Reading Through Grief

Readers read for different reasons – for fun, for work, for school, for their kids, or to learn something new – but for many, reading is an escape.  There is a myriad of reasons for needing an escape from our everyday lives, and recently my own personal reason for reading was as an escape from grief.

When my dad died, I don’t think I experienced all the traditional five stages of grief.  I wasn’t angry, I didn’t bargain, I didn’t suffer from depression – he was 82 years old, had been battling leukemia for over a year, and my family was truly lucky that he felt good for most of that last year until the very end.  Of course, after his death, the feeling I did have was intense sadness that I would never see my dad again, never talk with him, or – most difficult to bear – never again hear his voice.  At first, I coped with that sadness by reading stories about characters dealing with situations that were a complete departure from my everyday life of missing my dad.  I wanted to fall into a fictional world where the characters’ problems were so different from my own that I wouldn’t feel the heavy weight of loss for a little while.  In the beginning, I especially read YA fantasy, because that was such a departure from reality for me that I could stop thinking about real-life things on Earth for a bit.  It helped me to occupy my mind with something other than the absence of my dad.  I stayed away from realistic fiction because that genre is full of dying characters, or characters dealing with the death of another character, and I just couldn’t handle it.  I couldn’t add fictional grief to my own. Not just then.

I found that during the time right after my dad’s death, I started buying some books as well.  I’ve always bought books, but in the past have tempered my purchasing with checking out books from the public library, or the middle school where I teach.  My dad’s death awakened a need in me to not only read stories as an escape, but to surround myself with them as well.  I bought middle grade fantasy books “for my kids,” and eventually moved into the dreaded realm of realistic fiction.  I had once avoided it because of the Dying Characters Thing, but after the first few months following my dad’s death, I found I looked forward to reading about characters who had also lost someone.  This time, it helped me to know that I could find someone who understood how I felt, even if that someone was fictional. It made me feel less alone.  Although I have plenty of friends who would understand if I wanted to talk about my grief, and my family would be there for me if I needed to discuss missing my dad, I’m not really the kind of person who has outward displays of emotions that might make me cry in front of people.  My fictional friends provided the comfort I needed without making a big deal out of my sadness or wanting to make it go away, and they enveloped me in comfort by wrapping around me on the shelves in my home.

Later that year, I continued my book buying therapy by purchasing nonfiction titles about history – both local and national.  My dad was a retired high school history teacher, and he loved talking about history and politics. Local history of the area where I currently live, but did not grow up in, was a point of interest for my dad as well, since my paternal 3x great-grandfather is buried in a church cemetery only a few miles away. When my dad was alive, history books written by local authors about the area where I live were something we enjoyed reading and discussing together, especially how the history related to our shared ancestor. Months after he was gone, every time I found a title that both he and I would find interesting, I bought it and read it, imagining the questions I would ask him and what he would have to say about the issues and facts addressed in each book.  To my surprise, I found that I could hear his voice again, which is what I missed the most. My loss of him was eased as I heard his voice in my head and in my heart, in imagined conversations about the topics in history we were both interested in and passionate about.

Reading books after my dad’s death helped me escape, helped me work through my sadness, and eventually helped me realize that my dad is still here.  My dad will always be here, a part of him living on in me.  When I find myself missing him, I can hear his voice again by simply opening the cover of a book.

Banning Empathy

There have been articles written and research performed in the last few years about how reading builds empathy for others.  Parents, teachers, and readers know this is true – we don’t need research to tell us that.  When I read books with my students in class, I can practically see their empathetic brain cells growing when they feel sadness or outrage for a character in a story.  It’s great to watch them feel all the feelings with a character in a difficult or impossible situation, to watch these middle schoolers transform right before my eyes.  There’s a saying about how people may forget what you say or do, but will always remember how you make them feel.  My students never forget how things make them feel – they are chock full of BIG FEELINGS because that is just the nature of middle school kids.  What a perfect age to tap into that bottomless well of emotions and pour in some empathy using stories!

Feeling big feelings can be fun, as well. It’s exciting to rage about something you’re passionate about, or feel anger and indignation for someone else’s situation. I have these things living inside my head that I call my Social Justice Monsters.  I picture them as an angry mob of Muppet-like creatures in my brain who band together to shout curse words and other outraged nonsense whenever I read a story where something that is happening to the characters is NOT RIGHT or UNFAIR.  My SJ Monsters frequently rise up and make some noise when unfair things happen in the real world, too.  One thing that happens IRL that they love to be outraged about is a book challenge.

Book challenges really set off my SJ Monsters, mainly because if a challenge in a school district is successful, then students will miss out on an opportunity to read about someone different from themselves, or read about someone in a similar situation to their own, which builds empathy and acceptance in their young brains.  All year long I keep up with book challenges that make the news across the country, and the ALA just released the list of most challenged books from 2015.  The list woke up my SJ Monsters because the titles that make the list always seem to contain marginalized characters that are going through a tough time.  I teach in a diverse Title 1 middle school, and most of my students have a very narrow life experience.  We talk about books being windows and mirrors, but when a challenged book is successfully removed from a curriculum or school library, we cover a mirror and shutter a window for students.  When we take stories away from kids, we lose an opportunity to build empathy in their developing brains.  My students are going to grow up and live in a world full of people who have lived through or come from many different life experiences. If their empathy well is full, even when their personal life experiences have been limited, they are more likely to find and give acceptance as adults.

The parents who challenge books in schools are feeling a big feeling, too – fear.  Parents are either afraid their children will be emotionally damaged OR that they will question and abandon the beliefs and values that have been taught in their homes.  Movies are not challenged (usually).  Video games are not challenged. The internet is widely available to kids on their smartphones, and that is accepted as a normal part of modern society.  But books are powerful.  They have the power to change people. On some level parents who challenge books know this, and they feel fear.  My students may never travel the world or experience cultures very different from their own.  They cannot travel back in time or know what it’s like to be in someone else’s life situation.  The one thing they can do is read, and by reading, their empathy for others in situations they can never imagine or experience will grow, and as humans they will be changed for the good and will have the power to change their world. Students who feel empathy for others will be adults who promote equality and tolerance for all people living in our world.  Reading can open the shutters on the windows, uncover the mirrors, and help students build empathy by feeling all the feelings for someone else.

And then, when my young readers grow up and spread their empathy and acceptance across the land, maybe, just maybe, parents will stop challenging books, and my Social Justice Monsters will shut the hell up.

Should Kids Re-Read Books?

I’m going to say something that will make many people have a Big Reaction – I don’t believe in letting kids re-read books. 

Now I’ll just back away, very slowly…





Calm down.  There are some exceptions to my rule. For example, it’s ok for the under second grade set to re-read books, especially picture books or board books. Little kids really benefit from reading a favorite book over and over and over and over… Heck, even bigger kids can re-read picture books – they’re short, so what do I care?  It’s also ok for adults to re-read books they loved as a kid.  I’ve done this myself, and it’s fun to re-live the warm fuzzy experience of a book that was loved in childhood. It’s ok to re-read holiday themed books – re-discovering our Christmas books each year is exciting and nostalgic for my kids.  Lastly, it’s also ok for kids to re-read chapter books if they are exceptional readers who can devour books at a fast pace.  If these exceptions do not fit, I don’t believe kids should re-read a book.

The Big Reaction is still happening, I know.  Please, let me explain.

I teach struggling readers.  They are middle school kids who CAN read, but don’t always do it very well.  Sometimes they have poor fluency and comprehension, other times great fluency and poor comprehension.  Many of these students found a series of books in elementary school that they can read relatively well and that they enjoyed, and THEY NEVER MOVE ON.  Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, Geronimo Stilton, the many Manga series books, Captain Underpants, Baby Mouse, all the Raina Telgemeier books – I have students who are big fans of these books and have read them multiple times for many years, and hardly anything else.  That, my friends, is ridiculous.  I am sick and tired of watching kids carry around Wimpy Kid or Geronimo Stilton books for all three years of middle school.  I know kids love them.  Yes, kids should read them.  And then they should move on.  Struggling readers need to push themselves to read more challenging books if they ever expect to be better readers.  Teachers and parents would never think it acceptable for kids to learn addition, and then never move on to higher levels of math!  They would never defend it and say, “Oh but he loved adding numbers so much he just wants to keep doing it!  Why does he have to move on to subtraction, multiplication or division if he doesn’t want to?  Addition was fun! At least he’s still practicing his math!”  That would be crazy, AMIRIGHT? Yet, teachers and parents defend the re-reading of books to me all the time.

I encourage my students to move on from their beloved middle to upper grade elementary school books because they are growing up and their reading choices need to grow as well.  If they loved a certain series, I can hook them up with some great recommendations that are similar but more challenging. Graphic novels are great, but kids need to mix it up with a real, live chapter book every once in a while.  For struggling readers who want to tackle a chapter book that’s a bit challenging for them, my library has audio books that come with a print copy of the book, so students can listen and follow along at the same time.  There are options out there for these die-hard fans of chapter-ish books with pictures that are more challenging and will help them move on to something else that they enjoy.

I don’t even let my own kids, who are in third and sixth grade, re-read books.  I want them to keep getting better at reading, and if I don’t force them to choose something new and more challenging their growth will slow.  My daughter was a reluctant chapter book reader when she was in second grade.  She loved picture books, even the ones with lots of text, but she wouldn’t finish a chapter book at all. With the help of my friend the local bookstore owner, she found a chapter book series she loved and it pushed her to move on from the picture book phase.  Now she reads chapter books frequently and has improved her reading stamina and ability as a result. Would she have ever reached that point on her own?  Yes, eventually.  But she would have kept reading books that didn’t push her to improve as a reader if I hadn’t pushed her myself (with some awesome bookstore owner friend help).

Reaching potential as a reader takes practice – it’s my job as a teacher and a mom to help kids get there, by forcing them to move on and read something new, one Wimpy Kid fan at a time.






On Independent Reading in the Classroom…

As a special education inclusion middle school teacher, I’ve had the privilege of working with many great general education teachers throughout the years.  I push in to their classrooms and help our students with disabilities navigate the swampy, abstract world of English Language Arts.  For many students, reading is not their number one most favorite activity.  Students with disabilities in my classroom mostly do not enjoy reading and would like to avoid it if at all possible, and that is because it is a total chore.  For them, reading is hard.  So, it’s our job as teachers to promote and encourage reading every day – by talking about books, sharing good literature with students, giving students time to read, and modeling a full reading life.  Most teachers I have met and work with feel this way, as they are readers themselves.

We all know that independent reading time every day is really important for kids – pediatricians, teachers, parents, and other child development experts all agree that giving kids time to read every day can significantly impact their future literacy, brain development, and success in school.  However, in my experience as a middle school teacher and in my conversations with other teachers from elementary through high school, I’ve noticed that students are allowed little to no time to read independently during the school day.  This seems incredibly hypocritical to me – we know as teachers that it’s important, so why aren’t we doing it more often? Two reasons I have personal experience with are a lack of teacher buy-in and lack of administrative support.

Lack of administrative support can kill a classroom practice fast.  A few years ago my school adopted a reading challenge program for students that promoted independent reading. The program involved allowing students and teachers to independently read a book of their choice every day in ELA class for fifteen minutes.  In many cases, this program helped average readers push themselves to excel, and it helped self-proclaimed non-readers to find that they could read many books that they enjoyed.  Then, after a few years of great success in many classrooms, our district administrators came to observe, and it was deemed that allowing independent reading time during the school day was a poor use of instructional time.  They especially didn’t like the teachers modeling the independent reading – what are they getting paid for, anyway, right?  Oh, they didn’t officially get rid of the challenge.  No, students were still expected to complete the reading challenge and teachers were still expected to make students think the challenge was exciting and important.  This was frustrating to the teachers who were already all-in on this program, diligently following the expectations and seeing great results with their readers. For some teachers, though, the district’s negative view of independent reading in the classroom gave them permission to give up on something they already were not doing well, if at all.

Teacher buy-in is also a major roadblock to student success in independent reading.  There were several teachers on my campus who said they just “didn’t have time” to let students read every day. Some didn’t take students to the library at all during the entire school year, which meant students missed out on checking out books to read independently and on the awesome lessons our hardworking librarian puts together that promote reading in our school. Others let students read most days but would spend the reading time in their classrooms taking attendance, organizing their desk, and shuffling the handouts of the day while sighing loudly and looking expectantly at the clock, only to call the reading time short so students could “get to work.”  I know this because as an inclusion teacher, I am in several classrooms a day and have had many opportunities to observe teachers in their classrooms over the years.  I’ve seen reading challenges like this one done well, done very poorly, and sometimes not at all.  I’ve also experienced the varied outcomes of student success in each of those situations.  Teachers who outwardly share a love of reading and good literature in their classrooms have students who are more successful readers at the end of the school year.  The data at my school shows that success, even if our district offices think it’s a waste of time. If teachers don’t value reading time for students, or model for students what a good reader looks like, then how can we expect students to value reading themselves?  The idea is to get students to read independently at home, not just at school.  Sometimes, teachers have to put on the whole song and dance for students at school to boost enthusiasm and participation.  A librarian friend who works at a primary school (K-2) told me recently that the teachers at her school needed incentives to read books to their classes.  If the teachers read twenty books to students from a list of recommended picture books, her school offered the teachers free movie tickets as a reward.  Many teachers took advantage of the incentive, and then told my librarian friend that the students really loved all the books, as if that were surprising.  These are primary school teachers, folks!  Reading picture books to those students should be something that happens every single day.  It’s a shame when incentives have to be given in order to get teachers to share good literature with their students.  Isn’t that what all of us should be doing anyway?

Listen, I know teachers have a lot to cover each day in class.  I KNOW. In my district, as in most these days, the standards teachers are expected to teach students in the span of a school year are vast.  That means teachers must quickly cover concepts that could really use more depth.  However, it is possible to teach all the things AND give students time to read (or take time to read to them).  After all, we’re all here to do what’s best for kids, not what’s convenient for adults, right? RIGHT?

Are you a teacher?  How is reading time provided in your classroom?  How does your district feel about giving students time to read?  I’d love you hear about your experiences!