Monday, March 19, 2012


Dear Ms. Hart,
    My class of seventy sixth graders recently finished reading your book, Gabriel's Horses, during literature circles.  They all simply loved the book.  As we would finish up one chapter they couldn't wait to read the next one.  For some of my students it was actually the first book they have loved to read on their own.  . . .

          As an author, receiving e-mails such as the above gives me a huge boost. I loved that my novel was suspenseful, interesting and engaging to this group of students. As a teacher at a community college, however, the statement “For some of my students it was actually the first book they have loved to read on their own” saddened me. I teach reluctant readers who are working on pre-college skills. When asked the question “who has read or is reading a good book?” only one or two raise their hands. There is a serious detachment from reading, which is one reason many of my students have difficulty writing. This post will be more about reading than writing, because although I have never researched statistics and studies on the reading/writing connection, instinctively, I know it is crucial.
          As I discussed in my last blog, storytelling and vocabulary are key to good writing.  Reading is key to developing both. When kids don’t read, their writing skills suffer, no matter how well and often we teach point of view and description. How then can we get more kids interested in reading, which will consequently improve writing? The answer to that question has been discussed and dissected for decades and still educators and parents are baffled.  Many kids devour books. But more today are considered aliterate, which is defined as when someone has the ability to read but has total disinterest in reading.  Some facts:
          1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
          80% of US families did not buy a book last year.
          27% of adults in America did not read a single book in 2007 (USA Today)

          In his book Readicide, author Kelly Gallagher gives further statistics and does not hesitate in declaring that too often aliteracy is “exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.” I would love to blame it all on the teachers, but I cannot. Every day when I enter my own classroom, I celebrate the power and joy of reading, yet too often I do not make a difference.  This semester I introduced literature circles to my students. The books were hand-picked for a variety of topics and genres as well as high-interest and readability. The students got to choose which book they wanted to read. In groups, they did pre-reading activities designed to improve their background information. For example, the group that read I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, the true story of a young girl from Yemen who is married at age ten to a thirty-year-old man, researched the country and its customs to help them understand the setting and context.
          How successful were the literature groups? It’s hard to tell. Nothing was graded and I had no firm criteria for success. Groups met and set the number of pages to read and discuss each week. If a student chose not to read, there were no consequences--I didn’t want reading to be equated with punishment.  There will be a final group presentation, which requires minimal writing; however, the project is intended to share the book and I will not penalize someone who did not read it.
          Success? Failure? I can only judge based on comments from the students.  Most enjoyed the books, some obviously more than others based on listening in on their discussions. Two students asked to read books from another group. One student asked for a recommendation for something similar. One asked if she could give it to a friend to read. A handful said it was the first book they had ever read.  More shrugged their shoulders and said “it was all right.” Did any students suddenly become enraptured with books?  No.  Did “they all simply love the book” as the teacher expressed in her e-mail? No again. Did I suddenly see a surge in writing skills.  Um, no.
          Still I am forging ahead, fine-tuning the groups and process. As an author and teacher, I understand the importance of reading and its connection to writing and future success.  It is a message I will continue to convey to my students every day and as best as I can!

The books my students in the lowest reading section chose this semester which they seemed to enjoy:
I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced
Of Mice and Men
A Child Called “It”
The First Part Last

What books have motivated your students and/or children? I’d love to hear from you.

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