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Picture This: Helping Readers Flex Their Imaginations

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Not long ago, I walked around a middle school classroom and made note of decorations on students' binders. The girls, in particular, had drawings and magazine cut-outs depicting the actors from the Twilight series movies. Later I noticed the same types of images decorating student lockers. I marveled at the popularity of the books, and as a reading teacher, I was delighted to see kids interested in reading. I was impressed by how connected they felt to characters in a story. Then I realized something. The students may not feel connected to the characters, but to the actors playing the characters.

I'm reminded of that today because, even though I'm fighting it for all I'm worth, I'm losing my own personal image of my favorite character from The Hunger Games series. I’m losing Katniss. I'm trying to hold on to the protagonist I've known for over two years. I've tensed every muscle through her battles. I’ve had nightmares over her struggles. And now I'm trying to hold on to how I’ve pictured her, but I’m losing … because she's gradually being replaced in my head by an actress.

As a reading teacher, I encourage my students to visualize the descriptions in the books they read—what my principal calls "the movies in their heads." While reading The Hunger Games trilogy, I could see Katniss. She became a friend during those books—one I felt I actually knew, one I missed when I put the books down.

But now that a major studio is making a movie based on The Hunger Games, I'm inundated with pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, the beautiful and talented actress playing Katniss. My Katniss is not quite so beautiful. Instead, she’s tough. She's dirty. And she doesn't have pouty lips as perfectly shaped as the bow she carries. In short, Jennifer Lawrence doesn't look anything like the Katniss of my imagination.

I worry about our students' imaginations dying out, becoming extinct from lack of use (like we've been warned about our pinky toes). I’ve asked students about the Twilight novels, which many have read. Do they have their own version of the character Edward or do they default to Robert Pattinson, the actor who plays Edward in the movie? They enthusiastically shout that Pattinson is their Edward. Who needs an imagination when the media so conveniently supplies the details? And just think of it: Is there anyone in the world who doesn't see the actor Daniel Radcliffe when they hear the words "Harry Potter"?

As teachers, we must make an explicit effort to design lessons that foster our students' imaginations:

• We have to model the transformation from the author's description to the reader's idea of what that world looks, sounds, and feels like: "How is Katniss described by the author? What does she look like to you? Let me tell you how I pictured her when I read it … ." If we're lucky, every student's rendition is a little different, every imagination taking the author's words in slightly different directions. Hopefully, we can get ahead of the movies and video games, and ahead of the music videos that interpret the songs for our students so they don't even have to bother. Hopefully, we can teach them first to think and imagine for themselves.

• Besides modeling for students by sharing our own thoughts and images, it is also important for students to be exposed to genres that veer away from the world they know: fairy tales, fantasy novels such as Tuck Everlasting and A Wrinkle in Time, and dystopian novels that are all the rage now like The Giver, Matched, and, yes, The Hunger Games.

• Read-alouds can be good for the imagination, too, since they prevent students from rushing through the author's words at breakneck speed (or, for younger students, focusing too much on the illustrations in the book). By asking students to listen, we can give them time to craft those "movies in their heads."

• And it's critical that we give students the opportunity to write their own fantasy stories and to talk about the things they imagine.

There are things we can do in our personal lives, too, to prepare children to love imaginative acts, including the act of reading. As parents, it's important that we allow time for play. There are so many opportunities for our children these days—from soccer to basketball to ballroom dance—that they can be overscheduled until there’s no time to "just pretend." We can encourage play by taking part in it. There’s nothing more fun than being "the patient" in a pretend doctor’s office, a "customer" in a pretend restaurant, or a "student" to a 5-year-old teacher.

Hopefully, that 5-year-old will grow up to be the kind of reader who has already made many "movies in her head" before she sees her favorite characters (her own Katniss or Edward) on the big screen.

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