When Kids Say ‘I’m not a reader’: How Librarians Can Disrupt Traumatic Reading Practices

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“I’m not a reader.” It’s a common refrain Julia Torres, a teacher-librarian in Denver Public Schools, has heard throughout her 16-year career. She’s seen students tear up books, throw them away or check them out only to immediately return them all because they didn’t have confidence in their ability to read.

As a librarian, Torres feels strongly that libraries should be spaces of liberation, places where students can develop a love of reading at any stage. Reading is a skill that everyone can grow to love, but too many negative experiences during a child’s literacy education can result in trauma that appears as boredom, apathy or even anger. When a student has a poor experience like being shamed for their reading choices, they can begin to associate reading with painful feelings of insecurity, humiliation and/or toxic stress. These negative experiences can start as early as kindergarten and go on to impact a student’s self-image throughout their entire educational career. 

In an American Library Association presentation Healing Reading Trauma: Rebuilding  Love of Reading Through Libraries for Liberation, Julia Torres and Julie Stivers, a teacher-librarian at Mt. Vernon Middle School in North Carolina, explored how reading trauma is inflicted on students and what librarians can do to interrupt and prevent that trauma from occurring.

What causes reading trauma? 

According to Stivers and Torres, some of the practices that inflict reading trauma are: 

High-stakes testing, which encourages students to “perform” scholarship and regurgitate the answers they think the test givers want.

Prioritizing “classics,” which are most often written by dead, white, straight, cis-gendered men. “A lot of our students do not read these books because they don't feel that they relate to the lives that they're living,” said Torres, who noted that the recent top books among her students were Long Way Down, The Hate U Give, and The Poet X, as well as poetry, manga, and graphic novels.

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Shaming reading choices and judging what students want to read. If students are told that what they like to read (comics, manga and fan fiction for example) do not “count,” they can disengage and lose their identities as readers.

Book leveling, which is often generated by a computer system that may incorrectly assess complexity of theme and language. “We have to be really cautious of the fact that leveling and scores are generated for teacher use, not so much for students to position themselves,” said Torres. When students feel like they’re not meeting their teachers’ expectations or when they don’t feel like where they should be as a learner, that can be a source of trauma.

What can librarians do to interrupt reading trauma? 

Preventing reading trauma begins and centers on student empowerment. “We don’t want students always dependent on us to develop their lifelong reading,” said Torres. To interrupt traumatic practices, librarians can: 

Build an inclusive library. Make sure that your collection is as inclusive and diverse as possible. Genrefying your collection can make it easier for students to navigate and also help you identify gaps in your collection. Additionally, Stivers recalled an activity where she asked a student to find a book cover that looked like her. The student found a book within two minutes. Could your students immediately pick out a book that’s in display that looks like them? Find books that provide authentic and positive representations of your students.

Reevaluate your role and your priorities. “We’re not gatekeepers of books,” said Stivers. “That’s not our role. I would much rather lose a book than a reader.” Can you empower your students to take control of the library and have a say in what’s purchased for the collection? If you’re a white librarian, remember as well that you’re not anyone’s savior, Stivers cautioned. “I’m not saving my kids because I’m pointing them in the direction of Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas. I’m not doing things for them; I’m doing things with them.”

Take a look at your policies. Get rid of fines, check-out limits, security gates, and punitive policies.

Host inclusive programming. For example, at Stivers’s library, she and her students created a set of guidelines for professional and collection development called the #LibFive, which includes tenets such as “Graphic novels and manga are not extra” and “Show the joy in our stories.” Instead of hosting traditional book fairs where students have to pay for books, her library hosts a True Book Fair, where students are invited to choose books intentionally curated to their interests without any costs. Read what your students are reading. Saying graphic novels count as real reading is only lip-service if you’re not reading those graphic novels yourself. “It’s hard to connect with them in the way that’s going to foster a love of reading,” said Stivers.

Redefine what counts as reading. Julia Torres is a firm believer in teaching skills, not texts. She encourages her students, even those in high school, to listen to audiobooks or read picture books. Find a way to teach important skills like comprehension or critical thinking with the texts that excite and interest students.

Additional tips for creating virtual space

  • Connect students to authors on social media. Encourage students to interact with authors and get inspired to read and write. Apps like Goodreads, Twitter and Instagram can be great virtual spaces for discussing the work with authors and other readers.
  • Attend author’s virtual panels and encourage students to do the same. 
  • Host online read alouds and small group reading instruction
  • Get circulation data and conduct surveys asking students what they’re reading and their attitude towards reading during this time.