Sparking a Passion for Reading

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
born February 27, 1807
 

Teaching young people how to read is one thing, but sparking a passion for reading is another. As a teacher, I’m highly trained in how to teach children to read, but after 22 years of teaching, I think it’s my own passion for reading that is the most powerful tool I have as I try to ignite that spark in my students. I’ve wondered exactly where my passion came from, and I’ve been able to identify a couple of things that certainly fueled the flames. One was being lovingly read to by my parents. The other was a book experience I had when I was seven or eight years old.

My father, a university professor, asked me to go with him to visit an older, retired professor in town. Dad prepared me on the drive over to this man’s house, letting me know that he was an unusual person, old and always very grumpy with people, sort of a “hermit,” he said. What he didn’t tell me was that the man was a book person extraordinaire.

I don’t think I could ever adequately describe what this man’s house was like. I walked in the front door, my father introduced us, then I looked around. I had never seen so many books in all my life. Bookshelves were everywhere and overflowing with books. Books were piled up everywhere…and I mean everywhere! The living room was completely full of books, so there was no place to sit down. The kitchen was piled high with books — the stovetop and a small space next to the sink were the only places without piles of books. The chairs and table were piled high. There were stacks of books in the bathroom, towers of books in the bedroom. Books were piled high along the hallway. Then, he took us downstairs into his basement, which was also filled with books, except that those books were on rows and rows of bookshelves, just like in a library.

Old Professor Poulson must have recognized me as a fellow book person, even though I was only eight and he was over eighty, because he very proudly showed me his entire collection, was gentle and kind to me, and before I left he gave me a book. That book has always been my most treasured book. It was a very old, lovely volume of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems, called Voices of the Night. I still read it and treasure it.

I remember spending hours and hours reading those poems and looking at the beautiful art “plates.” I memorized his poem, “The Wreck of the Hersperus,” which fascinated me, and I can still recite it today. And when my father passed away, it was a stanza from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” that I chose to use during my remarks at his memorial service:

“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.” 

Looking back, I think my Dad knew exactly what he was doing by showing me this striking example of a person’s passion for reading. It had a tremendous impact on me at a very young age! So, in searching through memories to answer the question of where my passion for reading came from, I realize that, first, my dad and mom taught me to read … and then, in so many different ways, they taught me to love reading, passionately.

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12 thoughts on “Sparking a Passion for Reading

  1. Nymeth

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful memory with us, Robin. I have no doubt that if there’s someone who can ignite that spark in students, it’s you.

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  2. Matt

    Thanks for sharing a special patch of your childhood. My parents used to take me to the library and bookstore, where I would while away a Sunday afternoon. My aunt was a teacher in school and she was the one who really pushed reading and writing.

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  3. Sam Houston

    What a great story…I could picture the rooms and imagine the thrill of being so completely surrounded by books. I think you’re exactly right; the man recognized a kindred spirit in you and he responded to that. Thanks for sharing that.

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  4. Robin

    Thanks, Petunia. I’m sure you will pass on your own passion for reading to your children. It’s contagious!

    Thanks, Eva. It’s a real treasure.

    Thanks, Nymeth. That passion is a much more powerful tool than any teaching technique I’ve ever been taught.

    Thanks, Matt. Having parents (and also, in your case, an aunt) that share and encourage reading, and support you in developing that passion, makes all the difference.

    Thanks, Bookfool. Since I started teaching the younger kids this year, I’ve been searching my memories for some of those early experiences that made such a difference to me. This was one of them.

    Thanks, Sam. It was a very powerful experience for me, and fun to write about.

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  5. Robin

    Thanks, Kim. I’m glad you stopped by, and I appreciate you leaving me your blog address, too. I’ve already been over to visit a couple of time, and know I will visit often.

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  6. Tara

    I’m so glad you’ve sharing this wonderful story. I wonder how much of my house my books will cover in another 20,30, or 40 years? I love the thought of seeing this scene through the eyes of a child.

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  7. Nan -

    Thank you, thank you for sharing that memory. I loved reading it, and I can just picture the house.

    Longfellow has always been a favorite of mine, and in elementary school we did the play of Hiawatha. I can still remember words and the music. I pray that teachers still teach his accessible poetry.

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  8. Robin

    Thanks, Tara. We have so many books it’s ridiculous, but we’ve been collecting for a lot of years, and it’s hard to part with them. We never have enough bookcases. However, we are constantly donating books to our library in an effort to keep the collection within reason, but it’s hard. Even so, our collection is puny compared with the old Professor’s collection!

    Nan,I hope so, too, but I’m not sure many teachers are teaching Longfellow anymore, or are having students memorize poems like we used to have to do in school. Our second graders are assigned a poem every month to memorize and recite to me (or to the class — their choice). They do such a lovely job, and it’s good for them! In January, they memorized Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It was a very moving experience for me to hear those beautiful words recited by such young people. This month they are memorizing Spaghetti! Spaghetti! by Shel Silverstein.

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