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Out of the Box

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I just finished reading Airman by Eoin Colfer, and today’s obsession is flying. I spent an hour on the Internet investigating the invention of kites, balloons, gliders, and airplanes. It is clear that Colfer researched early flying machines and the brave, crazy men who dared to build and fly them. After reading this adventure, I know that the invention of the gas-powered engine was a pivotal link in creating a working plane, and that balsa wood and canvas make a good, light frame for one, but let’s face it, I did not pick up this book because I needed research on planes, and it won’t be the reason the boys in my class will clamor to read the book next year. They will read Airman because they want to fly.

While surfing To Fly is Everything, a virtual museum on the history of human flight, I smiled thinking about the random information I have picked up from a lifetime of reading fiction. Thirty years ago this summer, I impressed my counselor at Girl Scout camp when I approached my horse from the side, not the back, like most novice riders. She asked me if I had ridden before, and I told her, no, I had just read every book Marguerite Henry had written. I got a basic primer on cloning in a college genetics course, but I learned about the ramifications of cloning from Jurassic Park. Unlike Crichton’s thriller, though, the only time I felt white-knuckled terror in that class was the day of the final.

I think reading popular fiction gets a bad rap. In many classrooms, reading books that are “good for you” supplants reading books that are just good. Every book has the potential to teach readers. Reading is the best way to build background knowledge about an endless list of topics. All teachers know that readers outperform non-readers, not only in English class, but in science and social studies classes, too. And those powerhouse readers are not just reading nonfiction.

One discovery I made while working with young readers is that a fiction book often sparks curiosity in a nonfiction topic. Last year, I had a student who knew staggering amounts of information about medieval architecture, armaments, and chivalry. He read fantasy books constantly. From sea turtle migration, to Mount Everest’s summit, to Frank Lloyd Wright, I can trace many of my students’ tangential interests back to a great fiction story they enjoyed.

Nonfiction reading feeds the flames for fiction reading, as well. Fascinated with the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Read Under the Blood Red Sun and witness the event through the eyes of Japanese-Americans. Intrigued by puzzles and riddles? Read Chasing Vermeer and solve the mystery right alongside the protagonists (you can pick up an art lesson, too).

When we, as educators, denounce reading fiction as escapism, and claim that reading nonfiction is the only place for learning and inquiry, we unnaturally compartmentalize the reading experience. What readers gain from reading does not fit into neat little boxes, any more than life does. Reading is complex because readers are.

Do I read for entertainment? enlightenment? education? Yes, yes, and yes. I read for all of these reasons, often at the same time. Ultimately, I think there is only one reason to read—to get answers to our questions—be they emotional, spiritual or intellectual. In this way, every act of reading is an act of inquiry, even when all we want to know is, "What happens?"

6 Comments

As usual Donalyn, right on. --- Our kids are like sponges and there is no part of the brain that compartmentalizes fiction from non. Facts and ideas and enthusiasm for more knowledge come from all quarters. Can anyone say that the Wilder books didn't teach us all about the pioneers on the prairie...or that Betty Smith didn't give us a view of turn of the century NY and Brooklyn? No science from My Side of the Mtn? Oh the places we go and the things we learn when "escaping" into learning from real books.
Keep at it! And how's the book coming?

Lori
MA

Nothing can express the pain I feel when I watch and listen to my middle schoolers try to read, most of whom have never read a whole book. Yet the focus is on "content, content, content" in their language arts instruction. A student that has never learned to read for pleasure very seldom reads adequately.

So, I agree, you hit the head on the nail. You will never know where reading will send you.

Now, if I can convince you that the focus on flying is great for the girls in your class also. :)

Carl

All of the above! I'm not sure how middle school language arts teachers who don't read young adult literature can really connect with their students on the very important issue of literacy. There is no better success than to hand a student a book that you know will "hook" him or her . . . and the only way to do that is to have read the book yourself. This last year I learned lots about terrorism and contagious diseases from Code Orange, and a group of eighth grade boys could not put down the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. They discovered mythology in a whole new way. The dialogue that begins between teacher and student about a good read can't be duplicated by any textbook assignment.

Do you know any good reader who has ever learned to read from reading a textbook or content material? I learned to read well by engrossing myself in R rated novels when I was a young teenager. Anyone who says it's escapism isn't a good reading teacher and has no idea what they're talking about.

The best moment in teaching happens when I announce "Time to put your silent reading books away," and several students beg, "Oh, no - just five minutes more!" What makes it best is that it is not only my "love to read" students, but also my reluctant readers who are begging for more time. What makes it happen? My constant search for another book that will grab a (any?)student's attention. The only way to find those books is to read them myself, keeping my students' wants in mind.

After reading the blogs written by Donalyn, I am anxious to get back into my classroom and do more with my 6th graders. I love books...I love sharing books with my students...I love reading aloud to them. Most of all I love seeing them enjoying their books and recommending books to one another.

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