I’ve been struggling with something recently. It’s been a recurring internal argument since I started to build my classroom library a few years ago. But, it’s been at the forefront more recently in the past month because this year I’ve made it my mission to build a reading community and read with my students. At the start of every class. And at this point, I’ve read quite a lot of incredible stories. Amazing ones in fact. Books like Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp, just to name a few. The struggle I’m faced with is the fact that I teach sixth grade, and I can’t decide whether or not to provide or recommend some of these books to my students.
At 11 and 12 years old, they are at an awkward age. Not just in their gangly bodies or uncertainty in themselves, but also as readers. Some students are able to process a lot of heavy, controversial information. Some aren’t quite there yet. Some kids are more mature and they crave books that reflect that maturity. A few kids have experiences and lives that are so similar to the struggles faced in these books that it feels wrong to deny them access to a story that would resonate with them. Could help them. But at the same time, some kids are definitely not ready for that.
As a teacher and lover of reading myself, I’m conflicted. I want all my kids to find themselves in a book. I want them all to feel represented in a story. I want each of them to experience what it’s like to be changed by someone’s words. I want my students who are facing challenges that feel bigger than them, tackling obstacles that are out of their control, to have a coping mechanism that helps them make sense of their circumstances. That helps them see they are not alone. But I also want to respect that there are some students who simply aren’t ready to take on this information. Kids who wouldn’t know what to do with those stories, as beautiful and important as they are, if they did read them at this point in their lives.
I’ve gone back and forth about whether to put these books in my library. Whether to tell students about them when they ask what to read next or what I’ve read lately. I’ve mulled over the options in my head, weighing out the pros and cons over and over again. At the end of it, every time, I’m left with one really simple thought.
Kids need books. All kids. Need books.
When it comes down to it, some of my sixth graders have experienced incredible things—good and bad. Some of them have witnessed loss and trauma that I myself can’t fully understand. Some are struggling with issues of identity, sexuality, and gender every single day. Some are living with the realities of substance abuse and neglect. Who am I to deny them access to a story that could help them cope? Help them feel less like an outsider? Why should I be telling my students that their own experiences, their own lives, aren’t age appropriate?
Some of my students are ready to expand their experiences, delve into difficult topics like racism and violence, and begin to develop their own, unique understanding of the world they live in. They’re attempting to make sense of what they see on the news and out in the world—their world—every day. Tragedy is real. It’s raw. School shootings happen. Racism does exist. People do deal with drug addiction. Why should I censor their access to stories that will help them better understand and empathize what they see?
I do not at all insinuate that I shouldn’t guide my students toward books that are appropriate for them, nor that I would not respect a parent’s wishes. I place great value on parents’ roles in their child’s education and will gladly steer students in a different direction when asked. As a reading teacher, it is absolutely my job to recommend books to kids that will create an amazing, enjoyable reading experience for them. But it is also my job to get to know my students so well that I can know when they’re ready, or not ready, for something more. And, moreover, it is certainly within my job description to understand that not all students are at exactly the same level of maturity, they don’t all have the same “age appropriate” experiences, and that some may be ready for titles like these before others.
Building relationships with my students is something I put a lot of effort into. Getting to know them as people, as readers, as writers, as humans, is something I spend time on. Because it matters. And when they choose a book that deals with a difficult topic, I let them know that I’m here. If it’s too much, I make sure they know it’s okay to abandon it. If they need to talk about what they read, I’m ready to listen and offer support. If that book hits a little too close to home and they need someone to lean on, I’ll be there.
Because that’s what teaching is. Inspiring our students to find a love of reading, to get lost in a book, consider multiple perspectives, and to make sense of the world around them.