High School Reading

Every year I toy with this question:  What novels should I try to get my students to read?  When I first started teaching, I didn’t worry about it.  I just picked up the novels that we had on hand and handed them out.  I assigned reading on a schedule with periodic quizzes, vocabulary, and study guides.  We had discussions in class.  Naively, I believed that a majority of the students were actually reading the books.

Some time later, after visiting with former students and becoming a more aware teacher, I realized that the number of students who were actually doing the assigned reading usually fell in the minority.  It wasn’t because I didn’t present the material in an exciting way.  It wasn’t because they didn’t have time to read.  The number one reason that students gave for not reading is because over the years leading up to entering my classroom, most students had come to the conclusion that all of the assigned novels were boring.  Some had discovered that there were books out there worth reading, but an appallingly large number of students had decided they would rather watch the movie than read the book.

At first, this crushed me.  It still does, really.  However, this realization changed my whole approach to literature in the classroom.  My number one goal is NOT to expose the students to great literature.  It is NOT to further their understanding of the human condition.  It is NOT to expand their vocabulary and comprehension of sentence structure. My number one goal is to teach teenagers that books are worth reading.

I work hard at it.  To that end, I have had to toss Great Expectations onto the back shelf.   I love the book.  I hope that I can convince students to read it, too.  First, though, I have to convince them to try reading.  So, I do two things:

First, I always assign several “self-chosen” novel readings.  I will take the class to the library and have them pick out a book of their own choosing.  Of course, I have to set some ground rules.  No books that have been turned into movies–it’s tough, but I’m trying to get some actual reading here, not churn through a movie review pretending to be a book review.  No books shorter than 150 pages–some exceptions can be made.  No books taught in other classes.  And the most important rule:  All books must be approved by me.

This is not as easy as it sounds.  First of all, I have to prepare ahead of time.  At least half of my class will ask me, “What’s a good book?”  So, I scour the internet and bring up lists of sports books, romance books, adventure books, horror books, teen “angst” books, etc… that are all well-received and ranked highly by teenagers.  I also do my best to read many of these books so I can provide a personal review of the books.  You have to get to know these teens so that you can suggest something that might actually appeal to them.  It’s up to you how far off the beaten path you want to allow the book reading.  Some books might be considered too “adult” for teens.  You also have to know how much your administration will back you for letting the students pick books, even if they contain sex, violence, drug use, etc…

With any luck, a majority of your students will actually give this book a chance.  See, this book wasn’t assigned by that stuffy old 30-something English teacher who only likes reading “boring” books.  They actually chose the book on their own, so they think it might be good.  You must encourage them to read the book right away and then take it back if they don’t like it.  Give them a few days to change their minds and exchange books.  After that, set up some sort of reading schedule and decide how you are going to grade their reading.  Personally, I’m a fan of awarding points for reading time in class and having occasional reports where the student will not simply regurgitate the plot, but will focus on how the author makes a character interesting using direct quotes and examples.  This seems to go over well.

After I’ve done some work to give some hope in their minds that not all books are bad, I’ll assign a novel to the class.  Still, though, I won’t assign Moby Dick.  I can’t put them right back on that same track.  I’m still trying to reel them in.   Instead, I’ve worked to create a more contemporary library of novels to choose from.  Lately, I’ve had some success with Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  It’s not terribly new, but it’s science fiction and deals with an adolescent boy in a school setting.  This year, I’m looking to get a set of “teen angst” books, such as A Child Called It or Crank or Speak or any of the newly popular books in this genre.  None of these book choices will appeal to all of my students.  It’s simply not going to happen.  However, my hope is that after I have presented all of these options, I will have a majority of students who think that reading might actually be fun.

Then, and only then, can I try to throw Great Expectations at them.

I am the Language Lover, and these are my thoughts.

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5 Comments

  1. renaissanceguy said,

    August 17, 2007 at 12:30 am

    I teach middle school, and I can relate to what you are saying.

    I think it is great to start with a novel that the students choose.

    Have you tried the literature circle approach for the assigned books? I like it a lot and have found that it helps keep the kids reading and helps them stay interested in the book.

  2. languagelover said,

    August 17, 2007 at 1:17 am

    I’ve heard of it, but haven’t tried it. Can you explain it in further detail? Every year I try something different, so I’m always open to new ideas.

    For example, this summer I took a class with the National Writing Project. It was a fantastic class that made me examine how I taught writing. I have so many ideas about what to do this year, I’m not sure where to start. It’s exciting!

  3. renaissanceguy said,

    August 30, 2007 at 12:28 am

    Literature Circles

    A group of aroung 4 to 8 students read a novel, usually one chapter at a time.

    They usually read the chapter outside of class and discuss it in class, but I have had them read in class one day and discuss it the next.

    Each person in the group is assigned a job, which are rotated day by day. Jobs include Discussion Director, Word Finder, Illustrator, etc.

    During the discussion each person does his or her job. The Discussion Director asks incisive questions he/she has written about the passage. The word finder points out interesting or difficult vocabulary words that he/she has looked up. The illustrator draws a picture of a scene or character. Other students can look for motifs, character development, setting changes, descriptive passages, etc.

    At the end of the novel the group works together on a multi-media “report” on the book.

    The teacher takes turns sitting in with a different circle each day to observe and assess (and guide as needed).

    The students in the circle grade each other for participation. The teacher grades them based on his/her observations and on the final project.

  4. Chani said,

    November 20, 2007 at 3:28 am

    Ender’s Game is a fantastic book! I wish I had been able to read and discuss Ender’s Game in English class.
    I think with teen angst” books, like A Child Called It or Crank or Speak, you lose a bit of credibility with your high school audience. They know you’re trying to cater to them too much.
    Have you tried The Kite Runner? I know of a class in my town (an AP World History and English block class) that has used this book with incredible success. I would strongly recommend this book. Personally, I fell in love with A Thousand Splendid Suns more so than with The Kite Runner, but I know The Kite Runner is appealing to high schoolers – It’s relevant to the world today (no one will deny it), it has a slew of classic character/plot tensions (good for English class), and a page turner. But I would recommend using this book later in the year after the class has developed a certain level of trust/maturity with each other.

  5. August 25, 2008 at 11:34 am

    It’s great that you are allowing your kids to become motivated readers by letting them pick their own books! That’s one of the best ways to encourage reading. For very reluctant readers, or for readers who are ready to move on to ‘great literature’ or other more challenging texts, try having them listen to the audiobook version and also read along with the print. It will engage them more in the book than if they were reading alone, and it is another way to give them reading practice help. Audiobooks also work great in literature circles. Check out our site for info from lots of educators who have used this method.


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