“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.