Thursday, April 28, 2016

Reading Like a Russian Doll: Thoughts on Reading, Growing, and the Power of Words

Recently I became a new dad.  Again.  My daughter Iris was born a few months ago, and by doing so she became my third daughter.  Livi is six and Lexi is four, so when Iris was born…yes it all came back to me.  Well, sort of.  It has now been four and a half years since we had a newborn in our house.  And I must admit, something feels different this time.  Perhaps it’s because so many life-altering events have taken place since that last birth? Por ejemplo, four years ago I took a job in New York City as a Staff Developer for the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University.  In doing this, I uprooted my entire nuclear family to pursue a passion.  We sold our house.  We squeezed into a tiny New York City apartment for an entire year.  Then, I decided to leave that job.  So we uprooted the family again, loading up a moving truck and moving to Connecticut.  Then once in Connecticut, we moved again-- to a different part of Connecticut.  My children started in a new school.  And on and on.  Through these last four and a half years, I have lived through changes, experiences that have left their mark on me for a lifetime.

So now I have a new baby. And it feels different.  I’m thinking it feels different because, well, I’m different.  And I think about what this means to me as a reader.  The late Louise Rosenblatt, a famous teacher and researcher, once defined reading as a transaction between the reader and a text.  Each reader brings his/her experiences, beliefs, background knowledge, opinions, and life wisdom to the text.  And those things, all of them, are constantly expanding and changing—both in depth and in breadth.

So when we pick up a book we’ve “read before”—think about how different “the transaction” (as Rosenblatt calls it) is going to be!  Yes, it is the same words there on the pages.  But it’s not the same reader.  It’s really not.  That reader is older, changed somehow, different, wiser, more affected…there is always a difference between who the reader was and who s/he is now.  So, consequently, that is going to make the transaction qualitatively different.

When kids pick up a book they have read before, how do we often react as adults, teachers, and mentors?  “You’ve read that before, choose something else.”  If you recognize yourself in that advice,  allow me to offer an alternate perspective:

(1)    Encourage rereading- Especially when some time has passed, encourage it! This is not the same boy or girl that read this book before.  Understanding that, do not discourage rereading—cheerlead it! 

(2)    Be excited and roll out a path s/he will want to go down— This might sound like, “Oh, I can’t wait to hear what you think of Tuck Everlasting this time.  Remember how old you were last time you read that book?  You have learned so much about life since then.  I’ll bet you’ll think about Winnie and the Tuck family in a whole new way now!”

(3)    Connect- Have you ever seen a movie more than once? Listened to a podcast or TedTalk more than once?  Stared at a painting more than once?  Replayed your favorite Prince record?  Chances are, your thinking has changed somehow by these repeated interactions with the movie, talk, or art piece.  Most of us understand that repeated exposures (readings) of a known "text" can yield new, different, and sometimes much more sophisticated understandings.  That's not because the text has changed-- it is because you are different!

The importance of arriving at new understandings in what we read and reread cannot be underestimated.  As writers and researchers Kylene Beers and Bob Probst write about in their important book, Notice and Note (2013), "...It is imaginative literature that offers readers a chance to think about the human issues that concern us all: love, hate, hope, fear, and all the other emotions, problems, situations, and experiences of living" (p. 17).  Wouldn't we want our young readers and writers to evolve in their thinking about these issues that define the human condition?  One of my mentors once taught me that a way to let a book leave its impression upon you is to think, 'How will I live differently because of this book?'  As a classroom teacher, I remember including this notion in a lesson during a unit on writing literary essays.  Garrett, a lanky athletic eighth grader who struggled in reading raised his hand one day.  He had just reread Gary Soto's "Marble Champ" (from Baseball in April, 1990).  "Mr. Ball," he said, "I never knew you could live differently because of a story.  Now I know someone can be good at sports and school.  I guess I never thought that was possible."  Rereading texts can allow for deep reflection that helps us anchor moments of real growth in our thinking about the world and who we are inside it. 

Author Madeline L'Engle once said, "The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been."  Sandra Cisneros explores this same idea in her seminal short story, "Eleven" from Woman Hollering Creek, when she writes (1991), "Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one" (pp. 6-7).  We might say that each one of those layers of us, rings inside us, or old versions of us still lives; but when we reread a story or book, it is the latest most recent version of ourselves reading it.  And therefore it won't be the same.

Becoming a new dad-- again-- has been an amazing and educational experience.  I realize the metaphor here is not completely parallel because Iris is her own baby.  She is unique. She is not the same "text", as it were.  But the process of bringing a new set of background experiences and new wisdom gained from those experiences to her life as I begin parenting her-- well, it feels similar to rereading a text.  I'm not the same dad.  And the young people in our lives?  Well, once some time has passed, they are different, too.  And so it will not be the same "them" when you see them sitting down to reread something.  It will be a new reader at the table.  And thus, a new journey with new understandings.

"There's nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over.  When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you've read only once can't."  -Gail Carson Levine, Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly



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