• In Other Words

In the Classroom, Whose Taste Matters?

by Colby Sharp
March 19, 2013
Alexis and Jayla came flying down the hall with concerned looks on their faces and tears in their eyes. The first thought that entered my mind was, “I am way too tired to deal with drama at 8:30 AM on a Monday morning,” but I put on my best teacher smile and said, “Girls, what’s wrong? You two look so sad.”

They looked at each other. They looked at me. They looked at each other. Finally, Jayla admitted, “Mr. Sharp, we have something very, very bad to tell you. You might want to sit down.” Alexis nodded and we headed into the classroom and sat down together at our round table.

Before we get into what they said, let me share with you a little bit about my classroom.

If you walk into my classroom on any given day you will see my fourth graders spread out all over the room reading a variety of wonderful books. You will probably see a couple of girls sitting under a table laughing their way through Andy Griffith’s A BIG FAT COW THAT WENT KAPOW. If you look on the carpet you might see a horde of graphic novel readers tuning out the rest of us as they lose themselves in the worlds of BABYMOUSE, BONE, ZITA THE SPACEGIRL, and SMILE. Keep your eyes open because I have a couple of students this year that pace while they read. We clear a path for them, mostly because we don’t want them to run into us as they devour R.J. Palacio’s WONDER or Katherine Applegate’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN.

I describe what my classroom looks like during reading because I want to share how celebrating all texts has created readers in my classroom that not only love books but also love and care deeply about the art of reading. I encourage my students to read a variety of genres: informational, fantasy, realistic fiction, historical fiction, poetry, etc. Students read middle grade novels, picture books, graphic novels, magazines and websites. We don’t discriminate.

Does that mean I’m happy if a fourth grader only reads graphic novels all year? No. However, I’m also not satisfied if a student reads nothing but historical fiction. I have the same conversation with the graphic novel reader as I do with the historical fiction reader. We sit down and talk about how cool it is they found a type of book they love to read, and we discuss the benefits of mixing a few different types of books into their to-read pile.

Sitting at our round table, I looked at my frazzled students and grew increasingly worried. As I listened, I found the situation much worse than I had anticipated.

Alexis and Jayla were at the local bookstore after school on Friday to purchase books for birthday presents. While they were there, they saw a very excited young girl pick up Kazu Kibuishi’s graphic novel, AMULET. They overheard the girl explain to her mom how excited she was to finally find a copy of AMULET, and she desperately wanted to buy it. The mom took the book, flipped through the pages and then threw the book onto the floor. My students choked up as they explained to me that the mom then told her daughter that comics are for babies. They described the girl’s expression as sad and embarrassed.

When they were done, the tears that were welling up in their eyes slid down their cheeks. I talked to them about how the situation made them feel and together we tried to see the mother’s side of the story.

You see, Alexis and Jayla reminded me of the importance in giving students the freedom to choose what they read. I certainly don’t believe teachers would go so far as to throw the books kids are reading on the floor, but I do believe that, as teachers, we don’t always necessarily value the choices our students are making.

It is of vital importance, however, that we do. I hope that by hearing their story, all teachers pause to ask themselves if they are doing everything in their power to help students find a series, an author, or a type of book that they will love. Because by celebrating our students’ unique tastes in books—whether it is historical fiction, fantasy, or graphic novels—we can encourage and cultivate their genuine love of reading.

Come see Colby Sharp at IRA 2013, where he’ll be moderating “The Serious Business of Writing Humor: The Importance of Funny Fiction in the Classroom” on Saturday, April 20, 2013. The panel includes authors Michael Buckley, Andy Griffiths, Laurie Keller, and Devin Scillian.

Colby Sharp is a fourth grade teacher at Minges Brook Elementary in Battle Creek, Michigan. He blogs at http://sharpread.wordpress.com/ and he helps run the Nerdy Book Club Blog. He co-hosts Twitter chats #titletalk and the #SharpSchu Book Club. He can be found on Twitter at @colbysharp.

© 2013 Colby Sharp. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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