By Mr. Ian McCurry
As someone who loves to read and especially as someone who is an English teacher, I’ve often asked myself this question. Many famous authors have provided answers to this question. C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know that we are not alone.” George R.R. Martin in A Dance with Dragons wrote, “A reader lives a thousand lives…The man who never reads lives only one.” While these are wonderful answers, there is something about the question that necessitates a personal response, “But why do you read?”
Over the years as I have thought about my own answer to this question, I have also thought about my students’ answers to this question.
The peak of my speculation about the purpose of reading in schools came during my second year teaching high school English at a charter school in Los Angeles. I realized that I wanted my students to love reading, to love books, to love beautiful language and incredible stories. But was this the message my students were getting from me. One day, my curiosity overcame me and I threw the question out to one of my classes. “So, why do we read?” I was a little nervous asking the question,
especially since I felt like I hadn’t given them any setup. I relaxed a little as I saw a student put up a hand. “So that we can answer the questions and do well on the test?” A few more hands went up, “Because we might need to read for our job.” “To do well in college.” “To get good grades.” “To understand street signs and food labels.”
That day in class, while very discouraging, was also extremely revealing. I was nursing this passion for books, but I wasn’t passing that passion on to my students. In fact, in some cases, I was masking that passion to allow more time to “cover content” so that my students would do well on tests. I was simultaneously experiencing that teacher burnout that so many of my friends and collogues had expressed over the years. Something needed to change. Either I needed to find a new career, or I needed to change the way that I taught.
I decided to go with the second option. I started to ask myself, what do I love about reading? I love getting taken into another world. I love characters that are interesting and complex. I love characters that I can relate to but are not necessarily exactly like me. I love beautifully written language. I love getting to think about the world and life in a different way. As my answers to these questions came, my decisions about what books my students should read changed as well. I looked for books that I thought my students might be able to connect with. I looked for novels and sought for ways to get out of the textbook.
I also started to change what we did with the books we read. We spent more time reading aloud in class, particularly if it was an interesting or well-written chapter; we listened to audio books where professionals readers brought us into the text with their amazing voices; I gave my students more time to talk about what they were reading. I moved away from having them answer lists of comprehension questions. I also moved away from multiple choice, closed-note/closed-book quizzes. I had them take more open-note/open-book quizzes with fewer questions that allowed them to explain their answers. It was amazing to see the change in my students and myself. Suddenly my students were making insights and asking questions that I never even considered. I saw them come to life in my class, and I felt more alive myself.
I later realized that one of things I discovered was how important curiosity is to reading, and how important it is for teachers to nurture that curiosity in students. A good book can open the world up to you. Books are meant to be read with a sense of wonder and curiosity. It has been a joy this year to see my students at Intellectual Virtues Academy dive into books, ask deep questions, and make great connections to their lives and our world. One of the reasons I was so excited to work at IVA was that I knew I would be part of a culture that cherished curiosity. Curiosity and a love for reading often walk hand-in-hand.
This year I’ve continued to find my answer to the question, “Why do we read?” changing. Sometimes I find that I am reading to be taken off on an adventure, like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Other times, I find myself being sucked in by the incredible lovable and personal language of Jerry Spinelli in Maniac Magee. Or I’ll find myself turning to The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer to endlessly speculate on what it means to be human and whether or not science will ever change our answer to that question. What I have found the most exciting is that I find my students, their questions and responses, guiding and changing my answer to the question, “Why do we read?”
I’ll end by posing the question to you: Why do you read?