7th grader: I need a book?
Me: Okay, did you have one in mind or are you looking for suggestions?
7th grader: I’m just looking for fiction books.
Me (with a smile): Great, we have a lot of those. What have you read that you’ve liked in the past?
7th grader: I don’t like to read.
Me: Okay, so what book was okay for you? Meaning you were able to get through it and it was kind of, sort of, not that bad? Was it fantasy or magical? Did it have some history to it? Do you like mystery? Sports stories? What about a story that feels like it could happen?
7th grader: I don’t know, just like fiction.
And repeat. Sound familiar? There’s myriad reasons why students don’t know what they want and while it is our job to unpack it, this is not always an easy task.
Students are quick to give up and default to “I don’t like to read” mentality. I find that a lot of this resistance has less to do with their not liking to read and more about not knowing themselves well enough. Middle school is a time of self-discovery, as well as realizing that there is a whole world beyond your own bubbles of family, school, extracurriculars, hobbies, and friends. If we can get them to reflect on their own interests and invite new self-discoveries, this helps them with the book choices they make.
We also want students to know it’s okay to not be interested in a book, there’s no harm in getting a couple chapters in and deciding that it is not for you. Sometimes, particularly those rule followers feel like they have to finish a book. Modeling reading behavior that examines biases toward certain types of books and knowing that there are books you dislike is important. Sharing with students books that you’ve given up on may help them ease their minds. If it’s a book they actually liked, but you disliked, there’s room to explore respecting differences between taste. Loosening up about reading expectations and self-constructed barriers works to make them more open to reading options, and thus more likely to read.
More on self-reflection: for some students, seeing how a book they liked made them feel at the end is the key. Was it the sense of adventure that pushed you through? Do you like sad stories, where you really feel connected to a character’s emotions? Or maybe what you like most is the relationships represented in the book and how that drives character development? Allowing them to use their own language– beyond the academic language they may be learning in English and library classes– gives them ownership over the process.
Now, faced with feeling like they are being pressed to read and still developing the self-knowledge of what they might like, we can add the paradox of choice. The idea was popularized in Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less, but any avid reader would have felt a twinge of this at some point. Is it possible a major barrier for students is too many books to choose from? Student media exposure is vast and diverse, just like the way their time is scheduled. In fact, you could look at choosing what not to read, listen to, or watch as more important to the act of following focus on academic reading projects, following a favorite artist, or binge-watching a TV show. Some library work, such as genrefying or exploring different ways of organizing non-fiction, attempts to help patrons get to sections they are interested in faster, helping to curb this effect. Schwartz writes “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.” Knowing the one right book for a student is extremely difficult for them, so for us, it is closer to impossible, but building relationships with students is still a good way to spend our time.