Scattering Light Over The Shadow of Booklessness

Look, if I walked into my class dreamily thinking, “Today, I am going to scatter some light,” well, quite frankly, I’d get eaten alive by my kids. I mean these are teens. Urban, multi-cultural, reluctant-reading, video game playing, hormone surging, got an iPod in their ear and MySpace-on-my-mind teens. Anyone walking into a classroom striving to accomplish philosophical, think-tank sounding literacy ideals that sound as if they were plunked out an academic journal is going to have their bubble burst more brutally than the American housing market.

Then again, if you don’t walk in with a plan to scatter some light for your kids, they – and you – are going to be swallowed by the darkness.


So let’s call it like it is for a moment. The shadow of booklessness lurking over the lives of young adults in America today is a frightening, we-need-to-be-freaking-out about it problem.

Not that I have any strong opinions about the manner or anything.

So what’s my answer? My tool? My weapon to eradicate the plague of this contagion and replace it with white streams of hope, inspiration, passion, literacy and enthusiasm?  

YA literature, of course.

Real books!

Listen up - and cover your ears - cause I am about to shout from the rooftops as to how I am one of YA literature’s most unabashed, biggest fans!

I mean sometimes in this world you just gotta put your stake in the ground and make a claim. For me, as a teacher, as a writer, as a parent, as a citizen, my stake is staked. I believe in using real books to reach real kids to really impact real lives in a very real, very tangible, very gainful and positive type of way.

Happily, I can also report I’ve banked a wee bit of success abiding by this philosophy. There are six primary reasons for this.

1 - Yo, Let’s Point the Finger

Let’s get a couple of things on the table that are being swept under the rug. I believe that the textbook industry is fleecing America’s schools and I have no idea how they hoodwinked so many smart people into buying into the idea that watered down, disengaging, tired and oh-so 20th-century literary anthologies need to be the center of America’s academic curricular wheel while real books – books that kids LOVE - are left on the periphery.

Or on the shelf entirely.

It’s hogwash!

Real books are not a luxury in the modern day classroom. Real books are critical. They are essential. They are oxygen to the pulse of literacy! The fact is, every great Language Arts teacher I know uses real books in the classroom.

Every last one of them.

Which books? I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let’s face a few truths about incorporating a one-size-fits-all approach to literacy instruction.

It’s nonsense.

And scripted curriculum is buffoonery.

The fact is, I’d move on from this point right now, too, if it weren’t for the fact that American schools are currently spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year buying textbooks, scripted curriculum programs and other resources of like ilk.

Do I need to rehash the war stories about frustrated teachers in the trenches being mandated to use materials their kids inform them that they overtly loathe? Do I need to retell the tales of how some teachers are being prohibited outright from using novels in the classrooms so that their instruction can be paced, controlled, legislated and micromanaged? Have you heard about the teacher who had to photocopy a short story from the textbook and put it on copy paper just to get her kids to read it because her students simply refuse to engage with 5 pound, 1,300 page deflavorized doorstops?

I will go to my grave believing that textbooks, as they currently exist, are just flat out not the best, most awesome, most excellent tool at our disposal if we want to make kids 1) more literate 2) more interested in school or 3) lifelong readers.

Textbooks are expedient. Textbooks are sanitized. Textbooks are ubiquitous. But textbooks are not our finest option. Not if we really want to elevate the literacy levels of America’s kids.

And, by the way, textbooks are also expensive. Egregiously so. Just imagine if we spent hundreds of millions of dollars every year buying kids real books?

It’s a delicious thought isn’t it? However, to the corporate monsters that profit so exceptionally well off of the status quo, its an outright nightmare scenario and trying to change the current system seems to me like a fight akin to trying to change the way the insurance companies have a lock on American health care.

Yet, as a real teacher I know that not even my best students buy into the fact that on page 1124 of the blankety-blank textbook (no need to call out specific company names… or use obscenities here) there is something riveting that they absolutely can’t wait to dive deeply into and read.

It’s just not true. For the most part, strong, college-bound students endure Language Arts textbooks, mediocre students survive Language Arts textbooks and low-skilled students blatantly tune out and hate Language Arts textbooks.

Yet bust out Diary of a Wimpy Kid… or Twilight… or Speak… or Crank… or… Ender’s Game… or The Things They Carried… or The Outsiders or Monster or Go Ask Alice… on and on and on (just fill in the blank; there are scores of great titles) and reading becomes a different world for our students.

The research proves it, the practioners know it and the kids, well, they are pretty much dying for us to step up and get it.

Real kids will read real books. That’s been proven. And our schools are not offering these to them.

It’s comically tragic.

Essentially, we have backed ourselves into a dark, dysfunctional curricular corner… and we need to scatter some light.

With real books.


2 -  Uhm, hello… kids are reading in spite of school, not because of it

I’ve said this about a thousand times: kids today are reading in spite of school, not because of it. I mean we’ve got teens lining up at midnight outside of bookstores (at midnight, for goodness sakes) to get their hands on new titles that they are starving to read. Not for academic credit. Not for improved AYP and API scores in the world of No Child Left Behind. They are reading these books because they find them meaningful, relevant, interesting, enlightening and riveting.

They find them to be of value and yet, our schools are doing virtually nothing to take advantage of this fantastic opportunity.

It’s like being in a golf tournament and not partnering up with Tiger Woods when the chance to do so is staring you in the face.

(And Tiger, by the way, would love you to bring him on the team!)

No, reading is not dead. But it certainly seems that common sense is suffering from some sort of head trauma.

Want research to back it up? Check out Kelly Gallagher’s book Readicide which speaks exactly to this point in an eloquent and articulate manner.

Want data to support how fantastically important literacy is to the lives of young adults? Check out the resources at NCTE, IRA, ALA and on and on and on.

Look, I could cite more texts and footnote more studies but the truth is nobody disputes the monumental importance of getting kids to read.

It’s lynchpin.

And nobody disputes that people like Stephanie Meyers, Laurie Halse Anderson, Walter Dean Meyers, S.E. Hinton (and on and on) seem to be doing a pretty good job of getting kids to really read.

It’s self-evident.

Yet our schools, instead of acting like a matchmaker between kids and literacy by marrying them up with real books that they want to read is acting almost as a buffer to that which is so self-evident a strategy. The mantra of schools today is practically steeped in a dogmatic, “You will read what we tell you, when we tell you, for how long we tell you” mentality.

“And then we will bludgeon you with bubble tests!”

Sheesh, no wonder kids are tuning out. It’s belittling, it’s totalitarian, and it’s causing great, if not irreparable harm to one of the core buzzword mission statement phrases we perpetually see being tossed about in our schools like some kind of political sloganeering: We will create lifelong readers and critical thinkers.

Goodness gracious, the emperor has no clothes!

If you want to create lifelong readers then you must instill a sense of the joy of reading. It’s not rocket science yet there seem to be bevies of PhD folks who do not seem to grasp this.

Being a mere plebian on the front lines, see #3 for my own Eisteinian theory on how to scatter literacy light with real books.

3 - Engagement leads to motivation which leads to comprehension which leads to performance

The Language Arts Standards Are NOT Text Specific. We can help kids by building bridges to great literature. The system is need of an overhaul. 

There’s an immense power laying dormant, the power of allowing kids to self-select.

It’s true. But to visit a contemporary classroom today, you'd think that reading

And it’s not because to let them read. That’s right, let them read, really thick

Just imagine if we were spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year on real YA literature, on real books instead of textbooks, in order to teach literacy skills to today’s kids. It’s almost too much. We’d have to give some back.

The federal government could keep a couple hundred million, we could spend a couple hundred million and I guarantee that you would have a heck of a lot more students in this country thinking, “Dang, books are cool!”

And being that I am a front line soldier in an inner-city, Title I classroom, I think my own experience in applying this strategy to my own classroom warrants a bit of attention. For me, the textbooks sit in the closet. But that doesn’t mean we don’t read. We read like fiends… and my students, year-after-year-after-year, tell me they really dig it.

What to Read

Older winners. Newer favorites. More obscure delights. There is no one single book so do not look for it.

Bibliotherapy is not Bull Pucky!

And if you doubt me, look at our nation’s test scores. Or interest in school.

Light the torch and you’ll be amazed at how it can stay lit. 

The standards are not text specific.

For EducatorsAmanda B