picture books and YA. One goal I had was to read or reread some classic texts, which got met when, early in the year, I was suffering from eye strain and my ophthalmologist suggested I try some audiobooks. This led me to read a lot of noir detective books, initially, and read/reread some series: Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman series; Camus’ “trilogy,” (The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall); Graham Greene’s “Roman Catholic” “trilogy” (The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, and The End of the Affair), and I finally finished a 2-3 year stint of powering through the (39) Hercules Poirot novels of Agatha Christie. My goal in the coming year is to read less and write more. I want to read less conventional books and comics and reconnect to more experimental interests. I want to read more poetry. I read or reread a bunch of environmental books, and I want to read more this coming year. 

Fave Graphic Novels

1. My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Emil Ferris
2. Roughneck, Jeff Lemire
3. Providence, Alan Moore
4. The Hunting Accident, David Carlson
5. Sunburning, Keiler Roberts
6. The Park Bench, Chaboute (and Alone)
7. Otherworld Barbara, Volume One Moto Hagio
8. Fante Bukowski Two Noah Van Sciver
9. Paradise Lost, Pablo Auladell
10. The Customer is Always Wrong, Mimi Pond
11. You & A Bike & A Road, Eleanor Davis
12. Sex Fantasy, Sophia Foster-Dimino
13. Yours, Sarah Ferrick
14. Everything is Flammable, Gabrielle Bell
15. Pretending is Lying, Dominique Goblet
16. Architecture of an Atom, Juliacks
17. Anne of Green Gables, Mariah Marsden, Brenna Thummler

Fave Comics Series, in no particular order (okay, absolute faves starred):

1. Saga, Brian Vaughn **
2. Royal City, Jell Lemire **
3. Dept H, Matt Kindt **
4. The Vision, Tom King
5. My Brother’s Husband, Gengoroh Tagame
6. Nameless City, Faith Erin Hicks
7. Grasslands, Matt Kindt
8. Giant Days, John Allison
9. Kill or Be Killed, Ed Brubaker **
10. Harrow County, Cullen Bunn
11. Velvet, Ed Brubaker **
12. Papergirls, Brian Vaughn
13. Sheriff of Babylon, Tom King
14. Southern Bastards, Jason Aaron **
15. Black Hammer, Jeff Lemire

I also loved finally reading The Preacher series from Garth Ennis

My fave Nathan Zuckermans: American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Counterlife, The Ghost Writer

My favorite dystopians/anti-fascist books reread since 45 took office: The Plot Against America, Roth; It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis; Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui 

Favorite Christies: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Peril at End House, Murder on the Orient Express, Curtain, Witness for the Prosecution, And Then There Were None

Great first novel: Itche and Ari, Dov Zeller (soon to be retitled The Right Thing to Do at the Time!)

Great short story collection: The Water Museum, Luis Urrea (I also reread Carver and Hemingway story collections this year)

Two great award-winners: Dora Bruder, Patrick Modiano; Just Kids, Patti Smith

Fave rereads: Dandelion Wine; Cat’s Cradle; Dubliners; The Power and the Glory; The End of the Affair; The Plague; Jane Eyre; Bukowski’s Post Office and Ham on Rye;

Fave Picturebooks: 

Lines, Suzy Lee
Little Fox in the Forest, Stephanie Graegin
A Different Pond, Bao Phi
Audubon, On The Wings Of The World, Fabien Grolleau
Steamboat School, Deborah Hopkinson 
Creekfinding: A True Story, Jacqueline Briggs Martin
Glenn Gould: A Life Off Tempo, Sandrine Revel
Over and Under the Pond, Kate Messner
The Book of Mistakes, Corinna Luyken
Wolf in the Snow, Matthew Cordell

Best Poetry: 

Daughters of Emptiness: Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns
Vivas to Those Who Have Failed: Poems, Martin Espada
Shirt in Heaven, Jean Valentine
Olio, Tyemba Jess
I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan

Best YA: 

Neighborhood Girls, Jessie Ann Foley; 
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas;
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson (ok, not this year published, and maybe technically not YA, to some, but for me it is)

Best noir of the year for me: 

Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Cain; 
The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson 

Environmental books: Sense of Wonder and Silent Spring, Rachel Carson; Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas


David Schaafsma is a Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he directs the Program in English Education. He teaches courses in English teaching methods, graphic novels and young adult literature. He’s the author of five books, and is a former editor of the journal English Education. He’s published numerous articles on community-based literacy, but also increasingly increasingly writes fiction and poetry. He’s the father of five children, and has five siblings living in three states. He lives in Oak Park just outside Chicago. He as rated 5744 books on Goodreads!@DavidSchaafsma1 

Eating on the Street
Jane Addams in the Classroom
Narrative Inquiry

A Dad Reads 52 Books a Year

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to a new year with Ethical ELA. As I mentioned in an August post, I took on a new teaching schedule this year: four classes in junior high and two classes at DePaul University. I thought, within these two part-time positions, that I would have more time to read and write, and I have. I have written chapters for three books on young adult literature and “finished” my first young adult novel, Alone Together. And I have read nearly 200 books, most are reviewed on Goodreads. In the extra few hours a day that my new schedule affords me, I have nurtured not only my writing life and reading life but my Life — as I have slept a bit more, learned how to swim, and enjoyed many more dinners with my husband. The most difficult part of being a teacher is, for me, balancing my identities. I’ve tried compartmentalizing, but integrating my roles and commitments into something cohesive has worked better. I now I think the key is to see myself as already whole — all these parts work together to make me, well, Sarah.  Such is my story. Thus, to launch the new year of Ethical ELA, I have invited some friends to tell the story of their reading life in the hopes that we can find validation (my #oneword18) and inspiration. Please, welcome Brian Kissel.


Brian Kissel

Last year, on New Year’s Eve, my wife and I resolved to read a book a week—52 books a year.  We are the parents of three children (twin boys in 3rd grade and a 2nd grade daughter) who are so active we took them to playgrounds before preschool so they could exorcise their pent-up energy.  Most days our lives are as chaotic as the Bomb-Cyclone currently pummeling the East Coast.  We both work—so we have active professional lives outside the home.  And inside the home we do all the things most parents have to do to maintain a sane existence: laundry (unbelievable mountains of clothes), pack lunches (we fight over this one), fix breakfast, argue with the kids over appropriate attire, drop-off and pick-up from school, soccer practice runs, dance lessons, swim meets, dinner prep, nighttime routines, and on and on and on.

This year, when we told friends about our resolution, we were universally met with the same inquiry: “How in the world can you read so much with so many kids?”  Before I answer that question, I want to address another question that I wish people asked me instead: “Why in the world did you decide to read so much with so many kids?”

One of the reasons we took this challenge was to push ourselves as readers—to build our own reading fluency and read widely to more fully experience the world in which we live.  During a year with so much political tumult, we read to escape.  We read literature that took us to World War II and Shaker Heights, IL.  We read graphic novels that took us back to Selma during the Civil Rights Movement or to otherworldly imaginative worlds created by artists.  We read nonfiction that brought us from the Osage Nation to searches for lost cities in the Amazon.  And when I was ready to digest the past election, I read political books in search of some understanding of what happened (including reading Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened).  When a recent study was published that showed that readers tended to be more empathetic as human beings because, when reading, they delved into the inner thoughts of characters, I responded through three utterances: Hmmm, A-ha, and Duh! 

We also read because, as teachers, we believe reading is an important part of our own professional development.  How can we pass forward a love for reading if we weren’t readers ourselves?  How can we persuade students that reading is a worthy pursuit, if we, ourselves, didn’t think it was worthy to spend valuable time pursuing it?  How can we even know what books to recommend to students, if we were unaware of the rich, diverse texts published every day?  We read because it is part of our calling as teachers to be passionate advocates for literacy.

There was a wonderful by-product of our reading challenge: It influenced our children.  My sons, who get constant messages that reading is a “girl thing” saw the most influential man in their life (an honor I’ll hold on to until the teenage years turn them against me) reading voluminously.  My daughter, who still loves to sit in my lap and cuddle, enjoyed the challenge of reading words and phrases from the books I held in my hands.  My wife, who struggles with dyslexia (a wondrously frustrating trait that got passed down to one of my sons), was not only able to overcome her challenge, she was able to demonstrate to my son that dyslexia does not stop one from pursuing a reading life.  Our children, seeing their parents as avid readers, were the biggest beneficiaries of our reading resolution.

So, how did two working parents, with active lives, read 52 books in one year?  This is how:

  1. After dinner, bath, and brushed teeth, we gathered our children together in our bedroom and we all spent one hour reading. My wife and I separated the children and spent 30 minutes reading books aloud to our children.  One went with the boys to read (or to be read to) while the other went with our daughter to read (or to be read to).  Afterwards, the entire family spent another 30 minutes reading our own books independently.  (I didn’t record the picture books I read aloud to the children—which would easily make my reading list 400+ books.)
  2. I brought my currently reading selection with me everywhere I went: doctor’s offices, soccer practice, work, etc. Whenever I had some free time, instead of reading my phone, I read a book.
  3. During breaks (Spring, Summer, and Winter break) from school, my wife and I plowed through several books. In our profession, what we lack in salary we make up for in nice, extended breaks from the daily grind of teaching.  We took those breaks to spend time with our children—and to read.
  4. When we took a vacation, we made sure to schedule plenty of down-time so it could actually be relaxing instead of hectic. During that downtime, we usually read.
  5. Finally, we watched far less television. In my past life, I found television the medium that helped me relax after long days at work.  Now, reading fills that void.  So, after the kids go to sleep (around 8:30pm), my wife and I might watch one show together.  But we spend the rest of the evening reading together in bed.  When lights go out at 11:00pm, we found that we snuck in another 2 hours of reading.

That’s how we read 52 books a year.  And that’s what I tell fellow parent-educators when they say, “I don’t have time to read.”  Yes, you do.  You just have to prioritize the time.  Not only is this important for your professional life.  It’s something that will greatly enrich your personal life as well.  In other words, your kids (one day) will thank you for raising them as readers.

Happy Reading!


Brian’s 2017 Reading List

(The *** denotes the books I particularly enjoyed reading)


  1. The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade by Charles Dew
  2. Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South by Beth Macy
  3. Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Adichie Chimanda Ngozi
  4. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann ***
  5. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann ***
  6. The Greatness of Dads by Kirsten Matthew
  7. Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Eric Michael Dyson ***
  8. Fifty Years of 60 Minutes: The Inside Story of Television’s Most Influential News Broadcast by Jeff Fager
  9. The Wisdom of Sundays: Life Changing Insights from Super Soul Conversations by Oprah Winfrey
  10. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson ***


  1. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
  2. On Living by Kerry Egan
  3. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson ***
  4. South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion
  5. Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott
  6. Just Kids by Patti Smith ***
  7. Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
  8. But Seriously, An Autobiography by John McEnroe
  9. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie ***
  10. Theft by Finding: Diaries by David Sedaris
  11. Books for Living by Will Schwalbe ***


  1. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien ***
  2. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan ***
  4. Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land
  5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng ***

Graphic Novels

  1. Boundless by Jillian Tamaki
  2. My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
  3. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told you about Being Creative by Austin Kleon
  4. American Born Chinese by Gene Yang
  5. Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story by Frederik Peeters
  6. Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast ***
  7. March: Book One by John Lewis ***
  8. Thornhill by Pam Smy ***

YA Reads

  1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  2. Double Fudge by Judy Blume
  3. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen ***
  4. Solo by Kwame Alexander ***
  5. The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb ***
  6. Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Professional Reads

  1. Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World by Rosalind Wiseman
  2. When Writers Drive the Workshop by Brian Kissel (my own book, of course!)
  3. The Energy to Teach by Donald Graves
  4. Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning by Tom Newkirk ***
  5. The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow your Passion by Elle Luna


  1. The Daily Show: An Oral History by Chris Smith
  2. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends his Homeland by Dave Barry ***
  3. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

Political Books

  1. What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton ***
  2. Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green
  3. Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History by Katy Tur ***
  4. The Great Gasbag: An A-Z Study Guide to Surviving Trump World by Joy Behar

BRIAN KISSEL is a writer, reader, and teacher. An educator for over 20 years, he is a professor of Literacy and Elementary Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of four books including When Writers Drive the Workshop, published by Stenhouse in 2017. Brian lives in North Carolina with his wife Hattie and three children: Charlie, Ben, and Harriet. To learn more you can visit his website at:

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Writers Need Feedback (well, this one does)

“Hello? Has someone joined the call? Welcome,” my sister says after the musical tone (indicating someone new is on the line) sounds.

I giggle and say, “It’s me. Sarah.”

“The author!” says my other sister who was already on the line with the first sister.

I giggle again. It sounds strange to me to hear them call me “the author.”

And then, another musical tone. A third sister has joined the call. (I have seven sisters and three brothers, but just the four of us would be on the call tonight.) We are about to have a book group — about my book — and, yes, I am the author (see my author page).

A few days ago, I sent my sisters an e-copy of my book, and the next day, there was a group text asking for a conference call.

My husband told me that I should brace myself for criticism. He knows that I want to be liked (and want my writing to be liked, too) and feel rejection like a papercut that won’t stop bleeding, but I am at the point in my writing that I really need readers. There are problems with the ending that I just can’t solve on my own (at least not yet), and I want to know if readers catch my allusions and get what I think are clever threads in the narrative. Still, this book is inspired by my family, so I really want to know if there is truth in what I wrote, if I was able to bring alive a part of our lives from so long ago. I want to know if I did something good.

For the next hour, my sister-readers and I talk about the latest draft of my young adult novel inspired my family. I ask them about the reading experience — if it flowed. I ask them what it made them think and feel. I ask them if there were any parts they really liked, and I ask them for help with the part that I am still pondering: the ending.

I listen to my sisters talk about the characters and how the book triggered memories and questions, and I listen to them chime in on the ending, which, as I suspected, did not satisfy. One sister is confused. One sister feels it is abrupt. I take notes easily for there were not metaphorical paper cuts, nothing my sisters said hurt; it was all helpful.

Notes from my conference call

The day after this conference call about my book was, coincidentally, peer feedback day in our 7th-grade writing classes. Writers are working on a four-part blog series on a topic of interest, and they were working on their third post.  Like me, these writers had a solid draft of their piece finished days before, and they were ready to learn how their writing impacted a few readers before publishing it to our blog for teachers, parents, and classmates (and perhaps you, too).

A screenshot of the hyperdoc for a glimpse of the diversity of topics

We do peer conferencing informally quite often (students trying out drafts or quick-writes with a neighbor), but I’ve found that arranging a formal peer feedback day can support writers who need deadlines or avoid trouble-spots. This formal experience also helps writers by requiring them to really listen, attend to a fellow writer, to be the reader. In this stance, they offer a service to their classmate while also benefiting from their fellow writers’ successes and struggles.  Essentially, all writing pieces are mentor texts because every writer is an expert in their topic and voice.

The process is simple:

  1. Arrange the class into groups of 3.
  2. Hand out a guide like the green one below — a notebook or sticky notes work well, too.
  3. Ask every writer to reread their piece silently or in a whisper and write one part on which they’d like feedback.
  4. Then, the first person should tell the writing group his/her needs before reading aloud the piece.
  5. The writing group can take notes, but it is important that the writing group does not see the piece –just listens to the flow, follows the ideas. The feedback is not about grammar or proofreading.
  6. Finally, the writer asks the group for feedback and takes notes him/herself:  1) What did you learn, feel, and/or think? 2) What were the strengths? 3) What was confusing or unclear? and 4) What I need help with is…

Repeat the process for each group member, and then make time for revisions.

All of this presumes the writer is publishing his/her work, sharing it beyond the notebook (virtual or digital). When we write to inform, teach, entertain, and communicate, a reader-audience is implied. We have readers in mind, so it makes sense to try it out on one or two just in case it does not inform, teach, entertain, and communicate as we intended. Of course, writers may not want to hear from said implied reader, may simply want to put that work into the world without interference. I get that. I wanted to put my book out into the world as soon as I “finished” it six months ago, but I was too close to see the gaps. I needed some readers to help me see it anew. Some feedback I applied, and some actually validated my intentions, so I accepted it but did not revise anything. Essentially, feedback is a reader holding up a mirror for you, the writer. The feedback comes with a reader’s prior experiences, familiarity with the topic, and reading stance. It is up to the writer what she does with the reflection, which make be crystal clear and may be distorted.