Let me clear… I LOVE CLASSIC LITERATURE!! It’s why I became a writer and a teacher. Books have been nothing less than a spectacular and irreplaceably special part of my life. They’ve shaped my career choice, my social circles, my overall outlook on life and the manner in which I am raising my daughter. However, no one takes value from books they do not read — it’s that simple — and being that I teach in a school where we sport a near 50% drop-out rate, the ol’ “my way or the highway” methodology when it comes to text selection overwhelmingly results in kids saying, “Okay, I’ll take the highway.”
And it’s happening in Chicago, Oakland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Tuscon and on and on and on…
Sure, kids are cutting off their noses to spite their collective face but on the other hand, thousands of them come into our nation’s classrooms every day with a salty, bitter taste when it comes to the thought of reading and if we, as educators, remain so immovable (as we overwhelmingly have in the past 20 years) when it comes to embracing the idea that a kid must first view a book as an object which potentially holds great pleasure and possibility for them, as opposed to only great shame and punishment, then we are complicit when it comes to the miseducation of America’s youth.
For the teachers who think they are defending the honor of the canon by remaining intractable when it comes to getting kids to first like books — something legions of kids today have never had anyone do for them — before they ask them to wrestle with deep, meaty texts, well… it’s a recipe for not only academic, but societal, disaster.
BTW, I am in no way, shape, or form alone in this quandary. As a matter of fact, I’d venture to say that there are SCORES of teachers across our nation who are facing the very same hurdles I am on a daily basis. They are asking themselves, “How do I take kids who overtly make no bones about the fact that they do not like to read and get them to first and foremost, engage openly and honestly with a book, start to finish, reading the whole darn thing.”
Just having kids complete a book — that’s right, just reading one whole book — is a success that a huge amount of middle and high school ELA teachers today across our country are not enjoying. Nathaniel Hawthorne is great but he’s not being gulped down under the covers and being read by flashlight long after mom said, “Go to bed,” and at my school, the English teachers routinely laugh at the idea that more people do not read The Scarlet Letter than do when it is assigned.
And what can they do, fail the kid? Well, get in line. Turns out that kid is already failing math, science, and history.
But there is another way. It’s called winning his heart. The YA books that are being trashed on this board for not being of “high enough literary merit” is how I do that.
I tell you this, hundreds of pages of adolescent literacy research clearly illuminates the immense benefits, if not outright, fundamental necessity for, engagement in the classroom. However, nowhere have I ever seen any research which supports the idea of dis-engagement as an instructional strategy. And when you are staring out at 37 teens armed with no prior history of almost any sort of positive interaction with books and all you are provided with is the canon, it’s a freakin’ tough road to hoe.
That’s why we build bridges using relevant, accessible, gripping, popular (goodness, did I just validate popularity — gawd, I must be a heretic!) YA novels.
And for those who disagree, all I can say is I hear that inner city Detroit has a few teaching positions open. Go bring your theories of high fallutin’ literature as a sole academic diet to where the rubber meets the road — particularly in urban America — and see how well you fare. Suddenly, Speak, The Outsiders, Monster, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid provide a whole new meaning to the term “being a text with literary merit”.