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Perfecting your pitch

Imagine A future where the police catch the bad guys before the crime is even committed, or one where children battle to the death as a reminder of who holds the power, or perhaps ones with hidden cameras, genetic programming or androids indistinguishable from humans. I love a dystopian tale; the current ills of society taken to their most terrifying extremes. So does everyone, right?

On a hot Friday afternoon, I took out the dystopian novel I'd chosen to read with my class. The ancient overhead fans moved the stifling air around the room but did nothing to lower the temperature, which was easily in the high thirties. The students began to fidget on their plastic chairs but I insisted on a clear definition of dystopia. When I began to read there was grumbling and dissent, so I demanded silence. "Sit up straight!" I barked. "Follow along as I read."

I caught one girl whispering to her friend and moved her away. Another boy yawned loudly and I made him face the wall. By the end of the lesson even the students' perspiration prickled with resentment.

When I looked back on the lesson I felt a huge sense of despondency. Normally, my own enthusiasm will draw a class into a story but this bunch had proved so resistant I had resorted to a form of literary oppression.

This particular class of 15- and 16-year-olds is on one of our school's vocational courses; the recreation course is sports-focused. I knew that, apart from a handful of them, they read sports pages, magazines and the odd celebrity biography. Some read nothing at all. And yet I had still picked a book with complex philosophical ideas and magical realism to boot! With the clarity of hindsight, I saw the story from their perspective: difficult language and a distinct lack of action. I had wanted to challenge them but instead I had lost them.

There is an all-too-fine line to tread between choosing a novel that challenges young minds and one that captures their attention. Taking into account your students' capabilities is crucial. Nothing is more likely to put reluctant readers off books than dragging them through a "heavy" novel. Considering their backgrounds and interests is also important, but that doesn't necessarily mean you read the latest sport star's biography to a group of fitness fanatics, or a gritty urban coming-of-age tale to city teens.

After some deliberation, I decided I would not lose face if I discarded my dystopian text, but neither was I going to "dumb down". I found The Legend of Kevin the Plumber ("some cracks can never be patched") in our bookroom but I hastily discarded it. Instead, I am going to choose a novel with snappy dialogue, a fast-moving plot, plenty of action and less than 200 pages. Either that or insert a microchip into the base of their skulls and, through the use of a small control panel on my desk, take over their minds.Perhaps then they'd get the meaning of dystopia.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia

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