Over the course of my not-that-old-as-of-yet career, I have had the opportunity to curate a fairly impressive classroom library. We have close to 1,000 titles available for my high school students. As there is often some concern from parents and other educators when students are given that many choices, I decided to be proactive and send a letter home to my students’ parents addressing this concern.
When I decided to send a letter, though, I didn’t know where to start. Fortunately, Kate Messner and Penny Kittle have posted their letters online, and those both gave me great starting points (you’ll notice a lot of similarities between their letters and mine, with mine occasionally using the same phrases — THANK YOU Kate and Penny!). Beth Shaum shared her letter, and that gave me some of the oomph I needed to figure out how to incorporate the Catholic school angle into the letter, as both she and I teach at Catholic schools.
The only feedback I have received has been positive. One of my favorite responses: “We’re pleased to see that we are being thoroughly supported in your approach to [our child’s] education.” What parent wouldn’t want to know they have their teacher’s support in choices regarding their child? I highly encourage to you write a similar letter and send it home. It’s a great way to open communication with your students’ parents at the start of the year as well as addressing some concerns and potentially heading off challenges before they arise.
What follows is the complete text of what I sent home.
Dear Amazing Parent of one of Mr Wyzlic’s Fantastic Students:
I call you amazing because you are. You have brought up and raised a child to high school age. This is not an easy task, and you have done a wonderful job. You have survived the middle school years with your son or daughter! Not an accomplishment to be taken lightly. You have also made the decision and found the resources to send your child to Cardinal Mooney Catholic. I assure you, this is a decision you will be glad of for years to come. I welcome you and your child to my classroom for the 2015-2016 school year. I hope you are all excited as I am.
This classroom serves ninth graders as young as thirteen years old and twelfth graders as old as eighteen. Five years is a big gap, and those are no ordinary five years. The difference between thirteen and eighteen is the difference between Disney Channel and A&E. The difference between first school dances and senior prom. The difference between playing war and being sent to war. The difference between emerging young adult and nearly adult.
These kids are not only different ages, but they arrive at school with different reading levels, different backgrounds, and different experiences that have shaped their lives in both positive and negative ways. They have different needs when it comes to reading.
The book that is perfect for your wide-eyed ninth grade girl isn’t likely to be a good fit for a seventeen-year-old boy. The book that twelfth grader will read and love is probably not one that would be right for your tenth grader right now. But as teachers, we have a responsibility to serve all of the kids who come to us. We have a responsibility to offer literature choices that speak to all of them and meet all of their diverse needs.
Cardinal Mooney is a college preparatory environment. We know that colleges and universities are asking their students to read 200 to 600 pages a week from the start of freshman year (Kittle). Even if your child is only a freshman right now, we need to work their reading capacity up to this level by their senior year. We also know that access to books can be one of the most important factors in reading level, fluency, and volume (Shin). Of course, as with many things, teenagers are going to gravitate towards what they like and work up to what they need. While we have diverse readers, everyone needs to become a reader before they leave our halls. For this reason, I have spent 9 years cultivating and curating a classroom library of nearly 1000 diverse books. I am constantly adding and removing titles based on the needs of my students.
With a library of this size, it is impossible for me to be intimately familiar with every book I have available for the students. I do my best to read widely so I can make as honest a suggestion as I can to our students when they are looking for books. When I haven’t read a book, I read the dust jacket, I look at what the publisher recommends, and I seek out trusted colleagues who have read the book for their thoughts. This helps me maintain a library that can meet the needs of all the students who need the books.
While I do my best to make good recommendations, it is important to keep in mind that kids, in general, do a fantastic job self-selecting books. When they find they’ve picked up something they’re not ready for, they’re usually quick to put it down and ask for help choosing something else. As your child’s teacher, I’ll offer recommendations and steer kids toward books that are age-appropriate, and I encourage you to talk about books with your kids. I have multiple copies of many titles in the classroom library. Let me know if you’d like to check out two copies of a book so you can read together. And if you find that your child has chosen a book that you think might not be the right book for him or her right now, talk about that, too.
I respect your right to help your own child choose reading material, and I ask that you respect the rights of other parents to do the same. I am keenly aware, as I hope you are, that you as the parent are “first responsible for the education of [your] children” (Catholic Church 2223). That places me, as their school teacher, as second responsible at best. If you object to your child reading a particular book, send it back to my library, and I’ll help your child find another selection. I’ll put the first book back on the shelf because even though you don’t feel it’s the right book for your child right now, it may be the perfect book for someone else’s. I would not want to limit the choices available to your family because it’s not the right fit for another family.
One thing I love about teaching at Cardinal Mooney is we don’t have to pretend that our academics are separate from our faith. The two are constantly intertwined. Book choices are, therefore, also intertwined with our faith. For some families, this means something like not reading material that contains plot elements of witchcraft. For others, this means no restrictions on reading materials, but having a discussion about it when there is conflict between what happens in the book and what we believe to be true as Catholics. Most families are somewhere in between these two places. Regardless of your family’s approach, I encourage you to have conversations with your child about the faith and how we can be strong Catholics in a world that sometimes has some rough stuff in it. Sometimes we experience that rough stuff through our life experiences. Sometimes, though, we merely experience it through a book, and that can help prepare us for the bigger, wider world that awaits us.
The thing is, as important as books are to the academic success of our youth, they are equally as important to the emotional well-being of our youth. Books not only develop our empathy for each other, but they also help us find acceptance for ourselves. They can be a comfort in ways few other media can. Video games can be cold and distant. Movies are not as intimate. Books will give the heart a hug. Our teenagers need this in their lives. So I will do everything in my power to help every student who passes through my doorway develop a love of reading. Having a wealth of books to choose from is a crucial part of this. If I can ever be of help to you in recommending titles for your family, please don’t hesitate to ask.
I look forward to a wonderful year of reading, growing, and learning. Thank you for choosing Cardinal Mooney, and for granting me the opportunity to be a part of the education of your child.
Mr. Brian Wyzlic
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libraria Editrice Vaticana, 2000.
Kittle, Penny. Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2013.
Shin, Fay H., and Stephen D. Krashen. Summer Reading: Program and Evidence. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008.