18.7.20

Reflecting On Being A Teen Reader: A Literacy Autobiography

Thinking back on who I was as a teen reader puts into focus why adolescents need to develop steady habits of reading.

Greig Roselli as a teenager sitting in his mom's boat on the Tchefuncte River reading Catch-22.

A Photograph of the Author as an Adolescent Reader

Taking A Course at Hunter College Encouraged Me To Think About the Adolescent Reader

During the Summer of Covid-19, I was planning to go to Chicago to learn about maps. But my plan was foiled, and I have been home this Summer like most of us. So. Never to sit idle for long, I enrolled in an Education class at Hunter College. Taking Adolescent Literacy, the professor has us plunging into the myriad forms of reading that we can have our students read, dissect, decode, translate, and take to sustaining levels of engagement. I love the course. It had me thinking of myself as a teen reader. So — I took a walk down memory lane, and I tried to envision who I was as a teen who read.

My Adolescent Experience in Literacy Began With An Ugly Divorce

My earliest memory as an adolescent reader stems from the transition I went to from Sixth to Seventh Grade. At that age, I was going through the expected change from a kid to a tween, and I had just gone through my parents' ugly divorce. In Fifth and Sixth grades, my academics had suffered, and I had achieved low scores in Math. I perceived myself as an average student even though I had read The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. I had devoured stories, such as Hans Christian Anderson's "The Tinder Box," which I would listen to in concert with the audio on a Fisher-Price record player. It played 45 records, and you could check them out from the library.

Reading instruction in middle and junior high school was based on reading comprehension and discussion of the book. But I would often read the entire book by myself and not pay attention to the homework and sometimes do poorly on the end-of-the-reading exam. We read Tuck Everlasting, My Brother Sam is Dead, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Hatchet, and Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of N.I.M.H. — books I liked but I wanted to get through them so I could read other books! So when the exam came, I often forgot vital details about the "class book" because I was not in sync with the rest of the class.

Adventures in Junior High School in South Louisiana

In South Louisiana, where I am from, the school system has a separate school for Seventh and Eighth Grade called Junior High School. I don't remember being especially advanced in reading, but I do remember enjoying reading for pleasure. I kept a personal journal as a kid. I always had a book to read, and we often made trips to the public library, and I was a frequent visitor to my school's library as well. In Seventh Grade, I remember getting into trouble for reading Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton in History class. The book was propped up on my lap, and the teacher caught me with my head down too often. I often attempted to read really long, "adult" books just for fun — Stephen King's The Stand, and the Jack Ryan books by Tom Clancy (e.g., Clear and Present Danger and The Hunt For Red October).

Growing up gay, it was through reading novels that I discovered in the library that I learned that people like me existed. For example, Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar was a thin volume I found in the library's fiction section. It's about a young gay man coming to terms with his sexuality in the 1950s and 60s. Even books that are not explicitly about being gay rang true for me nevertheless, as in Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, Fade by Robert Cormier, and Selected Poems by Walt Whitman. That began a lifelong fascination with L.G.B.T.Q.+ Fiction and with reading as a means of self-reflection and a catalyst for personal growth — a practice I still continue to this day. One of my favorite books is Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

Challenging Me To Read a Non-American, Non-European Author Was an Illuminating Experience for a Fourteen-Year-Old

A photograph of Greig Roselli as a teenager reading out loud from the Gospel on Christmas morning.

On Christmas Day Mom Made
Us Read from the New Testament Recounting
the Gospel Narrative of Christ's Birth

I had a wake-up call, though, in high school, when a teacher told me to more carefully choose the books I read. I did not have a model for "close reading" — but in Ninth Grade, I joined my high school's "Library Committee" — an extracurricular club where we read a novel from the library's collection every two weeks. We met as a group to write book reviews and discuss the books. I remember I was told, "Read a book by a non-European, non-American author . . ." That was an intriguing challenge, so I read Nectar in a Sieve by Indian novelist Kamala Markandaya. I was struck by the description of poverty and despair. Still, the voice of the protagonist Rukhmani — stayed with me. Being a part of a club and having reading role models among my peers and other adults helped me to create a social experience around reading that I did not have. As a result, my performance in school improved. I made better grades in English, and I was bumped up to the Honors class in my Sophomore year.

I am lucky that I had excellent English teachers in high school that encouraged discussion about books. We were prompted to make connections to what we were reading. When we read Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, our teacher did an outstanding job of zooming out and said to us, "Okay. Don't get tripped up by the language. Well, this is a story about entering the woods, and the woods is a place of chaos, and the characters come out changed." As a teenager, I could relate to the theme of radical metamorphosis. At the end of the unit, we watched Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer-award-winning musical Into the Woods. And later compared the text to Shakespeare — which turned out to be a beautiful text-to-text connection that I now use in my classroom.

As Adolescent Reader There Was a Disconnect Between "Reading for Pleasure" and "Reading to Succeed"

In Junior year, I did poorly on the standardized pre-tests in reading for the ACT., and SAT. While my classmates had taken test prep classes in the Summer, I was not prepared for the questions. My parents did not realize that I needed intervention because I was always doing something academic or doing my homework — and I made Bs and As consistently. In my parents' eyes, I was doing what I was supposed to do. I graduated from high school in 1998 with a G.P.A. just shy of a 3.5 by one-tenth of a point. I got into a small liberal arts college that focused more on writing and personality than test scores. But I sometimes wish that if I had been pushed harder in high school, my life would have turned out differently.

Who I Was As a Teen Reader Predicted Who I Became as an Adult

A Picture of the Author as a High School English Teacher (Greig Roselli)

A Picture of the Author as
a High School English Teacher

So here I am now in the Summer of 2020. My adolescence feels like a world lived in a different galaxy. And I am a teacher! As a classroom teacher, decades removed from my own youth, who I am as a teacher, surprises me. 

Working with teenagers, I put a lot of emphasis on independent reading. I use websites like newsela.com to foster a love of learning and academic choice. I can remember when I taught Sixth grade a kid told me, "Mr. Roselli — I never see you with a book. But you say you love to read." I think it's because he only saw me teaching, or grading, or talking, or going from one class to another, and he never saw me doing a silent sustained reading. And that really struck me, and it made me think, you know, we live in a society where silent sustained reading is seen as antisocial. 

In the very fast-paced world of teaching, counter-intuitively, teachers do not have time, often, to commit themselves to a meaningful text. So. Now. I do small things to show my own life in reading. For instance, I give my students a top ten list of my favorite books. Or, I do subtle stuff like actually read with them or have my current book on my desk (which is an explosive investigative report on the Matthew Sheppard murder entitled The Book of Matt)

As a teacher, I don't mind when kids go off track and read random texts independently. I keep a small classroom library, and I often use my own money to buy relevant books. For example, the novel The Hate U Give is a compelling read. It is told through the experience of a young Black girl who witnesses her best friend killed in a routine stopover by the police.

What's the takeaway? Who you were as an adolescent reader informs who you will become as an adult. And that's on period, boo.

PDF Copy for Printing

Stones of Erasmus TpT Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Higher Education, Adult Education, Homeschooler, Not Grade Specific - TeachersPayTeachers.com

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