Watership Drown


That title is not a typo. One of the first writing tasks I give my students is asking them to document their reading life - the highs, the lows, the feelings, the failings, the loves, the hates, the books that changed them, the books that moved them, the people who helped them discover reading, etc. I write right along with them. I usually document my reading life by writing about specific books, but I give my students the freedom to do what they feel. My day might look like this:

Period 1: Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great

Period 2: Abel's Island

Period 3: Harriet the Spy

Period 4: Beezus and Ramona

Period 5: The Ghost Belonged to Me

I have a story that goes with each one of those books. I literally just had an idea. I usually do some version of "The Soundtrack of My Life" as a writing assignment, but what if I added the option to do "The Bookshelf of My Life" - I like it. Writing is a beautiful thing - writing begets writing! Back on topic . . .

Once we write about our reading lives, we share. I share my story of those books and other books, but I also make sure to share the story of my relationship with Richard Adams' Watership Down. I connect with them in an absolutely honest way about what it means and how it feels to have no choice in what you read.

Watership Down was the first book I ever hated. It was the first book I ever considered not finishing even though it was assigned. I always completed my assignments. It was even assigned by a teacher I adored. It was the first time reading was painful. It was the first time I questioned a teacher. It was the first time I realized teachers didn't always choose wisely when it came to their students. It wasn't until years later that I realized sometimes teachers don't have a choice.

There were afternoons when I was slogging through my nightly chapters of Watership Down that tears actually pooled in my eyes. It was such a struggle being the kid who loved school and took pride in their homework and the kid who literally felt betrayed by the written word. If I'm being completely honest I also felt betrayed by my teacher, and I doubted every book she assigned for the rest of the school year. Maybe even a small part of me doubted every book I was assigned from that day until the day I graduated from high school.

Trepidation became my new status quo when it came to assigned texts. It only took one book to do that. One book I didn't choose. One book I was assigned. One book I despised. I had been burned and wasn't eager to have it happen again, but of course it did. Watership Down didn't kill my love of reading, but there were days I thought it was going to kill me.

The bigger question is how many students have had their reading flame extinguished by an assigned text? How many assigned texts have made a student doubt their teacher's ability to recommend a "good" book? How many students have felt tortured by the pages of an assigned text? We have to stop doing this to our children - We really do. I feel like my teacher knew the torture she had unleashed upon her small elementary school charges, so she kept promising we would watch the movie when we were finished.

You know what's worse than Watership Down the book? Watership Down (1978) the cartoon movie when you are just a few years beyond learning to tie your shoes. I was horrified, traumatized, and suffered nightmares. What were the creators of that horror show thinking? Maybe one day I'll write about the cartoon adaptions of books that have scarred me for life - Secret of NIMH (1982) and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1979) I am looking at you and pointing an angry finger!

This past school year some of my students started a running joke - "The first rule of Ms. Daniels class is: You don't talk about Watership Down." Why 6th graders know the rules of Fight Club is something I can't answer or understand, but it made me smile each and every time. One of them even gifted me a copy of Watership Down as an end of year present. A definite sign that they got, appreciated, and possibly shared my sense of humor. There was also a Starbucks gift card inside, so it wasn't all pain. Relationship building for the win.

I tell my students what I'm telling you because I want them to know that it's okay to hate a book. It really just is. I want them to know that sometimes all a teacher can do is try to pick the book they feel their students will hate the least because they have been limited and confined by the powers that be. I explain to my students that this is why I'm such a champion of independent reading. I explain it's why I'm not offended when they tell me they hate the class anchor text. I explain that I understand their pain and the struggle to pick up a book that you feel is scooping out your soul little by little and drowning you in a world of suck. I just look at them and whisper "Watership Down."

To all the lovers of Watership Down I certainly hope we aren't fighting, but in this instance I will if you insist.