Philip Pullman said that “after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Any person breathing knows this to be true. From telling stories around the fire to the invention of the printing press to binge-watching Netflix, our culture has always revolved around stories.
The starting block
It is through stories that we define our world and discover our place in it. Stories help us understand the world we live in, teach us about where we came from and help us see possible futures. Stories are our education and our escape. They lull us to sleep and inspire us to action. Indeed, it is through the stories we tell each other that we literally create the world as a reflection of who we are.
Every child already loves stories. Whether it’s through movies, television or video games, every child already has a preferred method of story intake. This is fine. As educators, movies, television and video games are not our enemies. They are simply alternative methods of storytelling.
What we have to do is encourage each child to appreciate storytelling through the written word at least as much as they appreciate storytelling through visual mediums. Movies and television are wonderful, and I know because I’ve spent a little bit of my life making stories through those mediums. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to reach one’s full potential without being able to read. To be literate is to be on the pathway to becoming a lifelong learner, and literacy is essential if we’re to have educated individuals and a truly free society.
How we inspire
First of all, we have to meet the student where they feel most comfortable. We have to show up where kids are hanging out and bring them back to the written word. “Reading Rainbow” has always done this, through the classic TV series and now by bringing children’s books to the web and digital devices.
But as teachers know, there are many other ways to meet kids where they are:
- Talk to them about their favorite movies, TV shows or video games. Find books that expand on those universes and characters that already have kids captivated.
- Show them how dynamic visuals and written storytelling work together in comic books and graphic novels.
- Have kids make their own comics or write their own fan-fiction, and share their work with their classmates.
Surround kids with good books, and let them choose their own reading material. When we give kids access to a rich library we provide hundreds of opportunities every day for their eye to fall on an intriguing title, or for them to see another student choose a book and become engrossed in it.
When we surround kids with books we show them that reading is something that permeates life; something to do at any moment of the day. When we give kids a library we provide opportunities for learning that are deeper, more pervasive, more personal and, most importantly, student-driven.
Read books aloud. The best thing you can do to foster a child’s love of reading is to read with them. Reading aloud is a low-pressure and fool-proof way to engage the imagination through the written word. Once you have them well and truly hooked, leave copies of the book lying around the classroom and give them free reading time. How many students do you imagine will choose to pick up the book and finish it on their own?
Show students how much you love reading. In my childhood, it was my mother who was an avid reader and first introduction to the joy of reading. But teachers are no less influential in the lives of their students. When I look back to my school days I remember a few teachers whose passion for a subject inspired a similar passion in me. When teachers find ways to show students how important reading is in their lives, it opens the door for reading to be important in their students’ lives.
Medium to message
A love of stories is hardwired into every human being, and we have more mediums for receiving these stories than we ever have in the course of human history. In video games we get to guide a character through a story. In movies and television we can see an entire lifetime play out in front of us in a few short hours. And in books we can read about the complex emotions and motivations that wrestle beneath the surface of a stoic façade.
Each of these mediums has its unique appeal and limitations. When used together, we can inculcate in our students not only a love for storytelling in all of its forms, but give them a sense of how we as human beings have storytelling in our DNA. But you don’t have to take my word for it.