Since then, I’ve been a bit obsessed.
I’ve found that students who like to read and who are pretty good at it are much better students, have more empathy, hate school less, are calmer and more centered, and are genuinely interested in the world and interesting as people.
I’ve also found that many “reluctant” or “struggling” readers, especially boys, who publicly cry out their hatred for reading, are sometimes secret readers and writers.
Matt de la Pena, a popular author of young adult fiction, wrote a beautiful piece a few weeks ago that captured perfectly why I believe reading is important.
Entitled “Sometimes the ‘Tough Teen’ is Quietly Writing Stories,” the article begins with an anecdote in which Mr. de la Pena visits a junior high school and is warned that a troublemaker named Joshua may interrupt his presentation. Instead, the boy pays attention when Mr. de la Pena says:
I was nearly held back in second grade because I “couldn’t read,” which shattered my confidence. For a long time after that experience I viewed myself as unintelligent — and the most difficult definition to break free from, I told the students, is self-definition.
After finishing his talk, Mr. de la Pena is ready to travel to his next school presentation, but Joshua approaches him and shares that he was born in prison, was held back in school twice, likes to read, and has 30 pages of original writing in his locker — would Mr. de la Pena like to see it?
From this incident, Mr. de la Pena reflects:
This is not an isolated case. A surprising number of teens I meet in rougher schools around the country find refuge in novels and creative writing. It’s not always the usual suspects either, the high achievers. Sometimes it’s the second-string point guard on the basketball squad. Or the girl bused in from a group home. Or the kid who’s twice been suspended for fighting. The one constant I find? Many of these teens — especially the ones from working-class families — do their reading and creating in secret.
It’s unfortunate that all this reading has to be done in secret — that “guys who read books — especially for pleasure — [are] soft.” It’s sad that schools and classrooms aren’t safe places for boys of color or working-class backgrounds to share their reading lives.
After all, as Mr. de la Pena argues, reading is a journey of “becoming whole.” Later in the piece, he shares how a college professor gave him The Color Purple, which transformed his life.
[W]hen I turned the last page I found myself on the verge of tears. I was shocked. How could black and white on a page make me feel so emotional? I was a tough kid from a tougher family. I hadn’t shed a tear since elementary school. And here I was, choked up. From a book.
Why did Mr. de la Pena — and so many other young men of color — have to wait until college to find a transformative book? Too many ninth graders admit not having finished a book since the fifth grade. If that’s bad, here’s something worse: many of those same students say the same thing when they graduate four years later.
Mr. de la Pena’s piece reminds me that good reading instruction in high schools isn’t enough. It’s not enough to give students short nonfiction pieces to read closely. It’s not enough to teach students strategies of proficient readers.
If we care about students and their developing academic and personal identities, we need to put more books in front of them. We need to build schools where reading is a cultural norm, where it’s what everyone does. If that happens, then kids like Joshua won’t have to read in secret and hide their writing in their lockers.