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.
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.