The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them. It turns out, when Mark Twain said this in the 19th Century he was describing the implications of a not so ‘invisible epidemic’ in the 21st Century. We are talking about literate people who are choosing not to read and my son was one of them. Read his story.
‘A bad case of aliteracy cured by The Hunger Games.’
Well cured may be too optimistic, we are talking about a teenage boy here. Also, I may have over stated how bad the complaint, as his form of aliteracy was genre specific – Tom would not pick up a work of fiction and hadn’t for years. He did not get caught up in the hype of Harry Potter or the Deltora Quest. He found the humour of Andy Griffiths passable but not memorable. Dan Brown and Mathew Reilly failed where they had jump- started my oldest son as a reader in high school.
There had to be a reality to it before Tom would even nibble the bait and he would only bite if the main character was an animal. I asked him tonight to recall some good books he read in his early teens. One; in all those years of reading and despite all the good and not so good literature fed to him, that is all he could come up with, Spud by John Heffernan. A book about dogs, people and life on the land.
Tom did read and his reading wasn’t restricted to ‘sound bites’ from the internet or newspapers either. He read substantial factual texts on a range of animal husbandry topics and vegetable gardening. However he was one of those students who did well at English without ever reading any of the novels, simply by listening to the conversations. This was causing me some concern. I wanted for him to experience what I wish for all my students –the excitement and thrill reading fiction can bring, to step through the door to a place you would otherwise have never known and the desire to discuss the characters you have met and their journey with others. Not being able to put a book down and reading all night because of the desperate need to know what happens next had escaped him.
Extreme measures were required. The Hunger Games had been released for a little while – you could now purchase the boxed set of the series. I wasn’t sure I liked the concept – children killing each other in a reality show- but many readers I knew were recommending the series to me. That was his Santa delivered reading material. The books sat beside his bed (like they do every year until I move them to the bookcase) then one morning I hadn’t seen him surface which was unusual. Upon investigation, there he was immersed in the Hunger Games. The next two books followed in quick succession. Cured? Probably not, but at least he has experienced the rewards reading fiction can bring and fortunately he has adopted a more literate approach to his final year at school, quite possibly due to the intervention of ‘The Hunger Games’.
I have just been speaking to mum on the phone about a boy she works with at school. She wanted some advice on a situation that occurred with him last week at school. My Mum is an integration aide (or an ESO in the new language) and is currently working in a grade 4/5 class. She described the situation to me and it turns out it was a scenario that is no doubt played out in schools every day around the globe: A boy has been asked to write on a specific topic, he wants to write about something else, he is told he must write on the chosen topic and in the end he cracks it with the world and ends up writing next to nothing for the entire lesson. Does this scene sound familiar to you?
When Mum finished describing the scene I asked her to ponder the original aim of the lesson. Was the intention of the lesson to teach the child to follow instructions or was it to help him improve his writing? In the case of the lesson in question I would think that the aim was firstly to get the students writing (as it is only 2 weeks in to the school year) and secondly to then use this writing as a basis for improvement. The fact that the boy lost his temper and ended up writing very little not only means that the lesson intention was not met, but that the precedent for the tone of future writing lessons has now been set in this boy’s mind. To help Mum with her dilemma I read the following excerpt to her from Ralph Fletcher’s Book ‘Boy Writers: Reclaiming their Voices’ (p45)
“Boys crave choice when they write. I surveyed nearly five hundred boys, trying to unearth their attitudes and experiences about writing, both in and out of school. At the end of the survey I asked them to complete this sentence: “When we write in school I wish we were allowed to…” The overwhelming response to this question was a plea for more choice.
- Create our own topic.
- Write whatever we want.
Here’s a radical idea: let’s bring choice back to the writing classroom. Just let them write. I don’t know a better first step to create an environment that will engage our boy writers.”
I love this paragraph as it really makes us wonder why on earth we don’t let students (and boys in particular) choose what they want to write. It is so obvious! Kids love sharing their oral stories with others- just think of the buzzing atmosphere on a Monday morning as the students excitedly share their stories from the weekend (or the even more excited atmosphere after the holidays). Why is it then that when we get to the writing lesson that we only let them write about topics we have chosen for them? It makes sense to let students select their own topics as it means they will be automatically engaged with the topic, a situation in which quality and quantity can only be winners!
This situation is another mark on the board for why teachers should introduce a Writer’s Notebook to their students. If students spend the first few weeks of the school year writing about things that are important to them in their Writer’s Notebook not only will they have a collection of ‘starting points’ for further mandatory genre studies lessons (aka NAPLAN preparation lessons), they will develop a positive attitude towards writing itself and, in an environment where attitude determines altitude, the value of this can never be underestimated.