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Challenge Students to Read About Characters Who Aren't Like Them

Challenge Students to Read About Characters Who Aren't Like Them

SHELLY VENABLE, Dallas Morning News

DALLAS, TX- A little over a decade ago, I found myself seated in a small lecture room at the University of Texas, about to begin a semester-long study of “Curriculum and Instruction.” A short, round woman in her late 40s, with gray hair down to the middle of her back, began handing round a stack of syllabi as the 20 or so students took our seats in the room’s semi-circular rows.

When the shuffle of backpacks and pens had subsided, she looked over the top of her oversized bifocals and began: “Let’s get this straight: This is not Dangerous Minds, and none of you is Michelle Pfeiffer.”

Talk about bursting your bubble.

I loved that movie. Glancing around the room, I got the feeling I wasn’t the only one whose mind was replaying the highlights: a group of inner-city kids caught in a world of poverty and violence; a new teacher determined to reach her students; the poetry of Dylan Thomas, the lyrics of Bob Dylan. Ninety minutes and a couple of rap songs later, the teacher has transformed their lives by merely changing her jacket and tossing out a few candy bars.

The plot is the epitome of the educational idealism that had brought many of us before this strange little woman who finished her thought with: “Teaching is not that simple.”

Ten years and roughly 1,500 teenagers later, I feel qualified to attest to the truth of this axiom. Teaching is not at all simple. And I empathize with Will Okun’s plight.

I did, after all, spend my first three years as a teacher in a school with 75 percent minority students, most labeled “economically disadvantaged” or “at risk.” I am intimately familiar with the struggle of capturing their attention and the even more monumental task of keeping it.

Even the past seven years, when I’ve been in schools that were 90 percent white, the near daily battle to engage students in books has remained one of the few constants in my career.

Mr. Okun and I have more than just our personal anecdotes to support this conclusion. Mr. Okun cites a study by the National Endowment for the Arts released late last year. This survey of the reading habits of Americans yielded distressing results for book lovers and educators alike: Asked if they had read any book, short story, play or poem, not assigned for school or work, in the past year, the overwhelming answer from respondents was no.

Across gender, region, ethnicity and age groups, reading is in decline. Most disturbing for the high school English teacher is the data showing that young adults experienced a 55 percent greater drop in readership over a 12-year period than the adult population as a whole, the most significant decline of any group analyzed.

In his summary of the report, NEA’s president cites the growth of digital media as a major factor in the loss of readers. While spending on books had begun to drop, spending on electronic media such as audio, video and computer software had quadrupled, highlighting the digital direction in which our society is headed.

Unfortunately, the NEA study also demonstrated that with lower reading rates, one also finds lower participation in community cultural and civic events. Thus the societal dilemma: How do we encourage reading, which appears to be essential for a vital society, in a time when other forms of media are more appealing to our young people?

Mr. Okun’s proposed solution is to update his reading list, modernize his selections. While I agree that more “high interest” works need to find inclusion in our curriculums to help encourage reluctant readers, I am a long way from, as he suggests, throwing out the teaching of British literature altogether.

I have always thought it my responsibility as an educator to guide my students through the unfamiliar in the hopes that they may grow as an individual, to give them more to relate to than that which they already know and to get them outside of their “bubbles” in order to broaden their perspectives and prepare them for a future that extends beyond the arbitrary borders of their hometown and outside the boundaries of their current experience.

I understand the desire to give students a book they can finish and say, “That character is exactly like me.” But I prefer to have students read one that leaves them thinking “That character is absolutely nothing like me, but I still understand him.”

If Mr. Okun thinks he can get more young people to read by offering them newer titles with characters closer to their age or circumstance, by all means, I offer him my sincerest best wishes; anything that will get a teen to read a book has to be a step in the right direction.

But two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a former student, now a sophomore in college, that said: “When you made me read As I Lay Dying you irrevocably altered the course of my life forever without even knowing it.”

No disrespect to S.E. Hinton, but I’m not sure The Outsiders would have had quite the same effect.

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