A wise teacher once told me that I should never teach a book that wasn’t a story that I loved. I was in my first year of teaching, idealistic and full of beans. It is a philosophy I still believe in but now I recognise the many barriers that so many teachers face in teaching literature.
One such problem is the notion of a class text. The interests, reading level and personality traits that make up a class are extremely diverse. One book is never going to cut it, especially when you reduce reading to inferring, themes and the dreaded “issues”, as Agnes Nieuwenhuizen passionately discussed in her recent article for The Age. My students were always more interested in the characters, the narrative drive and their peers’ opinions and predictions. It was in the reading aloud of a novel, in the discussions that arose afterward, that I fully got to appreciate their understanding of the text. An understanding that wasn’t fully shared when they wrote their autopsy of the novel.
Writers as rock stars
Book trailers have been embraced in many schools but let’s find more of these innovative ways to assess students’ comprehension of a book. The insideadog website was created by the Centre for Youth Literature to encourage young people to interact with each other, recommending great reads and the opportunity to discuss all things storytelling with authors. In an age where a young adult author, John Green, is regarded as a rock star, one might only drop in on the Nerdfighter community to see what a truly engaged teen reader understands about life, love and everything in between.
Class novels weren’t a suggestion in my school; they were a must. So I had to be creative. I chose books that would plug into my class and the context of their lives. I chose not to differentiate between texts that were literature or commercial fiction – I wanted them to love the books. I wanted pure enjoyment to propel discussion and deepened their knowledge and appreciation for the written word. It worked.
‘This book looks shit, miss’.
My class predominantly consisted of boys who hated reading, due to their lack of reading fluency. Growing up in backgrounds where Arabic, Urdu and other languages were spoken made the move to dissecting English texts all the more impossible. My first day as a teacher involved sixteen faces of disgust as I placed S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders on their desk. ‘This book looks shit, miss.’ I didn’t choose The Outsiders because it is a traditional year eight text, I selected it as it was written by a teenager about teens that were pushed to the boundaries, something my students could relate to. I read the entire book aloud, facilitated discussions and used their confidence in speaking their thoughts to fuel their further exploration of the human condition.
Reading is about connection and in a time of increasing technological change there is no reason why authors can’t be a presence in a classroom. Skype visits, webchats and blogs all allow students greater access to authors which facilitates greater examination of motivations, influences and a greater appreciation for the written word. Libraries across Australia have led the charge in this National Year of Reading, striving to engage young people in new and different ways. Let’s see that further impact the classroom. In May next year, the Centre for Youth Literature presents a range of incredible established and emerging authors at Reading Matters. The goal isn’t to discuss how to integrate their works into the classroom, it is to celebrate great writers with something to say.
Love in the time of reading
In Christopher Bantick’s recent opinion article on the inappropriate nature of Love in the Time of Cholera, I am reminded of the limitations and judgements that were made of my book choices by other adults. A parent was aghast I was teaching The Outsiders as it was ‘a gang handbook’. The reduction of a forty year old piece of fiction into a guidebook for gang activities was a perspective that I could not have seen coming. Framing books, plays, songs, and stories as evil influences makes the assumption that readers are not capable of questioning thought, when the favourite word of children and teens is ‘why? Why insult them by stating they aren’t capable of such questioning when we know that isn’t true?
It is time to think about what the audience wants and less about what we think the audience needs. What young people want is to enjoy reading, whether it raises fiery passion or intense dislike. They want to be challenged and experience different worlds, times and perspectives. They want to read literature and commercial fiction. They want to read for fun. They want to read to grow. They want to form opinions of their own instead of parroting others.
After The Outsiders, I took a different tack with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. A brilliant piece of literature? No. But the notion of family loyalty, the impact of the media and the harsh realities of teen life were all very familiar to my students. Each chapter finishes on a cliffhanger thrusting the reader further into the story. A story my students would previously disregard as being too long were reading ahead of me, fascinated by the journey of Katniss. I continued to read aloud to students considered by most of society as too old for ‘reading time’. While their enjoyment facilitated their learning, it also created a hunger. They dived straight into Catching Fire and waited impatiently for Mockingjay . When the series was done, they raced onto other works that I had waiting for them. Educational goals are all good and proper but students don’t think about them…ever. They follow their interests, their passion, their curiosity all things that can be sated with the right book for them.
Let’s change the context
Instead of deliberating over the appropriateness of a title, let’s focus on reinventing the way we teach reading, literature and the creative works of authors, poets and artists. Reading is all about context, so let’s change it.
To create a nation of strong readers, we need to make the practice one filled with joy. In narrowing what students should read as part of the curriculum and available on library bookshelves, we are narrowing their world.
Reading should be all about opening the world up.
Adele Walsh is the Program Coordinator for the Centre for Youth Literature promoting ways and means to encourage young people to read for pleasure. Adele is an avid YA reader and advocate, and a successful YA blogger (Persnickety Snark). She has previously worked as a teacher in Australia, and Japan.