Teaching English Literature is the best and hardest job I think I’ve ever had. There are so many reasons behind that statement but the biggest one is students just don’t read for fun anymore.
I don’t think reading has ever been cool. It wasn’t cool when I was young.
However, now it seems as if reading has become something teens deem impossible. I’m met with comments such as, “I’ve never read a book,” or “I don’t know how to read this,” or even “We have no books in my house. My parents never read.”
This blows my mind.
My love for reading easily came from my dad. Instead of taking us to the movies or to various activities on the weekend, we went to the bookstore. Upon entering, the entire family spread out in various sections.
You’d find my brothers in the children’s section playing with the toy trains and with other children. My dad would find the latest mystery novel by Anne Perry and place himself in an armchair for at least two hours. He always bought the book because he’d read so much by then it would be stealing if he didn’t.
I would stroll the middle grade and YA aisles. I loved that often these weren’t busy aisles in the evenings and I could sit on the floor undisturbed. I created giant piles of books I intended to read, holding them as if they were treasures. I’d sometimes even imagine myself on the cover.
My 11-year-old self loved romances. “Blood and Chocolate” by Annette Curtis Klause, a werewolf romance no less, was loved so much that my copy began to fall apart.
I later read it as an adult and it just wasn’t the same. I loved it, but something was different. Maybe it was a better understanding of romance and good writing but I digress.
It has been my mission to show my students that reading isn’t just classics they don’t understand and stories they can’t connect with. Reading in school can be fun.
My game plan, which has been rather successful so far, has been to pair each classic I teach with a recently published YA book. This does cause me to face a few challenges in regards to ensuring they’re appropriate for the age groups and my Christian school but my support admins and department chair have helped with that challenge.
I’ve paired “Fahrenheit 451” to a post apocalyptic “Orleans” by Sherri Smith.
I took Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and introduced students to the world of Faerie with Holly Black’s “The Cruel Prince,” and recently I’ve introduced my freshmen to poetry by way of Kwame Alexander’s “The Crossover.”
“The Crossover” tells the story of Josh Bell, nicknamed Filthy McNasty, and Jordan Bell, who are two young basketball players destined for greatness. The narrator Josh experiences some difficulties both on and off the court after he finds out his brother has a new girlfriend and his dad has health issues.
I knew this group would love the book because they loved sports but what I didn’t expect was ninth grade basketball star Corey to cling to this book with everything he had.
He memorized the poems, he brought a basketball to class and acted out the moves described in the poems, and most importantly, he begged to read the book.
He told me, “Mrs. Warren I’ve never loved a book. I love this book.”
During class when I read aloud to the students, Corey was all arms, tossing a pretend basketball in the air, finishing the lines that stood out to him most, and cheering as if he were standing right before the narrator on the court.
I emailed Kwame a few days after we started the book and told him all about Corey, who I fully believe will get a full basketball scholarship to a large university and continue his career.
I told him about Corey’s love for the book and ability to memorize the poems.
He wrote back, promising to send a signed copy and requested a video of Corey reciting one of the poems.
The next day in class, the students became a team. They prepared Corey for his debut. They checked his uniform, snagged a basketball from the gym, wrote the poem on the board so he could practice without stumbling over lines, and coached him on how to recite the section.
As we recorded, another basketball player tossed Corey the ball where he dribbled between his legs, tossed it back, and recited Ode to my Hair.
“If my hair were a tree/I’d climb it./ I’d kneel down beneath/and enshrine it/I’d treat it like gold/then mine it…” in this section Josh is asked to bet on a game and if he loses he has to cut his locks, which he is rather fond of.
Corey recited perfectly. After the recording the kids cheered and told him he did a great job. They watched and rewatched the video to ensure perfection before we sent it on. They then settled back down and once again begged to read more of the book.
I love this challenge. I love that they think they hate to read. I love they’ve never read a book. I love to be the one to make all of those thoughts and ideas change. I love them.
As teachers, it’s so important to stay current on the books that are available to our students — not only know what’s out there but also read what’s out there.
They want to talk about it, they want to gossip and celebrate with these characters as if they are friends and it’s our jobs to find those characters for them.
For some of us, it’s our job to write those characters for them.
So as we prepare for exams, state testing, and the end of the year…as we burn out and count down the days to summer, I’m clinging to Corey and The Crossover.
Because I can close my eyes and hear him recite poetry.
Let me repeat, I can hear a ninth grade boy, recite poetry not because he was required to but because he loved it.
For more information about any of these fabulous books mentioned, I highly recommend my favorite local bibliophile Ms. Virginia O’Neal, who can be found in her bookstore on Cotton Row.
Courtney Warren is a contributing writer with The Bolivar Commercial. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org