Once upon a time, seven years ago, I began teaching with an idea that kids should read all the books that have been read and cherished for hundreds of years. I had an array of books available to me when I first began: Lord of the Flies, Hiroshima, Night, Brave New World, Frankenstein, The Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, A Separate Peace, Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Needless to say, I was ready to go. I love every one of those books and I also understood how they stood the test of time. These books speak to generation after generation, which is why they do not disappear. They have become classics. Every so often Barnes and Noble puts out a new version of these books in Collector’s edition. Many publishers even make leather-bound versions that cost hundreds of dollars.
Early in my career I came to the harsh reality that I was dealing with a large population of students who A) Do not like to read and B) Know how to fake their way around reading.
If summary notes were available, they would use them as a substitute for reading. Even though I spoke of the book’s importance and how they can relate to the characters, they still did not seem all that interested. Reading was a task – not at all an enjoyable experience.
I am a firm believer in teaching the classics, but an unseasoned reader should not begin there. I think a love of reading should be embedded prior to tackling anything written before the reader was born. That is my philosophy on teaching reading and I am sticking to it.
Case in point: I have a College Prep reading class ( a step down from my Advanced Class ). The class is small: 15 students. 3 of those 15 have read more than three books over 50 pages in their entire lives, or so they claim. 2 of those 3 claim they actually enjoy reading. 1 of those 3 can read circles around even me. He completed the 3rd part of a trilogy while the class was reading Part 1!
Of those 12 reluctant readers, by December – in those short four months since school began – 6 of them had asked for Kindles or Nooks for Christmas. They went from “I hate reading” to “I want a Kindle to read more books!”
How could that be? I like to think I know what I am doing as a educator, but I did nothing special to change their attitudes towards the written word other than show them books that they did not realize existed on this planet.
As educators, this must come to know surprise that more than 1/2 of the student population has not set foot in a book store and has no clue that places like Goodreads, LibraryThing, Booksprouts, Paperback Swap, or Shefari exist. Many kids cannot believe people are in book clubs!
It wasn’t that I was taking it easy on them. I still had tests, asked them to take notes, jot down new vocabulary they came across, write papers and reflections, and whip up a project. The difference was I paid attention to what they would want to read and what would excite them. I treated them like teenagers who want to read about teenage things: Dealing with Authority, Becoming Independent, Sex, Peer Pressure, Self-Discovery, Power Struggles, Conformity, Finding and Losing Love.
I do want to say that classics do address these things very well. Lord of the Flies in particular contains at least four of those themes. However, the excitement of reading something written just for them – something new and current – is enough to spark an interest in reading. I guess it is like listening to my dad’s records when I was a kid. He would play The Doors, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones and although those bands were amazing, those were HIS bands – not mine. I appreciated those bands, but they weren’t mine – they were not for me. (For some reason I thought The Beastie Boys and MC Hammer spoke to me, but that is besides the point)
The kids of this generation own The Hunger Games - it is theirs. They own the Matched trilogy just as my parents owned The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice.” T.S. Elliot
As of right now, I have a book club formed with my students from tenth to twelve grade. They pick the books and we read them. Actually, they take turns choosing the books with the promise that we will finish any book that has been picked out of respect for the picker. In my place of work, I have had the wonderful opportunity to be trusted. I asked for a set of books, and if the budget allows, they are purchased. My closet consists of wonderful, new fiction and nonfiction that is written for a 21st century teenager.
I am sad to write that two years ago, my school district let our librarian go. Yes, we have a huge library and no librarian. Teachers each take shifts during our prep period once a quarter. My room has become a library substitute for many. Even though I have tons of books, most of them are “checked out” at the moment. Kids from ninth through twelfth grade come to borrow books constantly. The greatest reward is seeing someone I knew as a reluctant reader waltz in and ask for a book because word of mouth got around that is was good. I have been happily shocked many times this year.
Here is my short list of the new teen fiction that will help hook teens into becoming lifelong readers:
The Fault in Our Stars – 4.55 rating (out of a scale of 1 thru 5) on Goodreads.com
Ashfall (1st in a set – 2nd book is Ashen Winter) – 3.95 rating
The Maze Runner (1st of a Trilogy – 2nd book is The Scorch Trials / 3rd is The Death Cure / Prequel is The Kill Order) – 3.98
The Hunger Games (1st of a Trilogy – 2nd book is Catching Fire / 3rd is Mockingjay) – 4.46
Leviathan (1st in a Trilogy – 2nd book is Behemoth / 3rd book is Goliath) – 3.90
Divergent (1st in a set – 2nd book is Insurgent) – 4.38
Scorpio Races – 4.08
Never Fall Down – 4.29
Copper Sun – 4.25
Partials (1st in a set – 2nd book is Fragments / Isolation is a Lost Tale in the Partials Sequence) – 3.96
Unwind (1st in a trilogy – 2nd book is Unwholly / 3rd book is Unsouled / Book 1.5 is Unstrung ) – 4.23
Matched (1st in a trilogy – 2nd book is Crossed / 3rd book is Reached) – 3.78
Feed (1st of a trilogy – 2nd book is Deadline / 3rd book is Blackout / San Diego 2014 – A Novella set into the Feed world) – 3.95
The Windup Girl - 3.71
The Book Thief - 4.34
Daughter of Smoke and Bone (1st of a set – 2nd book is Days of Blood & Starlight) – 4.09
Graceling (1st in a Trilogy – 2nd book is Fire / 3rd book is Bitterblue) – 4.13
Ready Player One - 4.27
There are MANY others, but those above I have read with the kids and they have received great reviews from them.
Here are some other lists of great teen books that came out this year:
There is plenty of time to read the classics, but getting the kids hooked on reading first is the key to success. If you do decide to get any of them, it is vital that you communicate with parents during the process. Let them know what the book is and what kinds of things the book entails. I have not had one single parent complain about a book I have had the kids read in all my years of teaching BECAUSE I let the parents know what the book contains. I send home an introduction letter, which they sign. I send email links to the books and a CommonSenseMedia.org link is available. I encourage the parents to read with their kids and when “touchy” subjects come up, I discuss them in class and get the kids perspectives on them. I’ve even sent homework home that requires parent or guardian collaboration for certain chapters.
Building lifelong readers and learners is the number one priority. If the kids learn what allusions or metaphors are – Great! If the kids can write a literary analysis on how a book is an allegory for the Russian Revolution – Wonderful!
But, nothing is more important than making the kids ENJOY reading! Make them want MORE! That is why I get a lot of first books to a series. Many times the kids will go out and get the 2nd part of the series on their own. Last year, the kids went and purchased the 2nd and 3rd parts to The Hunger Games series. We read them all in class and made a big deal out of it.
I do want to end my post by saying that a reluctant reader, who has avoided reading like the plague, takes a little tough love. I have always done whole-class books. We, as a class, vote on a book and we read it – together. Every one of those kids who asked for Kindles were vocally non-readers. I kept pressing them, quizzing them, and letting them fall. They were very unhappy campers at first. They fought the whole system, and probably wanted to see if I will bend and break. Since the books were new, they could not go to summary notes. Sure, some relied on their friends for a while, but that was not helping them pass the tests. Eventually, they decided to start reading the book or face failing my class. When they started to read, they realized they enjoyed it. They realized they could get the grades they wanted, participate in class discussions and after the third book they actually wanted to begin the next one without a break. Sometimes bad habits are tough to break. I think sparking a reading habit may be as hard as quitting smoking for some! The process to get the kids to the point of enjoying reading after having not read for 15 years is paved with obstacles. However, I held firm, and was probably very mean and horrible in their eyes for quite a while. But, now they are leaving my class readers, so it was worth the battle in my eyes.
Get books they will love, and then they will trust you when you introduce the classics. But, get them hooked on reading, help them develop a reading habit, and make it exciting!
Happy New Year and Happy Reading!