This week in Athens, Georgia was not normal by any measure of standards. At about 2:30pm on Monday afternoon, Hurricane Irma arrived and wreaked havoc upon the city’s trees and power lines. Fortunately, my home remained untouched from falling limbs; others were not so lucky. I did however lose power at about 5pm on Monday, and I did not get it back until nearly 8pm Thursday evening, the same day that we returned to school after three days off due to widespread power outages.
One’s entertainment options become quite limited once electricity is removed from the equation: no television, no wifi, no Netflix. Especially if that person – in this case me – possesses a cell phone plan that comes with a modest amount of LTE data before exorbitant fees are applied. For nearly three days, the only choice afforded to me in my home in regards to amusement was reading.
I read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston for the first time. Somehow, I wasn’t assigned this text in high school, though in a way I feel blessed in this regard because I don’t think the 17-year-old version of myself would have appreciated this novel nearly as much as the 38-year-old person that I am today did. Suddenly, the trials of being inconvenienced with using a headlamp to eat breakfast and keeping a cooler stocked with ice to prevent food spoilage paled in comparison with the plight of Janie Crawford in her lifelong quest to find true love.
Once I finished Hurston’s novel, I moved on to something lighter, a book called Blood Salt Water by Alex Morrow. It’s a crime novel set in Scotland with the story being told through the eyes of a low-level gangster and the police officer that is trying to solve a homicide in which said gangster was involved. I haven’t finished this book yet, probably due to the fact that my power came back on when I was still in the middle of it. Instead of reading Thursday night, I spent my time watching Narcos and scanning through my Twitter feed for engaging lesson plan activities.
We live in an incredibly distracting world. Televisions, computers, tablets and phones can make it nearly impossible to focus on just one task at a time. I cannot imagine being a student in this era with so many potential diversions at our fingertips: social media, texting, email, games, etc. When I was the same age that my students are today, I had a television and a Nintendo, both of which my parents could shut down with unbelievable ease. If I was told to go to my room and read a book or do my homework, the only thing to do in my room was read or do homework. I didn’t have a laptop or iPhone that I could use to watch just about anything my little heart desired. Even today, I find myself at times struggling to read for extended period of times without unlocking my phone at least once. How difficult must this be for someone who is just 12 or 13 years old?
As I reflect on my experience from the past week in which reading was my primary activity throughout the day, I feel even more validated as a Language Arts teacher that carves out instruction time each week so that my students have a chance to just read. The school year is young, and I’m still coaching my students through the process of independent reading from self-selected texts, but they are starting to get it. The kids are exploring genres and learning that they do possess the reading stamina to get lost in a book for 15 to 20 minutes. Through their written responses I can see that they are beginning to engage with the various characters and plot lines within their novels.
My students need time to learn to enjoy reading on a personal level, and after this week, I see that more than ever. They need a chance to read without all the diversions that come along with today’s smartphones. In addition to technological distractions, many of my students care for younger siblings from the time the bus drops them off at home to when they go to bed. Most of them do not have access to rich and engaging texts in the house, and a lot of my students are not witnessing adults in their home model reading as something one does for pleasure.
As teachers, it’s our job to give our students these types of opportunities. We cannot assume that students are getting the chance to read much on their own outside of school, and if you work at a Title I school like mine, you almost have to assume that they are not. Our classroom should be a place where students can frequently experience the choice of reading something that aligns to their interests.
I’m not saying that we have to remove electricity and technology from the equation altogether, but we should give our students a chance to unplug and focus on just one thing at a time, especially reading.