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Stop Blaming the iPhone for “Non-Reader” Teens: 9 Ways to Turn Schools Into Snappy-Chat Hubs for Rea

My favorite holiday gift? A pile of books and and no interruptions. Yet, to most of the amazing teens I work with this sounds, well, pathetic. For them, reading is a task to fit in if there’s time, and there’s never time; an adult-onset burden to sugarcoat with SparkNotes, skimming, or secretly writing an English paper by watching the movie version instead.

And I get that—we get that. But I’m here to tell you two seemingly contradicting truths about teen reading that will make us all squirm a bit.

The first truth is probably since the printing press was invented by Mr. Gutenberg, parents and teachers have wrung their hands about the demise of youth’s reading. Decades ago, my parents would look up from their latest John Irving novel and fret that Atari and Walkmans were rotting my brain to the core. Now, it’s iPhones and Netflix. For every generation there is a gap. The teens we see practically erasing their fingerprints with constant scrolling will somehow grow up to be scholars, programmers, inventors, and so on.

The second truth is that even if civilization isn’t doomed, we are still in a crisis of fewer teens reading than ever before. Here is the way out, and where I make you squirm. It’s time to stop blaming the iPhones and start looking at what we, as teachers, can do differently. Because clearly even the most well-intentioned book talks, rap translations of the Canterbury tales, character diagrams of Macbeth, and book “movie posters” aren’t turning teens into readers.

We need to go global. And I don’t mean just Global Lit. I mean it’s time to make reading the social act that it is—moving, funny, enlightening, and school wide.

Yes, that means you. And the crossing guard. And the principal. And the PE teacher. Social reading vibe is it. And it means outing the “non-readers” and “sometimes” readers among us adults. Reading has to be consistent, high-interest, impossible to ignore, and all year long. We have to practice what we preach about daily reading, and walk a beautiful, thin line between

owning our job as educators to insist students read and having an openness to cues from students about the social persona aspects of being a reader in a school community.

Here are nine tips to get us started so you can stop scrolling Pinterest and TeachersPayTeachers for a magic fix, and get teens reading.

1. 10 minutes, minimum, reading in class. Every day. Nonnegotiable. Preferably first thing so we never run out of time. Fire drill? Skip something else, but not reading.

2. A choice book on students at all times. Let colleagues know. Math test over? Take out your book. Waiting for the field trip bus? Take out your book.

3. Use tech that “sells” reading: book buzzes on Flipgrid, Padlet, recorded on students’ phones and shared on the SmartBoard. Tweets of AP faves. TED Talk transcripts. Audiobooks on Hoopla and Overdrive. If devices are an extension of their hands to begin with, why are ignoring the million ways to make reading pop instead of feeling like the fuddy-duddy thing that grown ups nag about?

4. Push less solitary, more social reading vibes: graffiti walls with favorite lines as hashtags, “Best of 5th grade Book List” on the class website, tweets on AP faves, time to quickly share favorite lines/titles/moments

5. No genre is off limits. Graphic novels, anime, almanacs are all fair game. Worry about diversifying reading choices once they’re really reading. For one “non-reader”, GQ magazine turned into designer blogs, turned into fashion podcast transcripts, turned into Tom Ford’s biography. Trust that they’ll get there.

6. The question, “What are you reading?” replaces the standard, “How are you?” in hallways. Not just you, but get the principal, math teacher to ask this too. Be a school of readers. And be adults with a ready answer.

7. Signs on classroom doorways with what the teacher is reading now and what they’ll read next. Not just English classrooms, but all. Just wait to overhear students asking their history teacher about her Agatha Christie obsession, or the PE teacher riffing on his travel guide to Barcelona.

8. Healthy competition. Page count lists on bulletin boards. And I know we’re above bribery, so I’d never suggest Munchkins for the winning group…

9. Be a reader. Find time in your crazy, busy life to fit in reading. Then tell your students. Trust me, they’re listening.

So, now that we’re done venting about attention spans and technology and “kids these days” and yada yada yada; and we’re prioritizing turning teens into readers, let’s stay in touch. I want to hear what you’re doing to move readers in your school.

Berit Gordon is a literacy consultant and author of the book, No More Fake Reading (Corwin Literacy, 2017). Find her on Twitter @beritgordon.