Reluctant readers? Time for a new literary canon

27th May 2016 at 01:00
How one US teacher turned her reluctant teenage readers into avid bookworms

IT WAS around this time last year that I finally decided that something had to change. I teach a skills-based English class for 16-year-olds who are struggling with writing and reading and I had become sick and tired of the same problem occurring every single year: the books list I had to teach, while educationally valuable, was making my students hate reading.

Of course, many a teacher will have struggled to entice their class of teens to engage with a text, but I had tried every trick I could think of to make these books relevant and appealing and they were simply having no effect. In fact, they were turning my students off reading full stop.

So I decided to form a new list, a list with which I knew my students would engage. It was a massive challenge. I needed teachable, modern books that connected to our school’s curriculum but that were also exciting to read and relevant to my students’ lives.

Together with our school librarian, I decided to target books that were specifically about and for teens, that dealt with everyday issues and the problems they faced, but that still had enough connection to the curriculum and, importantly, were good enough to be taught. What we ended up with was a comprehensive list of high-quality young adult literature.

This year, I began to teach the new canon we had created. I began with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a truly wonderful young adult novel about a teenager coming of age.

This book has been banned in some US schools and libraries. My students were enraged by this, and I saw a fire lit in them that I had never seen before. I knew then that I was on the right track and a quote from Alexie defending his book gave me a good reason as to why the connection had been made.

“I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers,” he said. “I write to give them weapons – in the form of words and ideas – that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

To follow this, I wanted to give students the power to choose their own stories, so we conducted a “pass around” – students passed all the books on my list around the room, spending a few minutes with each text, to find one that was a good fit for them.

Once they decided on their book, we made reading schedules. Students filled out their calendars, deciding when and how much to read each night depending on their schedules and their book’s length, so that we would all finish our books by the same date.

You may think that reading 15 different books in one unit would have been a logistical nightmare for me, but I enjoyed every second and it was surprisingly easy to make it work. Our lessons each day in the classroom were varied, keeping students energised and engaged.

Some days we talked about similar themes presented in many of the books, such as bullying, racism, the justice system or drug abuse. Together, we would read an article about the topic and the students would connect it to their books in our class discussions. The students reading books about the topic at hand became “experts,” explaining how their book portrayed the issue through fiction.

Other days, I prepared mini-lessons on a particular reading or writing strategy. For example, one day we discussed the use of dialogue in fiction. Students then returned to their books to complete an analysis of the strategy and how it was used in their book. We returned together as a class to give examples from our books and discuss how they compared. Students really looked forward to these lessons.

Very quickly, it became apparent that this unit was having an effect on the students. After the first week, two of my most resistant readers told me they had already finished their books. I had to hold back my surprise when they asked if they could borrow a second book to start reading.

They were having conversations about race, gender, class and other social issues on a daily basis, not just because the books dealt with these issues but because the characters and authors were diverse in terms of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, too.

Best of all they were reading: not by force but because they genuinely wanted to and they really enjoyed doing so.

Don’t take my observations as proof that this approach works, though. Try it yourself. To help, TES has prepared a poster accompanying this feature detailing the books we chose, grouped into the issues that the narrative deals with. Use it as a starting point to create a new canon of your own.

Rebecca McGrath is a high school teacher in New Jersey, US

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