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.

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 15th 2010, 3:32 AM
Comment by: Joanna H.
I very much appreciated this article. I am not a teacher but I have been a reader all my life. I have loved books since I first began to understand words. It is very sad for me to know so few children and young adults truly do not feel the depth and emotion and knowledge which a good book can provide. I hope you will continue to encourage students to enjoy reading for its own sake, not just for a grade.
Monday February 15th 2010, 10:17 AM
Comment by: Anthony H.
I heartily endorse your concern, and would be tempted to suggest it has a wider effect even than the one you cite.
I would like you to address, however, the issue of why a book - as distinct from mere information, in for example research materials, or even video game texts and backstory, and other lesser literary endeavors - is so crucial to the kind of literary experience you and I would like to see maintained.
The reality for most young people in the computer/Internet era is that they do an enormous amount of reading, much of course in social networking with correspondents of variable writing skills but much also in history or social science texts. I guess you would say these materials fall into the "forced" reading category that alienates children from discovering reading for pleasure; it does however mean that children do not lack facility in reading.
This raises the question of what particularly children miss in not using that facility to read books - I'm sure fiction stretches the imagination and allows the reader to bring a lot themselves to the process of understanding. Also a book takes the reader on a journey that with the twists and turns of the plot and the emotional ups and downs is more engaging and satisfying, sustainingly pleasurable, than much else they might be reading. I could imagine books encourage more reflection than other types of literature, especially because emotions are a particular source of interest, even fascination, to younger readers.
I ask the question only because I too fear the effects of decline in reading for pleasure, but sometimes worry that I have too little ground for that concern in that reading as a facility - and writing, albeit too often in truncated bites - is as widespread today as ever it was.
I'd like something more reasoned than my few above-mentioned hypotheses to spell out the connections between the decline we both imagine to be happening and its effects not just on broadly-defined 'culture' but on specific social capacities - and even our development as a nation. How much, for example, is lost with diminished capacity for reflection?
It's enough of course that individuals lose the joy of reading for pleasure, but can we also make the case for a collective loss? And how do we trace those threads of damage from the stunted reader to the national psyche?
Monday February 15th 2010, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Maybe getting today's kids hooked on reading would be easier if first of all, they were reading books a teacher would point them to that reflected their interests. Maybe computer sci-fi or adventure... Or something they can relate to because it mentions where they live, or some place very similar. They have to identify at this stage if they are going to read it.

One boy I taught years ago identified, when I dumped the regular course for his class, with a book that mentioned where he'd lived previously.

Years later, a bus driver said 'hi' to me. He was laying over, waiting for his time to leave, but recognized me and let me board early. "I'm still reading", he said, and identified himself. "Just doing this part time while I finish university... I'm going to be a teacher!"

No one in that class liked the idea of reading 'a whole book!', but they caught on to mysteries, sci-fi and much more. Eventually, we did get to one of the books on the official list.

With another class, we chose an off-course Agatha Christie mystery. This group were a problem collectively.

They were noisey in clas, and I shuddered one day when the principal visited.

"Never mind," he said. "They're so positively involved!" He took a look at the book and nodded. "No wonder!" I apologized and told him that they had bought the book on their own... no school money wasted.

He countered with, "It wouldn't have been a waste at all! You're getting them reading that will last a lifetime!"

And he went on to explain the importance of mystery solving in his own family. Total approval. "They're a different class here," he said finally.

There is more competition now, but still, finding books that might not make it as literature, but will start the process... that might help.

I agree about To Kill a Mockingbird. What a book to have taught then!
Tuesday February 16th 2010, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Janie, the students that read that mystery, many of them, would never have read a book 'out of class'. Their world didn't extend to books. That was my point.

'Literature' is fine. But it often turns kids off reading. A pity, but that's the world we teach in. Or I taught in.
Wednesday February 17th 2010, 7:59 AM
Comment by: Catherine P. (Upper Nyack, NY)
There's one thing I would add: I think there should be at least one book a year that each student chooses for his or herself, and in fact it's taken as a class project HOW to choose what book you're going to read for your "personal enjoyment" book. A lot of people would really like to read if they knew how to find more books that excite them like Twilight and Harry Potter do. But they find those things because our culture made them inescapable. When you walk into even a place as accessible as Barnes and Noble it can be VERY difficult to find things that are hitting your buttons. Even harder when you're walking into a library, some place that isn't about turning a profit and depends more on the user to know what they're looking for. So the project of picking your own book is first about the selection process, how to sample books, where to look for recommendations, what kinds of different resources there are in terms of reviews and other free advice that's out there, and then after the books are selected, the project becomes about the reading of them.
Wednesday February 17th 2010, 11:11 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Good point, Catherine. We belonged to a book club that sent us flyers monthly with books to choose. I had a certain 'allowance' to use to build my classroom library and the students would choose books (and me, too) from that list. Some actually bought their own! Back then there weren't the massive book stores that exist now to intimidate. Book stores were not obvious places for kids to go.

I do think that some way of getting the 'book news' out to students would definitely help.

I don't know if that book club is still in existence, but maybe there is something similar.

And I do think it's worthwhile doing print books rather than too much computer or 'kindle' way of reading. You take a paperback places you would never go with a machine! Like the beach, the bathtub... And, if you are like us, you have a library in your bathroom for reading on the throne.

I would do work with the computer, however, but it would be in the judgement area probably rather than in the whole book reading area. But instruction as to how to 'find' things sensibly and how to do it safely should be a part of today's classes.

Someone mentioned other reading. Manuals, that sort of thing. That used to be a part of Junior High reading in Canada, but I don't know if it still is. Certainly, it would be useful.

Also, the multitude of non-fiction political books should be, if not read in part, at least explored as to sides taken, and judgements a reader should make. There's a lot of misinformation reading in the non-fiction world.

Reading itself is something that needs probably more stress than it is given nowadays.

But this column was about novel reading, I think. There is much to be said about that!
Monday February 22nd 2010, 10:01 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I couldn't agree more! Great article.
Tuesday February 23rd 2010, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I have a very limited literature background. I loved Charles Dickens, but my education didn't extend to books like Pride and Prejudice. I'm sometimes tempted to try those now, but always there is another 'lesser' novel for me to read.

I get caught up in many novels, not for their literary high points, but for the story line and characters, even when those characters are limited in development. Still they capture me and I add to their beings.

It's recreational reading, I guess, but probably not the choice for many here.

Despite his admitted lack of a coherent time line, I enjoy the Ryan books by Tom Clancy. The history and theory and perspective is intriguing.

I enjoy Jean Auel's books for the glimpse into a world so far removed from mine, and she has led me to examine this world perhaps more accurately and to attempt my own writing about and of it.

And Maeve Binchy is enjoyable just for the peace of her writing and the involvement with her characters, and the glimpse into life in the 50s and 60s in Ireland.

And so I spend my reading time. The classics, I guess, are behind me, those that touched me at all. But the love of a 'good' book is relative, and I've kept that love all my life!
Saturday May 22nd 2010, 3:11 AM
Comment by: Marta M. (Sherman Oaks, CA)
Great article! Couldn't agree more. My question/comment, however, might sound a bit off topic. I received my education in the Soviet Union and Paris. Reading the all time classics such as Dumas, Balzac, Hugo, Tolstoy, (A. Christie and Ch. Dickens as well) were absolute MUSTS during my times and no one could revolt against any of these readings. Regardless time, socio-cultural, or just interest changes, these classics had to be read as if they were the "alphabet" for any other book you might choose to read later on in your life. True, that we can always trust the classics and I wonder why these authors are never encouraged here, in our educational system? For as foreign as they may sound they all speak of the same human world of feeings, challenges, thoughts, etc. that we all belong to. What isolates us from one another even more, I think, is the very same selective reading thinking we should read what we feel most related to. This allows us to remain in our respective worlds while reading foreign authors might bring us closer to the Other and Otherness, which is nothing but our own selves.
Saturday May 22nd 2010, 8:24 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Marta, those choices sound good to me. Maybe there's been a switch from Mill on the Floss (rolling my eyes) and other similar choices to those.

I taught younger students, 13 to 15, in Junior High School, and we had just one or two novels a year to read. While the choices were okay for most students, my reluctant students didn't or wouldn't read those. Maybe they would have read Dumas or Hugo, but the latter would have had to have been exerpts at first, to whet appetites, as would Dickens. I can see doing those classics that way, but as whole books, they wouldn't have got read unless I read the whole book aloud. Does anyone do that?

I can see myself doing it with the most reluctant of the reluctants, a small group. But not with the larger class of reluctants that read an Agatha Christie novel so readily - and noisily! And I don't think Tolstoy, though I agree to the classic placement -- would have caught them.

What I wanted to do was to make them readers first. Once that happened, the door to the classics was open.
Saturday May 22nd 2010, 10:08 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I agree, Marta, in the "dumbing down of America", much has been lost and little gained.
Too many theories about child development instead of some good old "readin', writin', and 'rithmatic".
We "normal" individuals who have already lived most of our lives, would be blind to the needs of others if we had not done a lot of reading and learning.
I feel there is a need to encourage those with the power to do so, to foster programs of learning and special help for those uniquely talented.
So much precious time is wasted today by TV, accumulation of wealth, political jockeying, and a loss of personal virtue, as "getting what I want, and getting it NOW, and with no regard to how I get it".
As a medical doctor, I provided all the good advice I knew to each patient to the best of my knowledge, but in reality, I knew most of it was in vain.
This is a bit of a rambling draft, but some of you can pick up on it.

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