Literature is an important gateway to the past, present, and future. Yes, we can read textbooks. We can memorize facts. But it is literature that puts these things in a human perspective.
When I taught 8th grade English, I taught The Diary of Anne Frank. It will forever be my favorite unit to teach. We would read the dramatic version, and when we started, the students treated it like any other drama that they had read previously. But by the time we completed it, the characters were real to my students. I read that play with approximately 400 eighth graders in the years that I taught, and I don’t remember a single complaint. But my students always wanted more at the end.
I would not show them the most modern Anne Frank film because it was too graphic in certain parts for school, but many of them begged their parents to watch it at home. My students struggled with the fact that the play stops when those hiding in the annex are discovered. They wanted to know the specifics of what happened to Anne in the concentration camps. Those who watched the movie would often come back horrified at what they saw in the movie. It isn’t that they hadn’t learned about the Holocaust, it was that they were personally connected to the characters in the play. It made it real to them. They cared about those characters. They weren’t nameless facts in a textbook.
During my tenure as the media specialist at Manchester Jr/Sr High School, I worked with several of of our social studies teachers to do special reading promotions for historical fiction. These students would routinely tell their teachers that the outside reading was one of the most enjoyable components of the class. But the students were getting a choice in what they were reading, and they were reading stories instead of facts. Both are essential for engaging reluctant and emerging readers.
Historical fiction has the ability to bring the past to life for our students. It has the ability to provide personal connections and experiences. It is an important tool for educating our students about the past. History is essential to teach (we can’t feasibly understand the world we live in without understanding what happened in our past to make it this way), and historical fiction is a beautiful way to teach it. It puts a human element into something that otherwise only exists in a textbook. We hope you take some time during the busy holiday rush to read something from our genre this month, historical fiction, and a take a piece of history and re-learn it through a story.
November 28, 2016
Last Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to hear James Patterson speak as the keynote for the Indiana Library Federation. Mr. Patterson, a man who is on the New York Times Bestseller List more than he isn’t on the list, explained that he doesn’t speak at these engagements for money (he obviously doesn’t need that). But he hopes in speaking to groups about the importance of reading that he will “save a life” along the way.
Sounds silly, right? We all know that reading is important...but saving a life? In last week’s blog, I talked about becoming a better reader by simply reading. But I didn’t touch on an important component of that...access. And that was the message that Mr. Patterson shared. Along with allowing kids to find the right reading material for his/her interests, we need to also provide them the opportunity to find that material.
Those of us who were fortunate to grow up in homes of readers probably never knew a home without reading material. We either had books on our bookshelves or something just as powerful--a library card. But for some, it is not that simple. Not every resident in this state or country has a public library that he or she can get a card without cost. A lot of school libraries are being downsized, consolidated, or cut out completely to save money. I had an administrator tell me a few years ago that while we are lucky to have a school library, “we could survive without it.”
But could we have survived as a school system? Could we survive as a town? Without access to libraries, there are too many residents who would not have materials read. It seems like such a simple message that so many have yet to understand. It is a message that Dr. Seuss says clearly, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” But to be a reader, you need to have books, and you need to have access to a lot of books.
Knowledge is power, and we can’t gain that knowledge without being readers. When Mr. Patterson was talking about saving a life, he meant it. If a child becomes a reader, and learns from being a reader, the opportunities for that child are limitless. There is so much out of our control right now in this time of political transition within our country. There is a lot of unrest, and a lot of uncertainty. And many of us are asking, “What can we do?” We can continue to lobby our politicians to make sure that we have tax dollars to support our school and public libraries. We can encourage our kids to become readers. Because readers become thinkers, and knowledge is power.
November 13, 2016
We have a knack in education for killing a love of learning. It is certainly never done intentionally, and most teachers would agree with this statement. It is the consequence of poor legislation and a system of over-testing put in place by politicians who have never stepped in the classroom. Hence, the joy that is created when a young child learns to read is overcome by high expectations and mandated reading material. Yes, kids should be challenged, but sometimes those challenges drive struggling readers away from all reading.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Glenda Ritz, spoke to librarians at the Indiana Library Federation Conference in the fall of 2013. I loved her speech so much that in March of 2014 I was able to secure her to speak to our entire student body at Manchester Junior/Senior High School. Superintendent Ritz, a nationally board certified librarian, told her audiences of a poster she proudly hung in her library in Indianapolis, “Ten ways to become a better reader: read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read.” So simple. So powerful.
But keeping kids reading when they are struggling isn’t easy. Keeping kids reading when they are only reading materials that they are assigned isn’t likely to happen. When I was in college, I did not read every line of material that was assigned to me. But I always read the things that I was interested in, or the articles that I was able to find on my own.
As an English teacher and an English department head, I felt the pressure that no student should leave high school without reading books from the cannon. I wanted them to head off into life with a good basis of information and reference. But, more than anything, I wanted them to be lifelong readers. It was and always will be a difficult balance.
I would encourage all parents and teachers to really consider what they are encouraging or pushing their children and students to read. Are they getting choice? Do they enjoy it? If it is a battle, then we all need to look at what they are reading. I have a son who is above reading level for his age, and I have a son who is still struggling to learn to read after years of trying. But my rules for them are the same. We read the books that they are assigned first, and then they can pick whatever they want and we will read it. Sometimes I have to read it, sometimes we share the reading, and sometimes they read it to me. I am sure you can guess which book is their favorite to read each night. It isn’t the one that they received as an assignment.
I had an amazing tennis coach who used to tell us that we would get better by “playing people we could beat easily, playing people who we were matched evenly with, and playing people who would beat the pants off of us.” I tell students that it is the same with reading. It takes reading of all kinds to grow as a reader and to enjoy being a reader. It is so simple, just read.