Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Choosing Literature in an Age of Distraction

We welcome back Michele Dunaway, who teaches English and journalism at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Missouri, when she's not writing best-selling romance novels. Here Michele argues that to get students excited about books in this highly distracted era, choosing the right literature to read is key.

In this age of instant gratification, immediate downloads, and Internet content, the idea of curling up with a physical book is going the way of the dinosaur. Yet reading is one of man's greatest pleasures. It's man's ability to communicate in written form that sets him apart and makes him master of his universe.

But reading is facing a huge enemy. People who should be reaching for books instead are increasingly spending their spare time becoming television-watching couch potatoes. Instead of getting lost in a world of imagination created by the written word, people instead turn to video games, iPods and website surfing for their free time entertainment. The book has always had competition, but in this new century, educators, who should be on the front line of championing reading and writing, are actually the ones adding fuel to the fire and sending the idea of reading for pleasure up in smoke.

Kids have learned in school that reading isn't fun. Instead it's work, and — depending on the selection — pure torture.

Think about that for a minute. If you're reading this, you are probably one who loves books and loves reading. But for everyone like you, there is someone who read a book only because his teacher made him. Reading was for a grade. There was a test at the end. Yet, for many of those who didn't quite understand The Catcher in the Rye's message or who couldn't tolerate the language of Hamlet, books still were something for which to reach when bored or for entertainment during a long car ride.

Yet our current generation of kids has grown up on video games and Internet downloads as their primary entertainment venue. Reading a book takes work for the reader must use imagination to create the pictures in his own head. While the argument can be made that kids must interact with video games, the imagination and creativity required to read are not skills necessary to blow up monsters or kill aliens. Visuals images are supplied. Logic is necessary to succeed, not immersion and understanding. When reading a book a reader brings all his experiences to the work. He reads the words, creates the picture and interprets the author's meaning. In books read during leisurely pursuits, this is a pleasurable process. Yet we all can probably cite that one book we read during English class that we all could have lived without. 

Therefore, teachers have to rethink the why and how of reading. Teachers are already under a lot of pressure — daily they hear that kids need to pass the state assessment test so that the school can leave no child behind or "Race to the Top" (or whatever the current president of the time's educational moniker may be). Yet, with the accessibility of electronics, students would rather be texting or Twittering than reading. And while books like Twilight or Harry Potter can excite the masses to read, they aren't enough.

So what can an educator do? There are many educationally sound ideas. One is to teach books and short stories you loved yourself. One of my favorites is O. Henry's short story "A Retrieved Reformation," in which safecracker Jimmy Valentine falls in love with the banker's daughter. I can read this story year after year, class after class and still enjoy it. My enthusiasm for the story sets the stage for the kids — because of teacher/student relationship they trust that I'm not going to torture them with some terrible story because some higher up says everyone must read it. We tried this in one district in which I worked — someone declared that all eighth graders would read Conrad Richter's A Light in the Forest. Half the teachers hated the book. Let me tell you how well that went over. A teacher who doesn't like the piece will not convey a love of reading to the class. No matter how good an actor a teacher is, she will not be able to hide her dislike for a work. The idea lasted one year.

Another approach to reading is to consider pieces that are culturally significant and therefore have meaning for the individuals in the class. There are plenty of multicultural works out there that show readers books are written about people like them and for people like them. Yet let me caution you not to read multicultural works to say that you are being multicultural. Kids are smart. They can see through that ploy. Be sure you are tailoring the reading selections to the readers' interest, not their skin color.

Choosing pieces is very important. The Western literature canon is canon because reading certain books brings about a shared group culture. We don't want to lose the culture that reading a great book brings. I loved teaching To Kill a Mockingbird the last two years because kids clearly could see why the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama was so historic. The idea of a black president was unthinkable at the time when Harper Lee wrote the book, and the very thought would have been a reason for hanging in the time period in which the book was set. So when choosing books from the Western canon, or even from British literature and such, be sure to teach students the reason why these works are important. This builds that shared cultural heritage — a commonality that we as a nation cannot let die. Most of the sophomores where I currently work read Elie Weisel's Night. As this event fades, literature keeps the memory and importance alive. And one last thought, don't be afraid to let books go. While I love Mark Twain, many students can't understand his humor because it's so different from their current lives. I have dropped Twain from my lesson plans because I've found they find Twain boring and no longer funny, and they'd much rather just watch the movie.

Now as I finish, let me add one caveat. I teach the non-honors kids. My daughter takes honors English courses, and she reads on her own a book a day or two. There are plenty of kids like my daughter. They will love reading and tolerate the occasional "bad" book at school. Yet it's the rest of them I worry about. It's the students who only read in school who concern me most. To be a good reader, one must read, and that includes reading for pleasure, which is something these kids don't do, because reading at school isn't fun or enjoyable. We have to correct that mindset and show them reading can be as enjoyable, if not more so, than that video game. There are plenty of good books out there that can be used to teach reading and the skills necessary to meet those state standards. We need lifelong readers, so don't be afraid to change things up and find and teach books students will love.

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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. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.