At our school, we place a strong emphasis on student independent reading and choosing books that interest them.
Katie Hull, my extraordinarily talented colleague and co-author of a future book on teaching writers to English Language Learners, raised an interesting question to me last week related to this practice. We’re interested in getting responses from other teachers.
Reading books about gang life is always a favorite among our students — both those who at risk for gang involvement and those who just find the books engaging. The books we have in our classroom libraries are written by former gang members (for example, by Luis Rodriguez) and have an anti-gang message.
However, Katie’s concern (and I think it’s a legitimate one) is that the ones who are being tempted by gang life may ignore the positive messages of the book, and only focus on what they view as exciting. We all tend to hear just what we want to hear. Could we be inadvertently encouraging gang interest?
What are your thoughts? Does the engagement in reading trump those potential negative consequences? Are we exaggerating the potential dangers? Is having explicit conversations with at risk students who are reading the books and communicating our concerns enough action on our parts?
I confronted the same issue as a middle level ELA teacher who used a workshop approach. My purpose was always to engage readers–particularly the at-risk readers in my room. Over and over again, evidence showed that these kids longed for protagonists that they could relate to. Many of those protagonists engaged in at-risk behaviors.
My hunch is that kids like these will seek out opportunities to connect around these issues because they’re compelled by them in very real ways. Without the guidance of supportive adults, they are at even greater risk. Unless we create opportunities for them to reflect on what they are consuming and discuss the implications of it all, they’ll make bad choices, and we’ll be less aware of the potential for it.
I think that books can help us learn more about the needs of our students and identify how they might be at risk. Books aren’t the problem, but reading and discussing complex and even controversial texts can bring the problems that our kids are struggling with to the surface. I think this is courageous and necessary work.
I am an English teacher who encourages my students to choose their own books. Many of them have told me that they read books about gangs or other subjects that tend to make adults nervous because they want to know exactly what it it adults have been warning them to avoid. They want to be able to recognize the danger or the problem when they see it. They want to know the best way to react should they need it. Books by Walter Dean Myers, Luis Rodriquez, Coert Voorhees, and Lac Su are stories about young people that survive. They are not travel brochures for a life as a gang member. They are about finding truth and being strong. And yes, they are great material for classroom or family discussions.
I read a lot of orphan stories when I was a kid and thought that life sounded just wonderful and so much better than my own. The difference is — being an orphan wasn’t an option for me. I couldn’t really go out and seek that kind of life.
I would worry about any student that reads too much of any one subject area… branch out and push yourself to read a different topic.
I believe that a student engaged in reading is a student that is learning. As teachers, we are promoting a tool that provides students access to information, and allows them greater access to the world. To attempt to limit that access seems contrary to what we are attempting to do as educators. Many books that might be considered classics like The Outsiders, or Tom Sawyer are full of bad ideas, action and adventure.
However, a good reader does not read only one type of book, or books by only one author. To that end, we should allow students to select their own reading, however that doesn’t mean we cannot make suggestions about where to go next. I would use a student’s interest in one particular type of book or author to makes suggestions about what they might read next, what else they might find engaging.
In my experience, students will gravitate toward what they already know, simply because of their limited life experiences. They have no idea of the possibilities that exist in the world of literature, simply because they haven’t had exposure. As an educator we can help them find new genres, authors and ideas to explore in literature.
I am only in my second year as a 5th grade teacher in a majority ESL, urban elementary school. I agree that we should always push students to branch out and explore other genres, but I wouldn’t encourage any student away from a book they are extremely interested in. It is that interest that allows for a lesson.
It is also important to remember that many minority students don’t get to read books they can relate to very often. After one of my students read, The Fallen by Langan, he opened up about how his older brother was shot and killed on their front porch when he was 6. He said he saw the whole thing. I’ve had this student all year and it was the first vulnerable moment he ever opened up. That conversation would not have happened if he only read The Chronicles of Narnia or Jerry Spinelli books.
I think the topics are very uncomfortable, but they are real. We shouldn’t avoid them but we should allow the interest to translate into discussion around those topics. My first question when one of my students comes talking about how cool the story was when someone got shot or jumped is, “why?” then it’s always, “does it have to be this way?” I try not to script their answers either.
Thanks for opening up the discussion, I’m curious to hear some more experienced opinions. Thanks.