Today as I was updating my LiveBinder for my seventh graders, I was thinking back about my literary history which I always share verbally during the first week with my students. You see, John Jakes novels were really the end and yet the beginning. I had lots of books around as a child. My father and mother loved buying me books. The problem was that I was so literal: I knew that Pooh bears did not speak to little boys in the forest, and fish did not jump out of the fishbowl as Dr. Seuss said. I had all of the books and dolls from Joan Walsh Anglund. I loved the dolls without their mouths — only eyes and noses — and with my own mind, I brought them to life speaking for them. I loved sleeping with them; they created a safe feeling for me at night. The books had beautiful thoughts about how wonderful the world was. But in my very realistic mind, I knew no one could speak without having a mouth!
So unlike what research tells us, conversation with high vocabulary at dinner and lots of books will lead to a high literacy ability — as was the norm in my house — I was the exception.
Sharing this information as part of my literary history with my students is essential. I teach very different levels of students, but often have students who are not able to comprehend well since I understand that type of student very well. After all, they are what I was. And yet, every year I have been able to help so many students recognize that reading really is not terrible.
As all middle schoolers do, my seventh graders come into the classroom at the beginning of the year suspicious. Not only do they not know me, but they are preteens recognizing that they don’t know how to yet trust the world. Yes, there are students who come through my door who like to read — but sadly, they are the exception. Only after I share with them what I went through to become a reader and that now I carry my Kindle around with the 40+ books as well as the two in my purse every day, do they recognize that maybe I will understand them.
In 1997 at NYU as a graduate student, I thought the professor was insane when she asked my peers and me to write our literary histories. I had never done this before. And yet, this is what ultimately helps my kids connect with me so much! I wish I remembered her name because I would have to give her a big thank you now. When students understand what we have gone through personally, and they realize that we are very sincere in our words, they then can start to accept what we say as truth.
I became an English teacher because I don’t want kids to go through what I did. Not comprehending for so many years hurt self-esteem, hurt my feelings, and made me feel left out and different. Sharing my literary history helps putting the pieces together for the kids as well as it is still putting the pieces together for me to become that better teacher/facilitator.