I’m in beautiful Florida this week for spring break, and it is obviously very different from New Mexico. First of all, there is water everywhere! And what is up with all of the green stuff growing from the ground? Where is all of the dirt?
Oh. Right. On the beach.
On the flight out here, I was finally able to finish reading Divergent by Veronica Roth. It was an excellent read about a dystopian society in what used to be Chicago. I was quite tickled during our first flight because we had a layover in Chicago and I was reading a story that takes place in Chicago, and because I’m a huge nerd who finds joy in small coincidences.
I travel a lot, and this isn’t my first trip to Florida, but I can’t help but think about my students. I know! It’s spring break! I’m not supposed to think about work while on vacation, right?
But here’s the thing: many of my students have never left New Mexico. Some of my students have never even left their hometown! When reading Divergent, I was able to connect my prior experiences visiting Chicago to the setting of the book, which might be why Roth decided to set the story in dystopian Chicago instead of a dystopian made-up city. It helped me to comprehend and connect to the story, and isn’t that what we want our students to do when they read, too? Connect to the story?
Now, back to Florida. Kinda. Imagine you grew up in a small town where the only naturally occurring body of water is the mostly dried up Rio Grande River. You need sprinklers to keep your grass alive, so most homes have yards full of beautiful rock gardens and a few drought-resistant plants. When reading a story that takes place in Florida, you’ll read about yachts, waterways, drawbridges, and hibiscus flowers. I can tell you right now, most of my students will not know what a yacht is.
Something language arts teachers love to do is give students books that they can relate too. We live in New Mexico, so we just read The Last Snake Runner by Kimberley Griffiths Little which takes place at Acoma Pueblo during the time of Oñate. Now that we’ve finished the book, the students are going on a field trip to Acoma with the social studies department. It’ll be a great learning experience for them.
As expert readers, we know that the beauty and joy of reading comes from experiencing new places and experiencing new things without ever leaving home, but that’s because we have either the prior knowledge necessary to connect to the story, or we have the skills necessary to seek out those connections. Heck, for avid readers, prior knowledge was often acquired from something we read before!
So, my point: how can we hook students into the cycle of reading for learning and building to more reading for learning and building at a young age? It reminds me of something I read by Kelly Gallagher in his book Deeper Reading (and I don’t have the book with me, so forgive me for any errors). He says that as readers, we have many reading branches that continually grow into new branches over time. For example, as a student, I grew a branch for books about magic after reading the Harry Potter series, which led to other YA series such as Hunger Games, which led to dystopian books such as Divergent. After reading and enjoying Kite Runner, I developed a branch for books that take place in Afghanistan, which lead to me reading more books about Afghanistan, but it also led me to reading books about different cultures, such as Ceremony. This led to more Native American literature, but it also led me to historical fiction as well. Each branch leads to more branches of your “reading tree.”
Having my students read a story that takes place near their hometown is a great way to hook them into reading, but now I have to help them develop new branches on their reading tree.
Exposing them to different genres is helpful, but we must also nurture the need for prior knowledge. Reading a book about Florida? Take a trip to Florida with the whole class using Google Earth. Give the students the information they need in order to feel connected to the reading. Then expose them books that might start new branches on their reading tree.
They may not be able to physically visit Florida, but they can read about it. And that’s almost the same thing.
*Disclaimer: I typed this entire post on my phone. It was hard. Please forgive any typos and mistakes.