Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Making People Read Books

Being a teacher has its perks. Occasionally (when it works with what we're studying), I can assign an amazing text to my students and just watch what happens. Case in point: the excerpt we're reading now from Dave Cullen's Columbine.

When I read it almost two years ago, I read it one sitting. All four hundred pages. I couldn't even put it down to go to sleep, it was so compelling. It is written so well, too, that despite the difficult subject matter, it's one of the most readable things I've ever come across. (And you probably all know this already, because if you know me in real life, I've already made you read it.)

This year I'm teaching 11th grade. American Literature. I knew I wanted to incorporate more creative nonfiction into the curriculum; in the last five years there has been a heavy emphasis on bringing more nonfiction into the classroom, but my kids see primarily informational texts. Until now there has been less emphasis on the craft of nonfiction, unless we're talking about rhetorical strategies. That has value, absolutely. But I think many kids graduate without ever seeing nonfiction that's beautiful or haunting. (Which is too bad, right? Real stories make up a significant portion of the market, and I think for some of my kids, reading great nonfiction in school could be what gets them hooked on reading. Or at least a little book-curious.) This year I set a goal to bring them more  of memoir, the personal essay, and literary journalism.

It's been fun to choose texts for a creative nonfiction unit, drawing from works I studied at UCR.

This week we're reading a bit of Columbine. We've been talking about truth. About the space in the Venn Diagram that fiction shares with nonfiction. About the different obligations and motivations that writers have to represent truth on the page. About different situations and the kind of truth they require. About why and how a writer might tell a true story.

So yesterday we started looking at Columbine, and they're hooked. I've had two of the best days with my kids. They're engaged and awake in a way I haven't seen all year. It's the kind of learning that doesn't feel like learning, and the kind of teaching that doesn't feel like work.

Yesterday as I was starting class, one kid asked me what he missed the day before when he was out.

Before I could answer, another girl in the class said "We read a really good chapter of a really good book."

Multiple kids asked if this book is in the school library so they can read the whole thing.

It just doesn't get any better than that.

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