Once school starts many English teachers make lists (mental and actual) and piles (actual) of books, articles, and magazines (oh those weekly New Yorkers!) they want to read but do not–until winter break, spring break or, of course, summer vacation. (Pictured Left: Here is the pile of what I am snacking on lately.)
But remember: this is one reason why you became an English teacher: you love to read. No time! you cry. Papers to grade, lessons to plan! So true. But not reading every day–and I do not mean to equate reading with vitamins or apples!–is like not watering the plants in my garden regularly and expecting them to remain healthy or even flourish. If we do not read–a poem here, some portion of a book or article there–we will find ourselves drying out and beginning to resent our work, our kids, our life–all that prevents us from doing what we love, from being ourselves.
What do I and others I know do during the year to ensure we read? Try these tricks:
- Bring a book or magazine with you wherever you are: bank line, post office, hair salon, principal's office (where I seem to have to always wait about five minutes for the meeting), photocopy machine.
- Keep a book or two on your iPhone or other type of phone just in case.
- Read poetry: I read several day day usually, often while making a cup of coffee.
- Make a deal: I have to read that week's New Yorker by the time the next one comes, at which point I find something in the last issue that a senior student will find interesting and pass it along as a form of reading mentorship.
- Spend a Year with a Classic: I find that many of the classics are often broken up into nice bits (e.g., a canto in Dante's Inferno, which I read last year, is about 3 pages). After dinner, but before beginning to plan or grade student work, take fifteen minutes to enjoy a little more Hell or whatever other subject excites you. This year I am reading a few pages of Proust's first volume of the In Search of Lost Time books every night before settling down to do school work.
- Cleanse Your Palette: My first job in San Francisco when I moved here in 1986 was delivering wine for a fancy wine shop. The famous wine taster of the store told me about what he did to cleanse his hard-working pallatte while sampling wines throughout Europe. When doing school work, stop after a half an hour and read a poem, a few minutes of an article from The Atlantic or whatever other magazine you have handy, or the last few pages in that chapter of The Painter of Battles. Then return to working on those papers or lessons with your faith in and appreciation for beautiful language restored.
- Read in the Car: I have listened to audio books for years. I belong to Audible.com and for 22 bucks a month get two books (which would cost much more if I bought them individually). This way I generally enjoy two more books a month than I otherwise would; because these are audio books and I am in the car, I feel free to listen to some books I would never otherwise read but find most enjoyable. Right now I am listening to George Packer's amazing analysis of the Iraq War in his book Assassin's Gate.
I have written about these ideas before no doubt; they merit revisiting throughout the year. I write them here today for you as much as for myself. We can lose ourselves in our work. Making such time to read reminds us who we are, why we entered this profession, and what we love about reading; it also pays off in the classroom: I am constantly referring to books I read, listen to, discuss with others; in this way I am modeling for my students what it means to live a literate life, to continue to learn, to grow, to live.
I say these words to the new and younger teachers in particular, for at this stage you are teaching yourselves how you will live and work. Early habits take up residence and are difficult to evict later on. So make it part of your life to tend the garden of your teacher's soul by walking out into the lush world of a book or poem each day before going back into the kitchen where our work can be delicious but also feel like a chore and not always like the choice it really is.
I'd write more, but I want to read another poem from Louise Gluck's new book of poems Village LIfe before we take the kids out to the beach for the afternoon and return home to all his work before me this evening.