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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Falling in Love With Words

By Starr Sackstein — February 21, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s Guest blog is written by Starr Sackstein. Starr is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in New York City and the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed.

Words. The artful compilation of letters assembled to create meaning, then strung together with other words to develop context and communication. These words are our lifelines to each other.

Books, essays, plays, poems, articles each possess their own mastery of words. Puzzled together with intention and expectations. They invite audiences to them, sometimes seductively enticing the reader to go on a journey or fighting them into submission to hear and see what cannot be ignored.

Perhaps I understand better than most to the importance of fostering a love of reading.

As a high school English teacher pitted against a fast paced world of video games and YouTube sound bytes, I compete with formidable adversaries all eager to win the attention of their audiences.

Add on a healthy dose of bad experiences and lack of choice, coupled with a sinking feeling students are always wrong, will prevent early admission into a local library for adolescents. As a matter of fact it has done just the opposite, often alienating youngsters from the joy of their own reading experiences.

The Challenge

Reading has lost some of its “cool” value, being downright low on the scale of things most kids enjoy doing. This is troublesome because it is the building block of all other learning. The careful knowledge of words and how they connect and develop into a foundation of great knowing.

In each of our classrooms (which aren’t confined to schools), we are tasked with presenting students with opportunities to reconnect with words.

But how?

This is the challenge. Over the years, the single most effective way to get more kids to read has always been to offer them choice over what they read and then constant encouragement and engagement with those choices.

If I see a student reading a graphic novel and I haven’t seen them put it down after not seeing them read all year, I go out and I read that graphic novel too. Making a point of showing that student that I value his/her choices and I want to connect.

Choices: Who doesn’t love variety?

Often it’s not enough to just say read whatever you want. Kids need suggestions. We need to start a dialogue with students about their interests and develop relationships so that when it comes time to make suggestions about their reading choices, they trust our judgment.

Student 1 has openly admitted to not being a reader. My stomach churns with the idea of how he/she is depriving his/her imagination of a world of necessary escapism and connection. So I engage, “Read anything good lately?”

No, I don’t really like to read.”

Why not? I see you’re holding that magazine there, seems you like video games. That’s reading.”

No, I don’t like to read books.”

Why is reading magazines not like reading books? They both have words. They both convey meaning. Seems pretty similar to me. If you like reading stuff about video games, would you humor me and read a suggestion?”

Reluctantly, student 1 shrugs and says, “sure.”

When situations like this arise, I try to offer up high interest, low frustration texts that could be one in a series depending on the age and level of the student, so that if it sticks, there are more to go to next.

When we open kids up to the possibilities and then we give them permission to follow their interests, most students realize that isn’t reading they don’t like, but the choices their teachers have made.

Classics: To be or Not to be, that is question?

As a teacher of AP Literature and Composition, I’m not going to tell you that the canon no longer has a place in education, I will, however say that we need to expand our concept of what the canon is. We need to talk to students about why some literature endures the test of time and others fall off into obscurity never to be resurrected.

Just because a piece of literature has endured, doesn’t mean it is worthwhile for all classes or all kids and just because something is new, doesn’t mean that it won’t endure. We need to teach the core values of stories to offer a tool of connection, the same way language allows us to talk verbally.

Including kids in the dialogue about what makes a novel worth reading (which is different than what makes a novel good, but not mutually exclusive) is an essential motivator. Students need to have a stake in their own learning and when they do, that ownership goes a long way. Rather than just say, “this is what we’re reading,” why not ask for suggestions off a list or let kids choose and then value their choices.

One way to do this is by offering weekly reaction papers which don’t ask kids to overtly analyze or figure out meaning, but encourages them to respond to what they’ve read. It asks them to react to a character’s choices or connect with a relationship. They can write letters to characters or consider alternative endings. We need to give kids more creative opportunities to engage with what they read, so they want to read more.

Storytelling as a means of connection - introduce YA lit and encourage fanfiction

Narratives are powerful tools that grip readers or listeners and only release control when the time is right. As we introduce reading to younger learners and disengaged ones, we must place it within a context they can understand. Tell them stories and they will listen. Allow them to flirt with the characters or the storyline. Get them involved with Young Adult (YA) literature which speaks directly to their generation. You may be surprised by how this high interest fiction also spawns a desire to write.

In the immortal words of J.K.Rowling’s Dumbledore, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” The power extolled in each letter of a thought is one that should inspire, not quell. Students are no longer passive consumers of their teachers’ ideas and choices. 21st century learning expects and requires them to have more control.

Let’s give it to them, first by reconsidering the role of reading in their lives; not just in English class, but in all of their classes and more importantly in their life-long learning experiences.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.