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Travis Crowder
Engaging readers, nudging humanity
.com), an ILA member since
2018, is a middle school
English language arts (ELA)
By Travis Crowder

teacher at East Alexander
Middle School in Hiddenite,
t’s Monday morning, and my students have just settled into independent
NC. He has taught for 10
reading. The sounds of reading—turning pages and rhythmic breathing—
years and has experience are subtle yet still audible as I make my way, clipboard in hand, to different
in both middle and high students.
school levels. He currently I stop for a few moments with Hunter and ask, “Would you mind talking
teaches seventh-grade ELA to me about your book?” In this interlude, he discusses characters in Ray
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (Simon & Schuster), questions they are asking, and
and social studies and works
problems that have risen since the first page. After outlining our conversation
with the gifted and talented in my notes, I move to another student, Karina. When I ask if I can join her for
students in his school. a moment, I jolt her out of the reading zone. She is reading Meredith Russo’s If

42 | July/August 2019 | LITERACY TODAY

opinion of reading. They refused to
do much reading outside of class, and
Their feelings matter, and where there during independent reading time in
is disengagement, there is a story I want class, they would stare at single pages
for stretches of time. Conversations
to know. with them were pleasant, but nudging
them forward was problematic. They
offered beautiful insights into poems
I Was Your Girl (Flatiron), and when I that is noble or evil in our world—or we discussed in class, mentor texts
extracted her from such a deep state even just to find a book that they are we studied, and short stories we read.
of reading, she was in the midst of a willing to read for a sustained amount However, developing a reading life did
pivotal scene in the story. I tell her to of time. Each year, kids arrive in my not rank high on their lists. I refused
keep reading; we can chat later. classroom with their own personal to give up hope.
Other students are engaged story about reading. Knowing students is a huge
in their books, and in the time we Prior experience with books part of the work I do to move them
have left for independent reading, I has stained or embellished as thinkers and readers. I have to
retreat to one side of the room and students’ impressions. Some beam meet them where they are in their
just observe. When I announce that at the prospect of another year of learning journey and nudge them
our reading time has ended, several reading, whereas others bemoan the from that point. Some kids come
students linger in their books for just expectation. I recognize the value to my class as disengaged readers,
a moment longer, reluctant to let go of of engagement with texts and know certain that reading is not for them.
the story just yet. Existing in an oasis how books have the capacity to move Like my friend Donalyn Miller, I tell
of story mesmerizes them. And I feel students to promote change in the my students that not reading is not an
honored to work beside them. world. So often, though, students option and I work carefully to match
Karina’s and Hunter’s reading enter as disengaged readers. I choose them with books that will speak to
lives have intersected with gorgeous to believe that I can reach them. their interests. But I do understand
books and indelible characters, Students may disengage their disengagement stems from
moving them as thinkers in the world because of access, low interest, an somewhere. Like Penny Kittle
they inhabit. Fahrenheit 451 provides overemphasis on “right” answers, encourages again and again, I listen
Hunter with a grim view of a world little or no validation of their visceral to them, and I take their resistance
without books and choice. Powerful responses, testing, or all of the above. seriously. I want to know who they
thinking about transgenderism in If I When readers come into my room,
are and understand the stories about
Was Your Girl allows Karina to elevate I take their reactions to reading
reading they bring with them.
her own understanding of identity. seriously, knowing that above all else,
Both books enrich the humanity I am teaching human beings. Their
of the reader, something I want all feelings matter, and where there is Nudging the world
students to experience. A reading life disengagement, there is a story I want
offers pleasure, and I want students to know. I meet them with books, Imaginative thinking thrives in the
to experience the joy of a voluminous with options, and with patience. They heart and mind of a reader. Emerson
and varied reading diet. And, yes, have a place in this world and their believed strongly in literacy’s power
I want this for every student. But, experiences are part of the fabric of to influence the world. In his eyes,
beyond that, I want kids to know that humanity. I sit beside them and listen reading was a critical element of a
books are models of the world, and to their stories. And I meet them with democratic society. I agree. I believe
they equip readers with tools to nudge books, ones I am certain will capture that my students are the leaders of
the world in positive directions. their hearts. tomorrow. Books breathe life into
In conversations with Karina and This year, two students caught my our thinking and open our minds and
Hunter, I have asked them to consider attention early on. Tanner and Grace hearts to the possibility of change and
how these texts are nudging them to entered my classroom with a negative progress. I consider myself fortunate
promote change.

Nudging disengaged
Books breathe life into our thinking and open
readers our minds and hearts to the possibility of
I recognize that not all students
come to my room prepared to plunge
change and progress.
into narratives and to examine all

LITERACY TODAY | July/August 2019 | 43

to see how hearts and minds can Democracy demands a literate words of Kelly Gallagher—imaginative
change with the power of books. populace. Our current political rehearsals, opportunities to stand beside
Not long ago, several of my climate demonstrates a need for characters and see the world with them.
formerly disengaged readers elevated empathy. Again and again, the news I lift my voice with a chorus of
my thinking during their reading is replete with hateful rhetoric, and
other ones, believing that with books,
conferences. Grace, whom I mentioned without a voluminous and varied
students are challenged, engaged,
earlier, was reading Clare Dunkle’s reading life, kids will enter their adult
lives unprepared to combat such evil and empowered. And, yes, I believe
and Elena Dunkle’s Elena Vanishing
and vitriol. that with books, students have the
(Chronicle). By reading this book,
she deepened her understanding of Reading has the capacity to teach power to nudge the world in hopeful
eating disorders and, as a result, began empathy. Books give readers—in the directions.
crafting poems that she wants to share
with a broader audience. ONLINE EXCLUSIVE ILA 2019
After Tanner finished Walter
Dean Myers’s Monster (Amistad), he The digital edition of Literacy Today Travis Crowder will join
was curious about capital punishment includes an additional Engaging Laura Robb and Evan Robb
and the ethics surrounding it, and Classroom article from Denise on Saturday, Oct. 12, for a
K. Frazier, Purdue University panel titled, “A School Filled
sought more books to give him
Northwest, about grounding STEM With Readers: How the
answers. These students are reading
lessons in literacy and literature,
the world and witnessing through Principal, Literacy Coach,
complete with a list of picture book
story how people, real and imagined, and Teachers Change a
recommendations. Print readers:
have wrestled with questions that Log in at School’s Reading Culture.”
remain unanswered in our world. But literacytoday to read the digital For more information, visit
with reading, they are entering the issue.

44 | July/August 2019 | LITERACY TODAY

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