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Learning to Love Reading

“I hate my life.” I am not easily shocked by student behavior, but this admission from one of my third graders left me reeling.

 

I spoke with the student – who we will call Cristina* – that afternoon about what was troubling her. She gave a list of reasons why her life was not the way she wanted it to be: she didn’t feel confident with her peer group, was struggling with her family, and was generally stressed by the weight of her family’s lack of resources. At only 8 years old, Cristina was daily dealing with some real, hard issues that would weigh on anyone. I could easily understand why she felt the way she did. Fortunately, Cristina was getting help from our school leader and other team members, but I also wanted to help.

 

Naturally, I felt the urge to start teaching Cristina a set of transferable steps that she could one day apply independently to solve this problem – to make herself feel better about things. But I realized I had no idea what to tell her. I had no anchor charts to offer, no catchy chants to recite. It turns out that teaching people how to be happy is no easy task.

 

So I started to think about myself – something we do so rarely as teachers. Because Cristina’s hopelessness was familiar to me. As a child I did not face even half the challenges that Cristina faces on a daily basis. But I remember that hopelessness: that sense that my life was beyond my own control and that it would always be up to someone else. That I was alone because no one understood me. That nothing would ever change.

One of the few things that made me feel better was my library. Not merely because books provided a welcome escape from what I sometimes considered a dismal reality – but because books taught me that there was a world beyond mine. That people everywhere had feelings and memories and dreams and some failures too – just like I did. If I could begin to understand other people through reading their thoughts and experiences, then there was hope that someone would be able to understand me too. I was unique, but not alone.

 

I thought again about Cristina, and the different worlds she had explored in her reading this year. As a class, we had followed Clementine on her odd adventures – chasing away pigeons and giving her best friend a haircut in the school bathroom. We traveled with Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands to study finches and ponder natural selection. We visited the Pleistocene era, walked among mammoths, and excavated fossils that were millions of years old. And I thought with growing optimism about the adventures third grade still had in store for her – witnessing the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, staging a mock Supreme Court case, conversing with Langston Hughes and Tupac Shakur about civil rights.

These books and the experiences that come with them are some of my tools for helping Cristina, and for teaching her how to help herself. Recently I led a community meeting in which students brainstormed and shared strategies for mitigating anger, sadness, and other negative feelings. Cristina raised her hand: “Read a good book,” she said.

 

No, I still did not have a list of simple steps for achieving happiness to give to Cristina. What I could do was give her tools and teach her how to use them – and hope that she does. At dismissal on the last day of school before winter break, I stopped Cristina as she was walking out the door. “Do you have a good book in there?” I asked, pointing to her backpack. She didn’t. She asked her mom to wait while she went to the library to find one.

 

 

 

 

To You–Langston Hughes

To sit and dream, to sit and read,

To sit and learn about the world

Outside our world of here and now-

Our problem world-

To dream of vast horizons of the soul

Through dreams made whole,

Unfettered, free-help me!

All you who are dreamers, too,

Help me to make our world anew.

I reach out my dreams to you.

 

 

 

*The student’s name has been changed for privacy purposes.

Eliza Kritz is a third grade teacher at Rocketship Redwood City Prep, where she has worked since its opening in 2015. She began at Rocketship as an Individualized Learning Specialist and earned her teaching credential the following year through the Rocketship Rising Teachers program. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2013 with a B.A. in English Literature.

Published on January 15, 2019

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