by guest writer, Travis Crowder
It was my third year of teaching.
The warmth of spring made everyone’s thoughts turn toward the freedom of endless summer days, and although students were anticipating the break, they (thankfully) still engaged in class conversation and reading. We were studying the 1960s, using texts by S.E. Hinton and Walter Dean Myers to anchor our unit of study and further explore the time period through the lens of fiction. As discussion stretched to the Vietnam War, the kids had plenty of questions that our cursory conversation would not touch, so I scoured textbooks and websites for texts that would help us think about the war, and answer many of the questions that piqued their curiosity.
I arrived at school rather early the next day with one text in particular in mind. Once in the workroom, I made photocopies of “Calling Home” from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and imagined, as the bar of light hummed across the open-face book, the different questions students might ask. We’ll treat it as an inquiry, I thought. I’ll gather their questions and use them to find more texts. Or, better yet, send them out to research the answers themselves. When the final photocopy emerged from the machine, I gathered the stack of papers and ambled to my room, excited at the prospect of what I believed would be an engaging conversation.
My excitement was short-lived.
I read part of Tim O’Brien’s piece to them, invited them to jot down their thinking, then asked them to read the rest by themselves. “When you’re finished, ask two questions that you really want to know,” I said before sending them to read the rest on their own. Compliantly, heads turned toward the page, but very few students were actually reading. I glanced around the room and recognized an overall detachment and lack of interest. O’Brien’s story is one of longing and emotion, an imaginative exploration of what it means to feel distant, yet connected. There was so much to think about, but once they were finished, most of the class doodled in the margins of the page or put their heads down. And only a few kids wrote something down once they finished.
Believing a conversation would bring everyone back together and energize the classroom, I started with an open-ended question: “What did you think of the story?”
The expected students offered elliptical responses, but even they seemed disengaged. Allen, a student whose insightful comments across the year had deepened class discussion, sat twirling his pencil. Ask him, I thought. He’ll offer something worthwhile.
“So Allen, what did you think of the story?”
“Oh, I didn’t really read it.”
“Well why not?”
His voice was louder when he responded, “Because this was boring!”
He held my gaze for several seconds, then turned his attention back to twirling the pencil, and I, hurt, frustrated, and embarrassed, moved the class to something else. I don’t even remember what it was.
I tiptoed through the rest of that year with Allen, and for fear of the same thing occurring again with successive groups of students, I spent several years opting for easier texts, ones I felt would engage kids and that no one would label boring. But these texts minimized class conversation even more. Students read, but there was little to sink our teeth into. Discussion fizzled after just a few minutes. Time to move on to something else, students’ eyes told me.
So we did.
It would be several years before I realized how wrong this all was. Anyone who knows me understands the value I now place on professional reading and digging deeper into the craft of teaching, especially the craft of teaching language arts. But it wasn’t always that way. When I discovered that there were people who were answering the questions I had about reading, I devoured a host of books. Leaning into the words of wise educators caused a shift in my practice— I abandoned the tired strategies that did nothing to engage kids and sought methods and ideas that would lift my level of instruction and the enthusiasm in the room. Cris Tovani’s Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? was one of the many books I pored over, and although connected primarily to content-area reading comprehension, I found myself jotting down tons of notes, chapter after chapter, realizing how I could help students unpack texts in class. While I had loved every single professional book I’d read, something about Cris’s writing made me feel as though she had walked into the room I’m sitting in and had joined me for a chat just between friends. I’ve learned so much from other reading specialists, but Cris’s delivery is specific and dependable. She grafts experience with strategy and moves you, the reader, into an imaginative space where you can see yourself engaging kids in the beautiful work of reading and thinking. Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? gave me a way to approach reading with kids, especially in regard to outlining why I’m using a particular text. Defining my instructional purpose first, then exploring how I want students to hold their thinking as they read helps me not to arbitrarily choose a text. It encourages me to select a text with purpose. Cris made me consider my why and understand the barriers I was putting between kids and deep, close reading. My reading instruction evolved.
But Cris is always teaching us. When she is inspired by a question or is seeking a more profound understanding of teaching readers, she molds her thinking into a book and gifts it to the world. Her newest book, Why Do I Have to Read This? has stretched my thinking about reading instruction even further. While her other work has challenged my thinking, Why Do I Have to Read This? provides more shape and structure to the literacy work I do. Story drives the work she does in this book. She doesn’t just tell us or show us. She models it. Narrative, rich dialogue and beautiful writing all combine to pull us further and further into her method of teaching.
I love how Cris discusses the masks that students wear and how she has learned to recognize them, to understand them. She approaches teaching with such empathy, helping me critically examine the biases I carry with me into the classroom and reflect on how I approach conversations with students. Right now, thinking of Bryan in third period who is a class clown, who loves to voice his opinion, with evidence, during discussions about controversial topics. Cris knows about him. She explains,
“When I value compliance over controversy, I’m just asking for students to disengage. After a while, vanilla gets boring. Students who wear the mask of the class clown thrive on controversy. They want to argue. They need to argue. Learning reasons why they feel a certain way about an issue and then being able to articulate those reasons is empowering…” (p. 99).
After reading this part, I walked into class the following day a much different teacher. My lens changed, and although I had given Bryan the space he needed to discuss his thinking, I understood him differently. There was a nuance there that hadn’t existed before. He must have felt the difference, too, because that day, he engaged in holding his thinking in his notebook for the first time all year.
In addition to the mask of the class clown, Cris explores the masks of anger and apathy, minimal effort, and invisibility. Real-world connections give meaning to what we study, she asserts, and when we give students interesting things to read and to consider, those masks start to fade. Engaging, authentic questions move us to press closer to the heart of an answer, and although we may never find a full answer, the journey, and what we learn along the way, are what matter.
Throughout the book, Cris offers real teaching examples, showcasing how she models close reading and annotations for her students and the feedback she gives to kids. I am in awe of her authenticity. Using her CYA structure (Content You Anticipate) — topic, task, target, text, tend, and time — teachers can better meet the needs of students. Good teachers anticipate what students may already know about a topic, what authentic tasks will help them explore the topic, what students need to know (target), the texts that will help them make sense of the topic, the needs of the students (tend), and how much time learners will need. CYA, coupled with long-term planning, gives our teaching room to breathe. It helps us curate a wide selection of texts that will meet the needs of our students in case our first choices aren’t a good fit. And, it helps us anticipate the students who will ask, “Why do I have to read this?”
Whenever I read a professional book that speaks to students’ reading engagement, Allen is one of the first students whose face materializes in my mind. His story haunts me each time I sit down to plan a unit of study and search for texts that will move kids to ask more questions and reconsider what they already think. While I have gone to Cris’s other books for several years to guide my teaching, Why Do I Have to Read This? will be close by anytime I attempt to plan an upcoming unit. I’ll also keep it close by as a reminder that all students come to class with unique needs, and it is through understanding and compassion that we begin to unpack what those needs are.
Cris’s writing has mentored my teaching for several years. When I feel frustrated or isolated, or have no idea what to do next with students, her soothing words build a bridge from where I am to where I need to be. Early in the book, she shares a letter from Sam Bennett (author of That Workshop Book, which is a wonderful text for teachers) that left her angry, but nudged her to reframe the way she taught some of her most vulnerable students. The beautiful thing here is that Cris opens up about how her thinking changed, and the ways she challenged and transformed the way she taught striving readers. Even after years of experience, Cris models for us what it means to confront feedback and use it to move our classrooms forward.
Several weeks ago, while reading Why Do I Have to Read This?, I laid the book face-down on my desk and stared at a stack of responses to texts we had been reading in class. Students’ writing was lifeless and detached, and even though I believed we were talking about good stuff, their connections were not as deep as mine. And yes, I saw Allen’s face, too.
As I sat there, I recognized how conversations across the year had proven that students wanted to talk about deep topics, ones that were relevant to their lives. They wanted to talk about controversy. They had been ready for the “hard stuff,” but I had not yet given it to them. So, I recognized my own mask of minimal effort, slid it off my face, and returned to Cris’s book. I generated stronger overarching questions, invited students to evaluate them with me, and gave them a chance to explore their initial thinking before diving into a new collection of texts that would help us press closer to the heart of an answer.
But like every other teacher, I am still learning.
Cris’s book is a work of (he)art. It challenges us to rethink our teaching, but most importantly, it reminds us of the humanity of teaching. When we walk into the room with our students, we know them best. We know what they need and the things that will make their hearts sing. In the last part of the book, Cris says,
“We have a choice. We can stormily enter the room and with a grumpy face look at our students with disappointment and disdain. Or, we can be a ray of light and come to class giving and expecting the best. We can blindly follow a curriculum guide that someone else has made, or we can use it to enhance our own long-term planning to ensure that our content is compelling, accessible, and reflective of all learners. It’s up to us. We decide who we give up on and who we try to re-engage. We hold a lot of power” (p. 178).
We hold a lot of power.
What a beautiful statement.
In a time when high-stakes tests dominate many district conversations, it’s important to remember that we still have agency. It may not seem that way all the time, but it’s there. Cris explains that it’s important to interrogate the texts we use and to recognize that controversial topics give us a chance to discuss topics that for too long education has ignored. If you’re like me, Cris’s book will remind you of the light that shines inside of you. And while it may be a flickering flame, it still burns and has the power to burst into a roaring fire.
Bennett, S. (2007). That workshop book: New systems and structures for classrooms that read, write, and think. Heinemann.
O’Brien, T. (2009). The things they carried. Mariner Books.
Tovani, C. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading?: Content comprehension, grades 6-12. Stenhouse.
Tovani, C. (2021). Why do I have to read this?: Literacy strategies to engage our most reluctant students. Stenhouse.
Travis Crowder, M.Ed., is a middle school English/Language Arts teacher at East Alexander Middle School in Hiddenite, NC. Travis frequently shares his thinking about teaching on Twitter @teachermantrav and you can read more of his exquisite writing on his blog https://www.teachermantrav.com. Our #g2great chat team is honored that Travis is a guest writer to our blog several times each year. We are so grateful for his thoughtful contributions.