Quick Tip Tuesday: Bringing tweens back to books

April 21st, 2009

In Naked Reading author Teri Lesesne draws on her extensive experience as a teacher and consultant to examine ways that educators can help stoke kids’ — especially tweens’ — interest in books. In the first three chapters of her book she discusses the reasons some tweens are turned off from reading. In Chapter 4 she moves on to offer some remedies. She uses the acronym TARGET to describe the six elements that are essential in helping kids become excited about books: Trust, Access, Response, Guidance, Enthusiasm, and Tween-appeal. In this week’s Quick Tip, Teri talks about Trust.

First and foremost, our students need to know that they can trust us when it comes to books. They can trust that we know them well enough and we know where they are developmentally. Only then can we successfully recommend books that will excite and motivate them to read. I discuss the development of students in Chapter 1. At the beginning of the school year, it might be a good idea to give students a brief survey to get to know them and their reading habits better. While surveying instruments are available from a variety of sources, I prefer to construct my own— something short that will not fatigue the students or increase the time it will take me to go through them all quickly (and, as a bonus, students will not resent having to fill out one more form for me). Consider giving students a checklist of different genres and formats to see if your classroom (and, for that matter, the school) library meets their expressed interests.

I suggest beginning with this quick and easy checklist and then moving on to more elaborate questionnaires and surveys as the year progresses. A second step in this process, then, could be to give students a checklist to assess their attitudes toward books and reading. There are already-published instruments, such as the Estes Scale, that can be used for this step; however, it is also a simple matter to construct one for your classroom’s use. Begin with a series of statements about books and reading that are both positive and negative. Sample statements might include:
In my spare time I enjoy reading.
I spend my own money on books.
Reading when I don’t have to is a waste of time.
I don’t see the need to read outside of school.

Students respond to these statements using a Likert scale, with responses ranging from Strongly Agree to Agree to No Opinion to Disagree to Strongly Disagree. How students respond to each item nets a score from 1 to 5. For example, students who strongly agree to the first two statements that are positive in nature would receive a score of 5 points for each one. Likewise, if they respond with strongly disagree to the second two negatively worded statements; they would also receive 5 points each.

On the other hand, students who disagreed with the first two statements and agreed with the second set would receive one point for each of the four statements. Thus, the score of someone with a positive attitude would score a total of 20 points on the four statements; students with less positive attitudes would score lower. Again, you can easily construct such a scale and use it with your students or select from other, already established attitudinal scales.

Once you know more about reading habits, interests, and attitudes, you can begin to plan which books will become part of the classroom library. Note that this kind of evaluation needs to be done for all classes and each year, since students and their interests change over time. When I first began asking my students about the books they preferred to read, romance was the number one response from girls while boys preferred fantasy as their top choice. While fantasy and romance still appear on the final tallies, many girls now read fantasy (though boys have not picked up the romance novel as a favorite), and the popularity of graphic novels, manga, and anime has increased dramatically. A few years ago, I would not have included these categories on the checklist, nor would novels in verse (as distinguished from poetry) have appeared a decade ago. Fads come and go in terms of books. For years, I could not keep enough copies of Sweet Valley High on the shelves for my female readers. Ditto Goosebumps and Choose Your Own Adventure some years later. Now those have been replaced by other series such as the Lemony Snicket books.

Our students also have to trust that we do not have ulterior motives in recommending books that we are not attempting to “teach” them something as a result of their reading. One of my favorite children’s books is Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor, with illustrations by Peter Parnall. The narrator talks about the importance of finding your own special rock and the rules you must follow if the rock is to be truly special. I love this book for its simple yet elegant rhythms, for the incredibly awe-inspiring artwork done in earth tones, and for the beautiful allegory it presents me, as a lover of books. Each semester I open classes in children’s literature with a read-aloud of this remarkable book and then proceed to explain the allegory I develop from Baylor’s rules. The rock is the foundation if you will, of a literacy-rich classroom. The rules for finding the perfect rock, for finding the right book, still apply. One of the rules is “always sniff your rock.” Kids have a better sense of smell and can tell a rock’s origin from sniffing. This rule I liken to those kids who can smell a lesson coming a mile away.

I still remember his name after more than twenty years: Lionel. He handed back a book I had suggested with an expression that only a twelve-year-old can carry off successfully. “Oh,” he sneered, “this is one of those books that’s supposed to teach me something, huh? No thanks.” The book was one that talked about becoming a better student. Lionel was struggling in my class, and I innocently thought a book about how to study more effectively might kill two birds with one stone. Not so.

I learned two important lessons. First, do not try to find books that address problems students might be having in class. This process, called bibliotherapy, can have disastrous consequences. After my daughter died a few years ago, well-meaning teachers encouraged my grandchildren, Natalie, Cali, and Corrie, to read books where a main character died. What those kids did not want was to be reminded of their loss. Instead, what they needed was to find some relief from their sadness. We read books with gentle good humor, happy to find a reason to laugh. It has only been recently, some four years after their mother’s death, that the girls are reading books like The Afterlife by Gary Soto and The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher.

The second lesson is just as important: as teachers we have to be careful about how much we use books for instructional purposes. It is perfectly fine to study a few short stories, poems, a play, and even a novel as a group in order to learn about the critical attributes of genres, the elements of fiction, or the author’s voice and style. If every single book a student reads has to become part of a lesson, however, students will soon learn to dislike books, even those written specifically for them and for pleasure reading. Too many worksheets can also kill. Too many questions turn reading into just another lesson. Donald Graves once remarked that if we grade all the writing our kids are producing we are not doing enough writing with our classes. I think the same is true for books and reading. If we have a follow-up to every book, every read-aloud, every booktalk, we are not doing much to motivate readers. Think about it this way: after you read a book, what do you want to do? Do you sometimes just want to move on to the next book? Certainly you do not rush out to make a diorama to take to your colleagues at school. You probably do not write an official book report. Instead, sometimes it is sufficient to simply move on.

Let’s think about allowing the same freedom to our students. It will go a long way in developing the trust. Chapter 5 offers some suggestions for assessing the reading of your students. Finally, students must trust that we will not shy away from tough subjects and challenging books but, rather, provide books that present as much of the truth as possible. For instance, as I am writing this, a novel entitled Rainbow Party by Paul Ruditis is making headlines due to its content. Basically, this novel centers on a party given by a group of teens where oral sex will be performed. It is an intense book that is frank in its presentation of sexual scenarios, so frank that most bookstore chains are refusing to carry the book. Now if I were a middle school teacher, I may not have this controversial book as part of my classroom collection. But I would know of the book, would have read it, and would be able to offer an assessment of it to students and parents.

Rainbow Party is an extreme case. It might not be the classic that Forever has proven to be. But it does I think indicate how we need to approach books of a controversial nature. As a teacher, Go Ask Alice was always a part of my classroom collection. I do not think most of my students were experimenting with drugs, but I do think that most of them were curious about the subject. Go Ask Alice afforded them the chance to examine the subject safely within the confines of a book.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Reading

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