This post is written by member Molly Sutton Kiefer.
When I was young, I’d ask my father, a literature and composition professor, to give me reading challenges. As an upper elementary student, I spent one summer day plowing through 100 picture books. On Thanksgiving break from college, I brought a sack of books, which he balked at, and I said, “Challenge me to read one a day—you pick which ones—and if I make it, you can buy me a book.” I jokingly asked for the OED (Oxford-English Dictionary) I had my eye on in the bookstore where I worked.
I started keeping a record of my reading on my birthday in 2001. It was through these cream-colored journals that I began counting books for each year. 256. 211. When Good Reads came along, I went digital, logging each book, tracking little unformed thoughts, which became the foundation for professional book reviews. I kept marginalia in a conversation I was having with the future-self who loved re-reading.
I started teaching mostly high school freshmen, hoards of freshmen with puppy energy and stumbling prose. On Mondays, we read. The whole period. There were forms all freshmen teachers had in their rooms, little book reportish things on colored paper with rote questions. They’d staple the batch together, and earn fakeable points each semester.
The requirement set out by department was 600 pages a semester. Most students would reach that line and duly toe it. I made attempts at revealing my own reading self, at challenging my already-readers in the room, by keeping a tally of my own pages on the board. Some years, other children would step up and write their own name and the tallies would edge up. Another boy was too shy to participate, but at the end of the semester, I heard him mutter to his seatmate, “Only two thousand eight hundred sixty-three pages? I had over three thousand, easy.”
The thing was, the kids who loved to read would read. They didn’t need to fill in a chart to tell me this. The kids who didn’t, wouldn’t. They’d spin it, or refuse to turn in the sheets and those points would drop away from an already low-slung grade. We weren’t spreading the romance of reading in this way.
And I had begun to dull my own love for reading in my manic acquisition of pages, of book numbers. Good Reads began its own challenge: select a number of books you will read for the year! My log-in page would tell me where I was lining up. I would scurry to surge ahead and suddenly I wondered where my stopwatch was, why I wasn’t wearing cleats, and just where did the true love of reading go, anyway? The accomplishment of the goal had eclipsed the deliciousness of language, the breathless admiration of a muscular text. I had forgotten how to slow down.
Worse, I was perpetuating the habit with my students.
As educators, as parents, we model. To raise readers, we model reading. It’s a beautiful excuse for me to flounce onto the couch or, in the summer, the hammock and declare to my partner, “I am parenting right now.” And then get lost in the thick of the novel.
I began to model active reading with my own students. As part of my greet-at-the-door, I’d stand in the hallway with a book of poetry in hand. When my students silently read, rather than grade frantically, I’d perch on a stool in the front of the room, reading with a pen in hand, modeling the pleasure of marginalia. I told them about the books I kept with my friends from my MFA days, where we’d read the same book together and write notes in the margins specifically for a fellow reader—like writing letters as we read.
This summer, I began to keep a paper reading journal. I’m using a gorgeous herringbone Moleskine—we writers are particular about our materials—to show my students how valuable this book is to me. In it, I still jot down the small details side of things: dates, genres, name, author. I still keep data, and I’ll still keep data on my students. I have a binder that was once folders that was once loose sheets—reading logs that became carrots for some, daunting tasks for others. Two of my carrot-boys decided to make an informal book club and keep their own log of what they read together. I need the lists, because I need to know where to go from last month, the month before.
This year, I’m giving my students blank books to keep as their reading logs, and I’ll give them many examples of ways they can log. Some will stick with the lists because it works. Some will be like me and begin to copy quotes, write responses, fill it with words of their own. Others, like my carrot-boys, who also fill their days drawing elaborate scenes in the margins of their work—bows and arrows and robots and planets—I envision their turning this into a graphic log. Some will write skits, creating dialog between characters with unresolved issues, characters from other books climbing over the marginalia and into the pages of other books. Some will paint in watercolor and paste collages, words clipped from their mother’s discarded magazines, pasted along the curve of a mountain representing the plot line. Some will break out of the book-logs and rip out pieces of butcher paper and create enormous and intricate maps, scenes, lists. I had my creative writing students collect words and put them on paper, transfer them when they entered my classroom onto that paper and braced myself for observation days when the principal might stare at best-loved and most-hated words of teenagers.
This summer, I learned this: marginalia need not stop in the margins. Reading logs need not exist between parallel lines.
Molly Sutton Kiefer is the author of the full-length lyric essay Nestuary and three poetry chapbooks. She is publisher at Tinderbox Editions, and her work appears in Orion, The Rumpus, and Women’s Studies Quarterly, among others. She lives and teaches in Minnesota