Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Got Books? Get Your Class To Read More

Shannon Reed is an award-winning playwright who teaches high school English to a large pack of bright young women at a private school on the beach in Queens, New York. She graciously contributed this column:

Despite a general predilection towards awesomeness, like any teacher, I have my blind spots. I'm terrible at looking interested during school assemblies. I show little patience when a student can't remember a basic procedure after about a month. I do not like to teach the intransitive verb; I get confused and confuse the girls. My top blind spot? I'm terrible at motivating my girls to read more.

There are two main reasons for that, which I'll briefly outline. The first is that I love to read so much myself, it's like breathing to me. If I asked you why you should keep breathing, you'd find that befuddling, no? You might stammer, "Because... it's... good. It keeps you alive. Uh..." That is how I feel about reading books. It's good. It keeps me alive. But how to pass that passion on to my students, in smaller, non-crazy-lady-who-sometimes-forgets-and-takes-books-into-the-shower doses?

The other reason is that our culture is definitely working against me. Perhaps culture has been working against reading for hundreds of years, but it seems like we're at a particularly movie/TV/online-centric time. Book sales are dropping -- Hey, wait a minute. Did I say "online-centric"?

Yep, and that's the point of this month's column: Harnessing the power of something teenagers generally love (the web) to get them to enjoy something they're sometimes more "eh" about (reading).

What should I read? One common complaint from my students is that they don't know what to read. When they ask me for a recommendation, and there's no time for a trip to the library together, where do I turn? Sometimes I suggest they turn to a classic. Classics are classics for a reason; they're really, really good. The Newbery Award winners generally go on to become classics, and you can feel reasonably sure that your student will read something of good quality and enjoyment when choosing a Newbery Award winner (possible exception might be 1928's Gay Head, The Story of A Pigeon but I shan't dismiss what I have not read). A list of the Newbery Award winners is here. They do skew a little young for my students. But when it comes to book reports, I'd rather have them read a simpler book that they like than to throw Tess of the D'urbervilles out the window.

When in doubt, ask a librarian. The American Library Association, helpful folk that they are, provides a list of "Best Books for Young Adults," listed in a Top 10 List per year. On the sidebar of this page, you'll see links to more lists: "Great Graphic Novels for Teens," "Outstanding Books for the College Bound," popular paperbacks, award-winners. Some of the lists are only accessible to ALA members, but there's still a great deal here, with some titles that will be familiar and -- unless you're the best read 15 year old in the country -- some that are new.

If you like to read books about books (a subset of bibliophilia to which I proudly belong), I suggest Anita Silvey's 500 Great Books for Teens, Agnes Nieuwenhuizen's Right Book, Right Time: 500 Great Reads for Teenagers and Nancy Pearl's two Book Lust books. While these are not specifically for teenagers, Pearl breaks the books down by subject matter, which is so helpful when you have a student that says, "I only like to read books about horses." Plus, the word "lust" in the title gives the books a frisson of illicitness so alluring for teens. Also, earlier this year, Pearl produced Book Crush, a guide for young adult and children's books similar to the Book Lust books. I haven't read it myself, and there's an ambivalent review on Amazon.com. But it's still worth checking out, just for the intuitive (yet rare) way Pearl links books together by subject and interest.

When librarians doubt, they ask a teenager. TeenReads is another great site, especially for students who would rather search online for book recommendations than wander in a library. The site is bright and garish, full of clickable buttons and polls. It's like MySpace for books. I detest its design but adore its mission. They have an Ultimate Reading List: 250 titles worth reading. It's awesome, in both senses of the word.

Hi/Lo: Different from Hi-C but also good. The Hi/Lo reader is a special, but not an unusual case. These are students who are reluctant to read because they are reading below their grade level, and thus the books they can tackle are often of little interest to them. Hi/Lo books are of "high interest" but "low readability," thus making them perfect for such readers. Elizabeth Kennedy has made a wonderful about.com page on this topic, full of links for hi/lo readers. Definitely worth a look. I'd also mention that occasionally I bring a very "easy" book to class to read myself, allowing my students to hoot at me for reading, say, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler -- a Newbery Award winner, and the book that made me happiest in 4th grade -- just to allow me the chance to point out that we read for pleasure, not just for challenge.

After "As I Lay Dying." When I assign essays on heroes, I have to ban two subjects: no one can write about their mom, and no one can write about Oprah. (If I ever have someone whose Mom is Oprah, I will relent). Although I cannot read one more essay about the wonder that is Oprah, I can't help but find her support of reading through her book club to be wonderful. Here's the website that lists all of her picks. It's a great resource. It's amazing how Oprah's stamp of approval will get one of my students to dive into a difficult book. I could not believe the outbreak of reading of As I Lay Dying, after she picked it last year. By the way, this page on the site gives lots of helpful information about the book and William Faulkner. This kind of available structured support to the reader is one of the best reasons to pick an Oprah book for your class.

Don't buy hardcover. I have students who do not like to go to the library ("The books smell like other peoples' homes!" one highly sensitive girl informed me) and do not have the resources to buy expensive books. A solution to this problem is to bring books into your classroom, or at least provide a means for students to do so. The Scholastic Book Club program offers book clubs for all ages, right up through 12th grade, and the books are of acceptable quality at low prices. I'm really delighted to report that this opportunity to shop in school has resulted in several of my students buying (and reading) books in a way they did not do before... plus, with the bonus points that I am gradually accumulating, I will be able to purchase a small library of novels for the classroom.

Rewards for reading. Another complaint from my students is that reading doesn't reward them in a way they can grasp. In other words, there's no test or grade (I do grade their book reports but an overemphasis on that drives them to skim the book or turn to online book notes to complete a book report -- they're still not motivated to read). Some students respond very well to charts, keeping track of how many books they've read. There are some pre-made charts, for more than just reading, here. Again, Scholastic.com can be a resource here, too, to provide printable charts and motivators. Right now, one of my sophomore classes is participating in the "Reading is Giving!" challenge. If we read 100 books by 12/21, Scholastic will donate 100 books to schools in need. Check it out here. I'm having the girls keep track on a chart from Scholastic, and for each book they read, they write a brief review on a notecard and put it up in the back of the room. Naturally, many students have gravitated to these notecards when deciding on a book to read. Scholastic is promoting another challenge, this one with an environmental theme, in the New Year.

Reading War and Peace -- in 611 parts! Finally, if you have students who cannot be dragged away from computers, you can, at least, encourage them to read at those computers. While not practical for a book report, Daily Lit will send a portion of a classic (the free ones are no longer copyrighted) book to any email address daily. Pride and Prejudice (149 parts) tops the popularity chart. And Project Gutenberg, has entire texts available. It might take a bit of digging, but there's accessible stuff here: Beowulf, for one. Or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And, as a bonus for students who might read more comfortably in another language, there are books in dozens of languages here.

While it's frustrating to try to get kids offline and into a book, I am motivated not only by my own passion for reading, but from the remarks they make in their book reports. I ask my girls to write a quick opinion on each book, and, in every round, I always get a report that says, "This is the best book I've ever read!" or "This book made me think." For that kind of response, I'm more than willing to troll my online resources for the next life-changing book.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

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