Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Birds of a Feather

"Never stop learning!" I have exclaimed to my students for 22 years.
I felt certain my life was a testimony to that directive. I read all the time! Not only did I stay informed on the latest research regarding reading and writing instruction, I also read teetering stacks of middle grades novels every year. I was a lifelong learner...wasn't I?
This year, two of my seventh graders unintentionally challenged me. Both boys are in my first hour language arts class. They don't really run in the same circles, and their only common characteristic seems to be their unfailing dedication to informational nonfiction. Despite my best efforts, neither boy has been inspired by my enthusiastic talks, featuring the latest and greatest in middle grades books. Instead, each insists on combing through some of the oldest books in our school library, checking out hard-backed volumes titled simply Dogs or Viruses or Weather.
I was baffled.
"I can see you really like to read about dogs," I said, interrupting Lucas who peered at me over the top of a large book that featured a picture of a Springer Spaniel on the cover.
"Yep," he said.
Although I had shared wonderful new examples of nonfiction texts and had presented multiple book talks, holding up novels and narrative nonfiction featuring dogs, Lucas doggedly returned to the dustiest corner of the library week after week. After reading his way through all the dog books, he moved on to books about bones and then books about the common cold. Daniel, on the other hand, liked to read about cats.
Every day, the boys dutifully picked up where they'd left off the day before, digesting facts and figures while the rest of us were lost in other worlds and dramatic story lines.
I was intrigued (and some days admittedly frustrated) by Lucas's and Daniel's unfailing interest in books that I couldn't imagine ever legitimately holding anyone's interest. Were they just going through the motions...turning the pages? No, when we shared what we were reading, both boys always offered fascinating snippets about cats or canines.
I love books...all books; so why was I so flustered by the boys' desire to trudge through page after page of information?
Following the old advice, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," I asked for a book about birds for Christmas. My husband, mother, and sister looked at me the same way I must have looked at Lucas and Daniel.
"You want a book filled with facts on birds? I didn't even know you liked birds," my mother said.
"I never thought you were that interested in nature," my husband confessed.
"Well I am," I said. "I am most definitely just now becoming interested in nature, and more specifically in birds."
On Christmas morning, I unwrapped a paperback volume entitled Backyard Guide to the Birds of North America by Jonathan Alderfer and Paul Hess. That afternoon, I read about the Carolina Chickadee who happened to be nibbling seeds my mother had sprinkled on the back deck. I learned that her call is different when nesting, "...fee bee, fee bay," as compared to her usually chipper, "...chick a dee-dee-dee." Later, I read about a tiny wren who had been known to nest in overturned flower pots or in abandoned winter boots. I immediately felt privileged to be a member of a very small group of people who knew those interesting tidbits of information. Maybe that was why Daniel and Lucas gravitated to straight information.
On our first day back from winter break, I led a different kind of book talk (for me, anyway). I shared all the novels and the biography I'd read over break, but then I held up my new favorite book.
"I am reading this book," I said, showing the class, "because I was inspired by Lucas and Daniel. They always read nonfiction, and I wanted to see what was so great about it; and now I know. I used this book to identify a dark-eyed junco last week! That's pretty great...and listen to this," I said, and I read a particularly interesting part. Lucas and Daniel smiled. Neither talks too much; and neither is very easily impressed. Right away, they returned to their nonfiction books. Lucas was reading a book called Cells, and Daniel was reading Cats...again. I settled into my chair and read about the Downy Woodpecker (pictured below, hanging around outside my kitchen window) who is described as having a "...toy-like quality."
Perhaps, I thought, Daniel and Lucas might venture out of their reading comfort zones one day...but until then, I was happy to validate their choices...to join their little flock for a season.


  1. Sometimes by our students we are taught. How wonderful that you took a cue from these boys and how they must have felt being mentioned as an inspiration to what you are now reading.

  2. Has it given you a greater connection with either of them? Even if they don't say anything, you have shown that you notice them, know them, and care.

  3. Thanks. I think reading to learn is as valid as the literary experiences we may have in a good YA fiction.

  4. All it takes is an interest in a topic to hook a reader. I guess that's why there are so many types of books out there. You never know what someone might want to read. Glad to see you are back writing.

  5. This is awesome since you're showing your students that they inspired you and you're sharing it with the entire class. Wonderful!