It's incredible when the light bulb does turn on in students' heads--sometimes it happens to an entire class--and they start really responding to some work of literature. This happened last year. (Step into my memory ...) My eighth period English IV class, full of slackers and auto shop boys and recent immigrants, takes one look at The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and declare that they'll never read it.
"Trust me," I remember saying, "you'll love it."
"That's what you said about Like Water for Chocolate!" someone says.
"What? You didn't like that one? Well, this one's different."
I then say two things to try to get the kids interested:
- Something really horrible happens to one of the boys in the book. It's one of the most horrible things that can ever happen.
- Parts of this book, well, made me cry. Here's what I tell them: "I was reading this book on vacation. I remember being on a plane, heading back from Ireland, when I got to a certain passage. It's not even a major event in the book, but it really touched me. And then I felt something trickling down my face, towards my chin. It was a tear! I realized I was crying. So I lifted the book"--I hold an open book in front of my face to show what I did on that plane--"so that no one could see me. After a minute I slowly lowered the book and peered over to see if anyone had noticed me crying. Luckily, everyone else on the plane was asleep. So I was free to cry. Ladies and gents, that's the kind of book this is."
During the next couple of weeks, I find myself interrupted by my eighth period kids at weird moments during the school day. Between third and fourth, for example, a head pops in and shouts, "Ooh, I hate that motherfucker!" It takes me a moment to realize she's talking about one of the characters. Before school, a student stops by to ask if this is a true story.
If there is a teacher heaven, this is it. Students engaged. Into it. But if teacher heaven exists, so must teacher hell. On the day the entire novel must be complete, the kids come into class, with very little enthusiasm. Damn, I think, none of them finished. How's that possible? They were loving it. They were devouring it. Maybe they just didn't want it to end ...
"That was the worst ending of a novel ever," one kid declares.
"Yeah," someone else says, "there's no ending. We don't know what happened!"
"Is there another chapter? Part two to the book?" a third voice wants to know.
"Hang on," I say. "You read? You all actually finished? And you didn't like the ending? I thought it was an amazing ending." I'm in heaven again. They read. They were engaged with the story and the characters. And now they have actual criticism. Yes, I'm in heaven, but they're in hell, so I have to come up with something fast. Forget the lesson plan.
"OK, fine, let's say it's a rotten ending," I say. "Let's make it better. Your assignment is to write the next chapter. How do you think it should end? Any questions? No? OK, it's due tomorrow. Go!"
And so they start writing. Silence in the classroom, 25 18-year-old, self-proclaimed nonreaders creating something for others to read. One question does come up a couple of times, and I know I have a hit on my hands: "How long can it be?" NOT how long does it have to be? I tell them to keep writing until the book is finished.
The next day they show up with their work, some with several pages. They're excited. They want to share, to read their chapter out loud. So I let them. Some go all over the place, with characters showing up at our school and turning to gangs and drugs, but everyone listens, laughs at the right moments, and applauds at the endings.
(INTERRUPTION--As I'm writing this, I realize what many of you are thinking: there's no way this happened exactly as I'm describing it. And you're right. Sure, there were kids that didn't read the book. There were those that didn't do the assignment. Or did it poorly. Or slept while others read. But lay off, OK? This is my memory, and this is what I choose to remember.)
There was one student that really stood out: A recent immigrant from Nepal, a very small and fragile-looking boy, who was quite smart but too shy and too intimidated by the others to talk much in class. After class he sometimes stuck around and we had some amazing discussions, me knowing very little about his country and him being very homesick. Somehow the class got him to read his final chapter out loud. It was long. His accent made him difficult to understand at times. But when he finished, the class literally gave him a standing ovation.
"Now," someone declared, "the book is complete."
If you've read the novel, you know how it ends. If you haven't, you should for two reasons: 1. Something horrible happens to a boy, and 2. You can try to guess which part made me cry. Oh, and here's a possible third reason to read the book: I'm including the final chapter, as written by my student, in the comments below. It's not perfect, but it's good. Read his work, and tell me what you think.