Sunday, March 23, 2014

let there be darkness...and light.

I couldn't sleep last night. I was thinking about something I read. It made me worried for my kids...the ones who stumble into my classroom every year.
 
"I hate reading," they tell me.

Why?

"Because it's boring."

They've already marched through the trenches of high-school. The Scantron, bubble-in-the-blank tests. The formula for "student success," as measured by a Rubric. Their brains are trained to ask, "How many paragraphs?" when I assign an essay. "Until it's done," is my usual response.

I teach at an art college. My kids are visual thinkers. They want to be fashion designers and graphic artists when they grow up. Many are already "grown up." They've returned to school to chase their dreams. Teaching often feels like picking up the pieces on a battlefield. My solution? We read. And write. A lot.

Every year, I've picked stories from YA anthologies. Here's what happened this time around.

The story: Halfway by Coe Booth

Student reaction: "This story is my life." Or: "Something like this happened to my friend." And when a reader connects to a story, they always pass it on. After class this week, a student told me, "I want my boyfriend to read this. His dad just got out jail...again."

My reaction: YA saves.

The story: The Alumni Interview by David Levithan

Student reaction: "Thank you." That's what I hear, every single time. "I didn't know that anybody wrote about gay teenagers," someone usually tells me. Then they ask for more. And I'll never forget: during one class, a girl stood up from her desk and clapped.

My reaction: YA saves.

The story: The Wrath of Dawn by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith

Student reaction: "I used to hate reading. This story was fun and now I want to read again." And: "I could totally relate to this story. It reminds me of my crazy family." A student recently told me: "I took this home and read it with my daughter."

My reaction: YA saves.

The story: Filthadelphia by Brian James

Student reaction: Silence...at first. The class was totally engrossed in the story. At the end of class, the last student turned in an essay that blew my mind. It compared the main character to a slew of heroes from comic books and mythology. I told him, "You have a talent for literary analysis."

He blinked. "Well, you achieved the impossible. You got me to write an essay."

This brilliant student also mentioned that he "hated English class" in high-school. Here's why. A teacher told the class to write an autobiographical event. The brilliant student wrote about an adventure in his dream. The teacher gave him an F on the assignment and told him to do it over...the right way.

My reaction: There is no "right way" to connect students with words on paper. But there's more than one way. Reading can save your life. What happens if the gatekeepers take these "dark" books away? Who are they protecting from the darkness? If they read the essays in my classes, they would know the truth. Kids are facing the darkness every day.

During a memory exercise in creative writing, a student told me, "I have trouble remembering things." Why? Because he is a soldier dealing with post traumatic stress disorder.

 I said, "You don't have to write about it."

He said, "I want to. It's really helping me."

I knew exactly what he meant.

In composition class, a student wrote an essay about her abusive stepfather. When I read her work (anonymously) to the class, I wondered how they would respond. Several girls raised their hands and said, "I've been through the same thing. I know where she's coming from."

"I'm glad that I wrote about it," the student told me after class. "It's like...I've been carrying it around for so long. Writing was like a release, you know?"

I do know.

After writing my first book, Total Constant Order , I received lots of emails from readers, telling me about their struggles with OCD. I visited high schools and talked to kids and listened to their stories.

"There are certain books," a librarian told me. "They get stolen and I have to keep replacing them. I think it's because kids relate to them. You know the books I'm talking about."

Let there be a light in the darkness. We need it now, more than ever. Because there are so many living in the dark.

Don't take those books away.

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This post was originally composed on my blog. Updated for YA Outside The Lines.

4 comments:

  1. I love this so much. Kudos for being such a fantastic teacher.

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  2. I love this post. It sounds like you're a great teacher, and we definitely need more teachers like you. I'm a teacher too, and it always worries me when some students seem more interested in reading Facebook updates than novels and short stories. It always makes my day when they get excited about the stories I assign them to read, and it's great when they talk about the characters as if they're real people.

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  3. Writing and reading is all about connection, and you're getting your students to do that. That's awesome! Too many students thinking they're awful at reading or writing just because they do it differently. Thank you for letting them see that different is wonderful.

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