Why Messy is Good

The problem with fearing messes is that sometimes it takes making a mess to see the possibility of something different.  Neatness, precision, the well-oiled machine, everything in its place: all of this LOOKS good on the outside, but let’s think about it for a minute.  When everything is in its place, when the machine is running smoothly, then anything new, anything that comes along without an obvious place, just seems like a wrench in the machine.  Seeing change as disruption, seeing new ideas or paradigm shifts as problems or conflicts is at the crux of schools’ and classrooms’ and teachers’ inability to change or improve their methods in significant ways.

Messes are a necessary part of change.  Conflict is a necessary part of growth. We as schools and teachers must risk mess and conflict in order to affect change.

Middle School Book Bistro

34A8BF44-50D8-44D1-BE8B-D5C7F669DE79.JPGI used to think that I had to pick the very “best” novels to teach, then study them like crazy, order guides, copy worksheets, and then read chapter by chapter, being sure that all the students understood the novels as if they were college professors.  I used to think I had to test students on their   recollection of details that proved they’d done the reading at the right time, as assigned. Then I discovered the power of teaching students to pick the right books for them.  It was scary at first, and occasionally it still is a little scary, to realize that LOTS of the books my students are reading I don’t know at all, even though I read all the time and love YA lit.  But I can’t keep up.  And I don’t like some of the genres my kids like (horror, sports books, animal perspective novels, etc,), so I don’t want to waste my time reading those books.  Reading workshop was terrifying at first, and I still can’t convince my content-area colleagues that it is OKAY if you haven’t read the books your students are reading, and that’s because it’s MESSY, but messy is good.

My first experiment in letting kids read books I hadn’t read and hadn’t assigned came over the summer.  I had attended a Nancie Atwell workshop and had spent the year experimenting with Writing Workshop, but was still doing “literature circles” instead of reading workshop.  Our school had long assigned specific titles for independent reading.  For their summer reading assignment , I told the kids to read whatever they wanted.  I had just learned about “Book Bistros”  at NCTE and decided to try a back-to-school Bistro, allowing students to read any book over 120 pages and fill out a simple little “Bistro” form.  I was stunned that August at what students read: a 7th-grader read Homer’s Odyssey.  A 6th-grader read Zusak’s Book Thief; 8th-graders read Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and kids at all levels read (the entire) Harry Potter series.  It was a much more productive summer than the one before, when I had given the students a choice of my 3 favorite civil rights-themed novels. After the back-to-school Bistro, students started passing their books around, and I began to work harder to build a strong classroom library.

Here are some of the books kids told me about before I heard about them from professional YA organizations and social media forums:

The Book Thief, Looking for Alaska, Hunger Games, Unwind, Crank, 13 Reasons Why, Eleanor and Park, Divergent.

Recently, I attended the ALAN conference after the NCTE national convention in St. Louis  I brought back 39 brand new titles, none of which I have read.  While I have read synopses of some of the titles, and was lucky enough to hear and meet some of the authors, I am counting on my students to tell  me which books are worth reading.


This is messy.  They might read about scary or inappropriate things.  Thank goodness I have taught them that if they get too scared or uncomfortable, they can always put the book down.  But life is messy.  Adolescents, especially, need to know how to handle unexpected information and scary situations. If we control everything they see and don’t let them see that life is messy, they will be unprepared for the reality of conflict and adversity.  This is why messy is good.

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