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  • Aaron Hartley

How Backyard Football Can Help Us Learn To Love To Read

I began to love reading when I was in Mr. Baker’s 9th grade American Literature class. It was the class that made me want to be a teacher. It was that class that taught me that I could think critically when I read, making judgements and asking good questions. It was that class that showed me I could view life with the same thoughtful lens and not merely as a passive experiencer but an active participator. From the days of 9th grade American Literature until now, reading has been a major part of my life, which is why the one nearly universal characteristic of my students throughout my four years of teaching has been so unexpected: all of them HATE reading.

The amount of students who I have taught who foster a genuine love for reading is remarkably small. They might get their nightly reading homework done, maybe; but they certainly will not read for fun. Leisurely reading has almost no space in the life of the modern student. There are a myriad of reasons for this. Technology plays a major factor in shutting reading out of the lives of young people. They are engulfed in screens and attacked by notifications. Busyness plays a part. Sometimes lack of access to reading material plays a part. But I think there is another contributor in the deadening of the reading life of students that is often overlooked: We have not taught them to love reading. We have taught them that reading is work, necessary work, sometimes mildly stimulating work, but nonetheless, work. As long as this mindset prevails, students will not learn to love reading and they will not become lifelong readers.

I came across an article from Mathew Walther recently about the decline in reading among young people. Diagnosing the problem, he wrote,

"But technology alone is not the culprit. I suspect now that even children whose parents have the good sense to keep them away from iPhones are not any more likely than their peers to become lifelong enthusiastic readers of books. Perhaps even more dangerous than these technological distractions is our official attitude toward reading, one that reduces it to a dull, mechanical process of extracting information from texts and refining this material into multiple-choice answers (which, as all good test takers know, we are supposed to consider before we even set eyes on the material itself). This is, in fact, what we are actually talking about when we say that students are not learning to read. That statement is true, but it would likely be true even if test scores were improving across the country. We need to stop teaching "reading" and start teaching “readers."

This seems to me to be evidently true and to prove my point I’ll use an example from one of my other hobbies, sports. Watch this video of Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick breaking down plays from the Patriots/Chiefs game last year. As a football fan, I find expert analysis from one of the greatest coaches in NFL history fascinating, but that’s not how I came to love the game. I grew to love football because I watched Chris Weinke and the Florida State Seminoles with my brothers, because at recess in grade school I played football with my friends, because I caught an interception when I got to go into a game as a backup in middle school. In short, I knew football wasn’t just work, I knew it was fun, worthwhile, and enhanced my life; and I knew that if I did work at it, I would have more fun. I think all of the things we love come similarly. We may love to hear expert coaches breakdown plays but we love that second. First we love the game itself and recognize its value. In short, love for football begins organically. First we learn the value and pleasure of a practice, then we learn to enhance our ability to continue the practice with greater acumen. The modern literature curriculum has that process switched. First, a book is given to the students and they immediately begin dissecting a work for details, asking students to view the book with a critical eye breaking down the various literary devices employed and identifying thematic symbols in the work. Then the teacher expects students to enjoy reading good literature. It is like we are teaching players to break down plays and analyze the weaknesses in a Cover 2 defense and then asking them how they like football before they have ever had a chance to simply enjoy the game.

So, when I began creating curriculum for my Literature class, I first wanted to answer one question: How can I get the students to love reading? The answer that came to me (with help from the work of Kelly Gallagher) was that we needed to read together in class. I don’t mean read out loud to each other or get our assigned reading done in class together; I mean that for at least 10 minutes every day, I sit down with my students in Literature class and we read books with each other quietly. There are only a few rules for this time: 1. The book cannot be assigned reading. It must be a book that you picked out and brought from home or the library. (I’m also willing to lend books) 2. They must be fictional books. 3. The books must be age/content appropriate. That’s it. There are no other regulations on how much students have to read, none of the reading is assigned outside of class (although continuing to read at home is encouraged), I don’t quiz or test on any of the material. The one thing I do is regularly start class by simply asking my students about what they are reading and talk to them about their books. I also make sure that I use the time to do leisurely reading as well. I never use the time to grade or get ahead on lesson planning, I just read.

The results so far have been fascinating. Students regularly ask for more time to read, which I normally give. Students ask about what to read, and I normally give recommendations. Class discussion on our actual assigned reading has improved and students are indicating that they are enjoying assigned reading more. The amount of time dedicated toward leisurely reading in class is around 40 minutes per week, a significant amount of time. Where we spend our time indicates our priorities and guiding my students to develop a love of reading is a priority, so I dedicate time to accomplishing it.

I learned to love football organically, without breaking down every play, without analyzing the quarterback's throwing motion, without learning the difference between run and pass blocking. I did learn those things and when I did it enhanced my love for the game. But that happened after I had already learned to love it. Learning to love reading works the same way. First, we learn to appreciate the beauty of a great book, then we learn to love it more as we learn to be aware of the genius with which great authors write.