In This Corner….”Junk Books” vs. the Classics!

I was reading some of the blogs in my Google Reader today and saw that Lois Lowry, one of my favorite authors, responded one more time to the NY Times article on reading workshop that created such a buzz this weekend.  While I respect Lowry and absolutely adore her work, I’m going to have to beg to differ with her opinion here:

“Those who feel that once we get kids to “enjoy” reading by way of Gossip Girls and its ilk, they will eventually move on, on their own, to the “classics”—-AIN’T. GONNA. HAPPEN.  They will move on to read popular novels, and there is nothing wrong with that. But not one of them will ever voluntarily pick up Joseph Conrad or Henry James or Virginia Woolf.”

Not so, Ms. Lowry!

I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

First of all, we have to differentiate between the classics and good literature. There have been plenty of books published in the last 25 years that will someday be considered classics.  If kids are reading those then I am perfectly happy and consider those books just as important as the classics!  In this instance I will include both classics and those destined to be classics.  My students who sometimes begin reading “junk” books often move on to more “important” literature.  Keep in mind that literature is important in the eyes of adults.  For my students, their current “junk” book might be more important to them at this point in their life.  Maybe they finally found themselves in a character.  Or perhaps they learn to look at life from a different perspective.  Even “junk” can teach us something.  Plus, one man’s junk is another’s treasure, as we all know.

As for anecdotal evidence, I have seen it with my own eyes.  I have plenty of students each year who begin school reading what many would call junk.  Do I stop them?  Never!  That junk will be the reading material that opens their eyes to a world of possibilities- the world of reading.  All their lives they have been told no, don’t read this.  Don’t read that.  Only what we (parents, teachers) say is important counts.  You can’t be trusted to choose good books or read decent literature.

No wonder so many adolescents and tweens hate reading!  No one allows them to find their niche.  When I tell my students they can read anything they want they are overwhelmed at first.  For far too long they have been shut down and shut out of the conversation.  So they take advantage of the “whatever you want” aspect of my independent reading time.  Yes, Twilight is a popular choice with many of my reluctant readers. So are books like Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare and fluffy graphic novels like Babymouse #1: Queen of the World!. None of these are “great literature” or someday classics. In fact, many people would refer to them as junk books.

But in a few short months, those choices have led to new books, modern classics like Speak, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, and The Stand.  Why?  Because students have learned that reading is actually fun and enjoyable!  They know what they like- graphic novels, or realistic fiction about social issues, or horror.  It’s a natural progression as they seek out more and more books.

Does every student move on to the classics?  Of course not.  Not every student is starting at the same level.  But learning to enjoy reading means that they will read the classics someday or at the very least, the odds are better that they will!  It also means they are more likely to understand the books assigned in high school and college because they have built up their reading stamina.

Unlike the teacher in the article, I don’t have my students read the whole period, every period.  We do a few whole class novels (including Lowry’s <a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0440237688?ie=UTF8&tag=thereazon-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0440237688″>The Giver</a>).   My post from yesterday details my reading workshop and the way I teach whole-class novels and read alouds.  But my students do get to read books of their choice every day and my lesson plans revolve around those books 80% of the year.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So Ms. Lowry, we will have to agree to disagree here. Writers don’t write no junk in my eyes, because as teachers we never know which book will be the key that opens the door to the world of reading.  Whether it’s Gossip Girl or Virginia Woolf, all the keys fit the lock.

Helping Struggling Readers Find the Perfect Book

Michele left a comment on one of my posts last week and I have been contemplating an answer ever since.  

 

I am in my second year of using Reader’s Workshop so it still feels very new to me. Would you mind speaking about how you help struggling readers in your class? I have found that a few of my students are selecting books that are much too challenging for them just to be reading what the other kids are reading. I try to direct them toward more appropriate material, but they usually abandon what I suggest and head straight back for whatever is hot at the moment.

I am almost at the point of telling a few students that they have to read a book that I select for them. Does that defeat the whole purpose of Reader’s Workshop and choice in their reading materials? Is there something that you have tried or have heard about that you could suggest?

 

Every year I have a handful of students who choose books that only frustrate them.  It’s a difficult situation to deal with, because I do not want to discourage them from reading and I don’t want to stop them from reading about a topic that they enjoy.  However, if they can’t comprehend the novel or fluently read it. they may just end up hating the act of reading.  So how do I help them?

The answer for me is time.  I spend a lot of time with these kids.  We talk about what they like, authors they have enjoyed, their favorite topics, etc.  I really get to know them as people and as readers.  Because I read so many books over the course of a given year, I have a wide variety of texts that I can draw from as recommendations.  This is one of the reasons I force myself to read and review books that I might not normally read on my own.  I can better serve my students when I have variety of genres and authors to draw on.  I also read reviews from blogs and industry magazines like School Library Journal for even more ideas.  My media center librarian is my ally in this, too!  

It can take weeks to find something that a reluctant and struggling readers can read and wants to read.  There will be a lot of abandoned books along the way.  In my classroom, the rule is that a student must give a book at least 50 pages before deciding to abandon it.  However, I waive that for some of my struggling readers.  Depending on the student, I will give them a 20-25 page limit for abandonment.  And my kids feel comfortable abandoning books.  I share my own experiences with abandoning books that were not “just right” for me, so they know that real readers don’t finish every single book they start.  All I ask is that they can give me a reason for abandoning their book.  I have heard everything from “I can’t connect to the characters” to “The vocabulary is just too hard”.  Because I know my students as readers, I can usually judge how truthful they are being. :)  

To put it simply, time is your friend.  Make sure you have a lot of books to choose from.  And make recommendations.  But let your students make the final choice.  And when they do find something they enjoy reading, let them!  Even if that means they read six books in a row about kids who play baseball.  Keep building their confidence- in their ability to read fluently, their ability to comprehend their reading, and the ability to choose their own reading  material.  Choice in reading material for independent reading is the most important factor in my reading workshop and I firmly believe it is what has made my workshop successful!

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