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Archive for the ‘Teens’ Category

Driving home from an errand today, I heard “She’s Like the Wind” by Patrick Swayze on the car radio.  Now, admittedly, it’s not a very good song.  But I have a strict policy that I will not change the station whenever I hear it.  Not for the reason you might think… that it was recorded by a talented actor whose life was cut tragically short at the age of 57, when he lost his battle against pancreatic cancer… but rather because of the four-year period when Patrick Swayze took over my life.  Let me explain.

It all began in 1983, when Francis Ford Coppola directed and released The Outsiders, an adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s coming-of-age novel about rival groups of teens divided by their place in society. (It is incredible to note that Hinton wrote this book at the age of sixteen!)  I was thirteen years old when the movie came out.  The cast: Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Ralph Machio, C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, and Tom Cruise.  One viewing and I was catapulted into puberty.  My sisters and I taped the movie on our VCR and watched it every day for an entire summer.  We memorized every line of dialogue and analyzed every nuance of the film.  It wasn’t just the cute boys giving us our first taste of movie star crushes.  It was the story itself… the drama, action, and conflict.  We had never seen anything like it.  Brothers Darry, Sodapop, and Ponyboy were supposed to be the “bad boys,” but they were a loving, loyal family with devoted friends.  I’m ashamed to admit I never actually read the novel, but this movie will stay in my heart forever.

Two years later, Patrick Swayze starred in another project that grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go: North and South, the 1985 miniseries based on the Civil War trilogy by John Jakes.  My life came to a standstill for a week as I soaked up every minute of this sweeping, epic, historical melodrama.  It officially launched the “Civil War” period of my adolescence: this time I did read the John Jakes novels (all of them), and anything else I could get my hands on from this era.  In North and South, Swayze played Orry Main, a plantation owner’s son from South Carolina who meets and befriends a young man from Pennsylvania on their way to the United States Military Academy at West Point.  As expected, their friendship is tested during the tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War.  For me, this will always remain Swayze’s best performance.

Another two years pass, and I head out to the movie theater with my mom and sisters to see a brand new film called Dirty Dancing.  Critical reviews were decidedly critical, but it looked like fun, so we went.  And fun it was!  We were transfixed by the pulsing energy of this innocent and basically predictable movie.  I should be embarrassed to say how much I loved it, but I’m not.  For a 17-year-old girl, Dirty Dancing embodied everything that going to the movies should be about… getting caught up in the story, the music, the dancing, and the romance.  The next evening my oldest sister pulled me aside and whispered, “Get your coat.  We’re going back to see it again.”  Only twice in my life have I gone to the movie theater two nights in a row to see the same film, and Dirty Dancing was one of them.

Patrick Swayze died a little over three years ago, but to me he will live on forever as Darry Curtis, Orry Main, and Johnny Castle.  I will never forget the part he played in shaping my adolescent years.  And I promise never to turn the dial when I hear “She’s Like the Wind.”

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Sheri yesterday posted a blog entry questioning whether or not schools may end up discouraging reading, albeit unintentionally.  In her post, she cited two examples of students she knows who had to put aside books they wanted to read in favor of books they had to read (and ones which they didn’t enjoy in the slightest).

And I suppose, as the dutiful English teacher, I should use this space to offer the “other side.” First, I could explain the reason we have all students in a class read the same book at the same time: so we could have a shared experience, a common text that we discuss. Does that mean we all have to have the same thoughts about this text?  Of course not.  In fact, it’s better if we don’t.  But we need that common experience as a jumping-off point.  And I think that’s true of all human relationships.

Yes, some schools are moving toward a different model, one that invites every student to read his or her own book.  And while this intrigues me, I do have some very practical concerns: is the teacher required to read every one of those books?  If not, how does the teacher know the kids are reading?  And what about the other students?  What do they talk about with one another?  With no shared experience, don’t you just have a series of twenty-five book reports masquerading as a discussion?

Next, I suppose I could address the issue of why we’re still teaching certain books, especially ones that are 50, 100, even 500 years old.  This is a little trickier to defend.  Sure, these texts may be brilliantly written, and they may have engaging plots – but then again, a lot of modern texts are brilliantly written and have engaging plots.  So why not upgrade?

I guess one answer is that we teach the classics because they are classics; we read them because everyone reads them.  I’m not making a “cultural literacy” defense here; I’m not saying kids should read Romeo and Juliet so you can get the allusions in a Taylor Swift song.  You should read Romeo and Juliet because it does things that most modern day teen romances can’t.  Basically: we keep reading these texts because they are worth reading, because they can teach us things, make us better.

Next, I could talk about the virtues of raising awareness, of exposing students to a text they probably would never have read on their own.  I personally never read The Crucible in high school; it was somehow never assigned. Now, in truth, I also never read a lot of books that were assigned, but that’s not the point here.  The point is, had I not become an English teacher, I never would have experienced the paradoxes coursing through Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, nor would I have known the power of John Proctor’s climactic “Because it is my name!” speech. And I would be the poorer for it.

Finally, I could conclude by asking, “Since when does everything we do in school have to be fun, anyway?”  Yes, they might not like Pride and Prejudice… but guess what?  A lot of kids don’t like math.  Does that mean we’ll just stop teaching fractions?  Or what about the Periodic Table? That’s been done to death, right?  Shouldn’t we just move on to something new?

I could say all those things, and I’d believe all of it as well.  But even as I was saying it, I’d remember a passage I read, in a book called Better than Life by Daniel Pennac:

“It looks as though school, no matter the age or nation, has had only one role.  And that’s to teach the mastery of technique and critical commentary and to cut off spontaneous contact with books by discouraging the pleasure of reading.  It’s been written in stone in every land: pleasure has no business in school, and knowledge gained must be the fruit of deliberate suffering…. It is the nature of living beings to love life, even in the form of a quadratic equation.  But vitality has never been listed on a school curriculum… You learn how to read in school.  But what about the love of reading?”

And then maybe I’d remember the afternoons I’d to go into my sons’ classrooms, on “Mystery Reader” Day.  All the second-graders would be so excited.  They’d go over to the carpet, and I’d sit in the big rocking chair.  And when I’d take out Green Eggs and Ham or the story about the Chinese brothers with the super-powers, they would be totally into it.  Reading was an event back then, not a chore.

Do schools discourage the pleasure of reading?  I don’t know.  But I do know that, whenever I hand out a “classic,” some student in my class is possibly shelving some really good book—a fun, entertaining book, one that could re-ignite the long-dormant pleasure of reading in this student—in favor of some book that I imperiously think is good for them to read.  And that’s a lousy feeling.

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We’d been planning it for weeks. My niece and I share a love of young adult fiction. We have a great time talking about books we’ve both read … recommending books to one another… waiting for new releases from our favorite authors.  Last month I came up with an idea to formalize our shared interest a bit. We would choose a book together, read it at the same time, and discuss it as we went along. Kind of like the world’s smallest book club.

So we began with our go-to authors. Sarah Dessen? Nope. We’d both exhausted all of her titles. Susane Colasanti? I had only read a few, but my niece was up-to-date and the latest release wasn’t coming out till spring.

I stumbled upon a great book site called Epic Reads, which posted a blog entry called “The United States of YA.” The blog author created a cool map of YA books that took place in each of our 50 States. What a fun idea! My niece and I decided to choose the book from our home State of Connecticut – My Life Next Door  by Huntley Fitzpatrick. It was exactly the kind of book we both liked and the reviews were positive.

Then I got a call from my niece that put our plans on hold.  Her 8th grade English teacher had assigned a book to the class: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.  This was not her genre, and she was finding the book pretty tough to slog through.  Worried that she couldn’t split her attention, she asked if we could postpone our mini-book club.  I could see how disappointed she was, but school had to come first.  After all, my husband’s an English teacher.  I understand the importance of reading the classics… of having students read the same book so they can discuss it and analyze it together.

Still I was struck by the fact that my niece was putting down a book she loved in order to read one that she hated.

Something similar happened to my older niece last year.   She spent an entire agonizing summer trying to get through Great Expectations (required reading for incoming 9th grade honors students).  Sadly she put away the stack of fun YA novels she had chosen to read over summer vacation, knowing she wouldn’t have time to read them.

Once again I was saddened to see a bright young woman putting away a book she loved in order to drag her way through a classic that brought her no joy.  I wonder where the balance is here.  If students can’t read for pleasure during the school year because of assigned texts, shouldn’t summer vacation be a sacred time for pleasure reading?  How can we honor the valuable lessons to be gained from reading the classics while still fostering a love of reading in our children?

I’m asking Mark to weigh in on this one, from his perspective as a high school English teacher.  You’ll see his thoughts in a future blog post.  In the meantime I’d love to read your comments below.

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My old boss used to say, “We don’t teach texts; we teach students.”  Good point, there.  Still, as an English teacher, I do use texts as a way of teaching students. Some of these texts are home-runs, and some… well, some get assaulted by the fans on their way to the plate and never even reach the batters’ box. But today, I wanted to highlight a few of the home-runs, those texts that students– across the board, regardless of their general interest in reading– always seem to enjoy:

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien:  Students really take to Tim O’Brien’s memoir about Vietnam– which is neither a memoir nor “about” Vietnam.  First of all, even though it’s set in Vietnam, the book is really about story-telling, about using stories to find the “truth” of an experience.  Secondly, even though O’Brien did fight in Vietnam, most of this account is fictional.  Even the narrator, a veteran-turned-writer Tim O’Brien with a precious daughter named Kathleen, is a fictionalized version of the “real” veteran-turned-writer Tim O’Brien (who doesn’t have a precious daughter named Kathleen).  All this pretty much blows the kids’ minds, which is fun to watch.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee:   Don’t show off, respect other people’s privacy, and most importantly, consider things from other people’s perspective– these are just a few of the “life lessons” that Atticus Finch teaches young adults. And they don’t mind learning them, either. A perennial favorite for the past fifty years, this near-flawless novel continues to delight.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: I know, I know… you’re grandmother probably read this in high school.  But if it’s not broke, right?  Students still enjoy this classic, for all the right reasons: they get enraged with Daisy; they feel appropriately mixed about Gatsby; they love the language (including that killer last line); and the fact that the novel’s surprisingly short isn’t unappealing either.  And I still enjoy it too; in fact, the longer I teach it, the more I see in it.

The Odyssey, Homer: Ah, I was testing you.  The fact is, the ones that slog through it (and don’t flee to SparkNotes) hate it.  Just hate it.  Which is unfortunate and paradoxical– unfortunate, because it’s really a great story, and paradoxical, because kids in general really like mythology.  They just can’t get on board with jolly ol’ Captain Odysseus.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins: “What?” you ask.  “You mean you actually teach books that aren’t fifty years old in high school?”  We do, indeed.  In fact, a few summers ago, I decided to teach this in summer school (after phasing out decidedly non-fan-favorites such as A Separate Peace and– sad to say– Huckleberry Finn). Not surprisingly, the kids loved it– and summer school students aren’t necessarily the most rabid readers out there.   And from my point of view, it’s not just a gripping story; there’s actually some literary stuff in there to teach. (For example, what’s up with all the “flower” imagery?)  Now the only “problem” with teaching this in school– if you can even call it a problem– is that it’s TOO popular; too many kids have actually read it on their own.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie: You know you hit upon a great book when you tell kids to read the first twenty pages, and they come back the next day saying they’ve read the whole thing. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian  I’ve had that experience so many times with Part-Time Indian, Alexie’s vaguely fictionalized memoir about his decision, when he was fourteen, to leave his Spokane Indian Reservation and go to an all-white public school. The thing is, when I first read it, I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t sure if the kids would take anything away from it. Yikes, was I wrong.  Just goes to show: as a teacher, sometimes you have to learn NOT to trust your own judgment.

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