The Importance of Independent Reading

When you're a young adult you're constantly being told what to do both at home and at school. It's amazing that more young adults aren't rebellious with all the rules forced upon them. If schools truly want to foster a love of reading, independent reading is a necessity. Students are constantly being told what to read and often the books that are considered part of the canon were by written predominately by white men.

In recent years there has been a push to add female authors and multicultural authors into the curriculum across the U.S. This varies from school to school and sometimes there's no rhyme or reason for the books selected. The classics are extremely important, I'd be the first one to tell you that I insist on teaching Shakespeare every year, but there's no reason why we can't teach a mixture of classical literature and modern literature. The students we teach should be able to find characters like themselves in the literature they read in school.

Being a teenager is a confusing time in one's life even if you're "normal" whatever that means. How would you feel if every book you read was written before you were born, before your parents were born? How would you feel if none of the characters were like you? How many books contain strong female protagonists? (Not a love interest, the main character.) How many books are being taught that have major characters that are multicultural? What about biracial? What about LGTBQ books? If we present literature written solely by white men, what are we telling students? Are we telling them that their gender, race, sexual preference, etc doesn't matter? Maybe reading a book about a gay character could help that student with their identity. Maybe reading a book with a strong female protagonist could give a young girl in your class more confidence. I remember having a student look at the book Persepolis and saying to me "the character looks like me" and she smiled. Why can't every student have that feeling?

I've heard people say that young adult books aren't rigorous enough which is silly. First get them to like reading and then build rigorous activities around the literature. Once they are readers you can vary the texts more. You can take a book that isn't a difficult book to read and you can still dive deeper into the text. I remember the first time I taught the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I had a group of "repeater 12th graders." (Yes they were actually called that.) These students were in high school for a 5th year and they didn't want to read. I remember reading the first chapter of Speak out loud and the students loved it. They wanted to know more about this high school girl. They could relate to either her or other students in the book. The same thing happened when I taught the book Monster by Walter Dean Myers to a group of 9th graders who were mostly reluctant readers. They wanted to know more about this 16 year old boy and how he ended up in jail. These aren't your stereotypical school books but why can't they be?

Maybe your administration forces you to teach a certain list of books. We've all been there. Maybe there's no room for books that aren't part of the cannon.That's why independent reading is extremely important. You can plan a trip to the school library or have diverse books in your own classroom library. The school's library media specialist can help you by giving book talks and giving students suggestions. In the past while in the school library every book that the librarian mentioned was checked out. You can require one independent reading book a marking period or one book a month. It's up to you. Why can't you read Shakespeare together as a class and they can read a book they enjoy in their free time? When students are given choices they take ownership. Why can't you have independent reading time once a week? If your school doesn't allow it, try once every other week.  If we truly want to cultivate lifelong readers, students need to read books that they are interested in.


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