Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Power of One Good Book

One Saturday night earlier this month, the USA Network aired the Oscar-winning movie To Kill a Mockingbird. Afterwards, one of my students tweeted how much she liked the movie, and how glad she was she'd read the book.

The only reason I knew about the tweet was because my oldest daughter (who follows my student on Twitter) had also never seen the movie, and she'd watched it as well. Afterwards my daughter and I discussed some of the missing parts, such as Tom being shot 17 times — or the convenient absence of Tom's words about Mayella saying her father's kisses didn't count. Despite many changes and omissions, both of us agreed that the movie holds its own, mainly by becoming its own entity. Since the movie maintains key parts of the book's integrity, the screenplay in no way seems lacking or remiss. Other movies that manage to stand alone from the book include Gone with the Wind (in which Scarlett doesn't have as many husbands) and True Grit.

Since I've discovered that movies always seem to change key elements, I never show movies at the same time as reading the book. While a movie may help students get a picture of the characters, viewing the movie before or at the same time puts the director's picture into the student's head, thus eliminating the picture the student will make inside his own head while reading.

I saw this once when my English II students watched the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet, which reordered scenes. My students weren't pleased. Even my students lately have complained about the movie version of The Hunger Games. One of my journalism students reviewed the movie for the school paper and complained the movie spent more time focusing on a Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle than it did on getting the ending right. The things left out of the movie bothered her. And I know plenty of people, me included, who simply couldn't watch any more Twilight movies after the first one, and even that destroyed what had been a decent book for me.

In an informal survey, most find the book better. Yet, as many of us know, kids don't like to read. In this world of video games and instant gratification, reading is work. Books are slow. But one good book can change a child's life forever, and the key to a whole new world is helping students find that one good book.

So how can we do this? First, as a teacher, you must learn to trust your gut. Remember that while 21st Century Skills and Common Core seem to be the next wave of education, educational waves come and go. It takes me at least a quarter, if not more, to get through To Kill a Mockingbird and do it justice. One of my principals complained about that once, until I showed him my data and all the real-world tie-ins I do with the content. My African American students, who live in mostly white, upper middle class areas, have no idea what poverty is like. They can't fathom not sitting next to their white counterparts, not being on the same sports teams, or being told they can't go places because of their skin color. So they find To Kill a Mockingbird fascinating. It's incomprehensible to them that such conditions existed.

Thus, they read. Even reluctant readers read. I did a reading pretest, and two of my African American students were around the 25th percentile (for sake of brevity I'm combining them into one approximation). The post-test was 50 percent. The only thing that changed was To Kill a Mockingbird. (Both also made Bs on their final To Kill a Mockingbird test.) They'd bought into the book. They had read. They had discussed the book with their parents. They had paid more attention to the related non-fiction news articles we read, culled from that day's news. One book made a difference, and other students' scores were similar. I've found with this book, they always are, so I hold my ground and refuse to short change teaching it.

Second, the key to finding that one good book is to put yourself first. Whatever that book is, you have to teach it. If you hate it, your students will automatically pick up on your animosity (no matter how much you try to hide it) and will hate it as well. So find something you don't mind teaching four times a day, year after year. It's a reason I don't teach Romeo and Juliet just so the kids have some Shakespeare. It's not like the guy doesn't have other pieces.

Third, once you've made your choice, look at all the skills you can incorporate. During my teaching of Of Mice and Men, I incorporate the teaching of Goal/Motivation/Conflict. I've discovered English teachers, for some reason, rarely focus on character goals and motivations, instead zeroing in on conflict dissection. Yet all writers know the three cannot be separated. Because a character has a goal, he has motivation to reach that goal. Because he has motivation, he will work to get that goal, often getting him into conflicts, which may or may not keep him from the goal. So my students learn to apply this not only to Of Mice and Men, but also to their novels of choice, to biographies, to movies and even to self-help books. (Just watch one episode of “The Biggest Loser” to see goal, motivation and conflict in action.)

So while reading, have a higher purpose, something beyond “we're just reading to say we got a novel in — check that off the list.” Looking at works from a different perspective often allows for greater connections to be made. In my teaching of Of Mice and Men, I also tie in Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech and Langston Hughes's poem “Harlem.” Since Of Mice and Men is often challenged in an attempt to have the book banned, you can have students write a defense paper against the banning or a position paper in support, tying in the persuasive essay.

One good book has the power to transform a child's life. Teaching a novel just to teach it can do one of two things: scar a child for life or make him crave the next book. The teacher is the variable in the book choice and how the book is taught. We want to get our students addicted to reading, since once they are, they fear it less and love it more. They see value in books, and they become willing to dig deeper as they do your related activities through which you teach them skills. I've seen this time and time again. And yes, to increase reading fluency and comprehension, a student must read.

The flipside is that the pundits will tell you to do shorter works. However, tossing out the teaching of novels is simply foolish. Whatever you do, don't do that. Kids need books. They need to read, discuss and then “think about that.” They need to relate to characters. Novels and long narrative pieces allow students to walk in someone else's shoes in a way that short stories and nonfiction articles do not. All are equally important, and to take the novel or biography out of the teaching equation because our children's attention span is shorter is reprehensible. As Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games series have all proven, our students do read. As a teacher, we need to simply find that one good book that proves that school reading is also worthwhile, for that's when the magic occurs.

PS — As I finished writing this, a link to a very relevant article popped into my inbox: "Teach the Books, Touch the Heart," a New York Times op/ed piece by Claire Needell Hollander. It's another fascinating argument from an educator who teaches in a totally different environment from mine.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 30th 2012, 5:56 AM
Comment by: Se Jeong K. (Seoul Korea, Republic of (South Korea))
As an English learner, I did the opposite of what Michele has suggested: watching a movie first, then read the book. I must confess it was VERY VERY useful!
One suggestion: The 2008 film "The Reader" with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes based on the novel by the same name written by Bernhard Schlink.
Monday April 30th 2012, 8:04 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Excellent ideas and way out.
I think I should collect all the suggested books and the movies mentioned in this column for to read and also to watch. Which task I intend to do first?
It appears to me that watching a movie usually decreases the tendency of reading the concerned novel or article until it is a course assignment or a grad related issue.
I am also an active English learner person. Realize Se Jeong K.'s suggestion is interesting too. It means these are relative suggestions.
In fact we can not manage time to read all those books. In one and half an hour movie time I will get information about the entire novel, whereas even a very first reader can cover a part of the book in that time I guess.
Monday April 30th 2012, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
This reminds me of studying history in school, oh so long ago, the authors made it so dry it was kind of like eating cardboard. The book I have before me right now is "Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome"...it is absolutely fascinating. Have I changed or the history writers? A bit of both no doubt, but if I were to have that previous book back now it wouldn't qualify as a good paper weight.
I've read that some authors insist on -not- giving up the right to over rule any changes or omissions to their book as it is being adapted for the big screen. All of Tom Clancy's books seemed to follow perfectly in the books footsteps.
But it must be a tremendous challenge to bring a four hundred page book to life using one hundred eighty minutes of film.
Some random thoughts.
Monday April 30th 2012, 12:08 PM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
Every film version of "The Great Gatsby" fell far short of the experience had upon me with every reading of the greatest novel in American literature. But surely if I had become the American literature professor I had dreamt of one time I could not teach it! How does one stand in front of a class four times a day, weeping and shaking? Each sentence is a work of art in and of itself. However, I would recommend my students, if they wish to engage their visual/auditory senses before their mental/intellectual resources, to go see the Public Theatre's production of "Gatz" on stage -- six hours, yes, but there's the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and it's vivid and moving and in full color. (I've probably missed the point in pedagogical terms, but not in providing my students with an experience they are not likely to ever forget.)
Monday April 30th 2012, 12:08 PM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
Every film version of "The Great Gatsby" fell far short of the experience had upon me with every reading of the greatest novel in American literature. But surely if I had become the American literature professor I had dreamt of one time I could not teach it! How does one stand in front of a class four times a day, weeping and shaking? Each sentence is a work of art in and of itself. However, I would recommend my students, if they wish to engage their visual/auditory senses before their mental/intellectual resources, to go see the Public Theatre's production of "Gatz" on stage -- six hours, yes, but there's the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and it's vivid and moving and in full color. (I've probably missed the point in pedagogical terms, but not in providing my students with an experience they are not likely to ever forget.)
Monday April 30th 2012, 7:20 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Fascinating. Recently had a survey of some students who just finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird as well and the majority actually enjoyed it. In fact, some said they liked it better than the Hunger Games series, which just goes to show 'the power of one good book'. Great article!
Wednesday May 2nd 2012, 12:05 AM
Comment by: Pamela M. (Erie, PA)
Screen writers do not mean to delete important scenes, but, they are working with a small time frame. On the flip side, cinematographers can depict so much in just one sweep of the camera. GWTW is a perfect example of this. It must drive authors crazy. I think action or mystery films have the most seamless transition. Dan Brown novels are fairly depicted.
Wednesday May 2nd 2012, 2:50 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The trick is finding that book. We were certainly fed a succession of books through our school years -- Johnny Tremain, The Yearling, A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, among others. The fact that so many people of my generation read these books suggests that they were taught not because teachers loved them but because they were the accepted curriculum. Of those books, the only one I ever went back to was Salinger. (In the 10th grade, we had a teacher who was more adventurous: we read The Godfather (!), and when we'd finished that, he gently steered us back toward a more literary book: A Clockwork Orange. It was a memorable year for us 10th graders.)

As for movies, I happened to be in 8th grade when Zeffirelli's version (or should I say interpretation) of Romeo and Juliet came out. It's clear to me that R&J is the Shakespeare intro of choice not only because it's a relatively straightforward story, but because its protagonists are so obviously victims of the same hormonal surges suffered by the kids incarcerated in 8th-grade English classes. Not only did we read on the page about the tragically romantic entanglements of our adolescent peers, we got to watch it on the screen as enacted by actors who were more-or-less age appropriate for the roles. To this day I cannot read Tybault's lines without thinking of a very young Michael York.

And I must put in a good word for some of the film adaptations of Austen. For example, as a family we've watched the BBC production (the "Colin Firth version") of Pride and Prejudice multiple times. Because it's a mini-series and not a movie per se, not much is lost in the plot; on the contrary, the screenwriters are able to indulge the scenes -- balls, for example -- that Austen tends to describe after the fact. Our youngest (10 at the time) chose to present on Austen for her school's "Night of the Notables." Mission accomplished, we reckoned.

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