Sunday, April 20, 2008

Where have all my good books gone?

A couple of days ago, I heard the most magical words I've heard as an English teacher: "Can you recommend a book for me to read?"

It was after school when three girls walked in my room. I looked at the one asking the question. "I thought you hated reading," I said.

"I don't!" she said. "I mean, I used to. But I just want to read something for fun."

I walked over to one of my classroom bookcases, thinking about how hard it is to get kids to enjoy reading. But it's possible.

A few years back, I attended a presentation on brain theory and how it relates to teaching. One of the points made really stood out: If you want your child to do something, you must do it. When it comes to eating, if your child sees you eating healthy things, he or she will do so, too. When it comes to reading, if your child sees you reading for pleasure, he or she will do so, too. That's because, for the most part, children want to imitate their parents.

This idea was reinforced in the book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dunbar. In one of the chapters, the authors explore the question of what it means to be a good parent. They ask something like this:

Which children will score higher on standardized tests?
  • The ones whose parents constantly read to them? or
  • The ones whose parents constantly read?
According to the data in the book, the second choice is correct. The reason is the same as described above, children do what their parents do. But there's more to it: Parents who read are probably educated themselves, so they will value education and pass that on to their children.

At least that's what I think I read in Freakonomics. I can't check because I don't know where my copy of the book is. As with just about every good book I've read in the past several years, my copy has walked off, never to return.

The thing is, I constantly lend out books. And I never remember to whom. So, if you've ever borrowed a book from me (or money or whatever), chances are I've already forgotten about it. And I don't mind so much with books. Chances are I won't read them again, so hopefully those who've borrowed them will read them and then pass them on to others to read.

In fact, I've tried to apply what I've learned about reading to my teaching. And I think it works.

My students usually don't want to read the novels I assign. But if they see me reading something, they want to read it too.

Here's what happens: I leave a book on my desk. Eventually a student will ask about it. I'll say something like, "Oh yeah, I just read this. It was amazing." Then I quickly describe it. Nine times out of ten, the student will ask to borrow it.

Or: At the start of class, I read a passage from a novel. Then I'll ask, "Isn't that amazing?" And someone will ask to borrow it, and I'll say, "No way, I'm not done yet." Weeks later, someone will ask, "You done with that book yet?"

So, children want to read because their parents read. But I think it's equally important that children see their teachers reading. And they'll want to read. Not because they have to.

Another way to do it is the old-fashioned way. Force them to read something good, and maybe they'll want to read more on their own.

When the girl last week asked for a recommendation, she had a requirement: "I want something that's like The House of the Spirits."

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, is a sprawling novel about several generations of a Latin American family that comes with this money-back-guarantee from me (at least this is what I tell my students): "If you actually read this book all the way through, you will fall in love with it."

So this girl, a self-proclaimed non-reader at the beginning of the school year, did finish it. And loved it. Says it's the best book ever. And won't read anything else unless it's as good.

And so I went over to a bookcase to find something for her to read. And I wondered, where have all my good books gone?

I did find a couple of good selections, read the first couple of sentences from each, and she finally settled on Life of Pi, by Yaan Martel. As she walked off with it, I thought, "I better write this down or I'll never see that book again." Of course I didn't. And I probably won't. But that's OK.


Anonymous said...

I love both books, but I don't think Life of Pi is similar to House of the Spirits. Maybe One Hundred Years of Solitude would be a good choice.

-Chicago reader

Anonymous said...

For the record, I do have one of your books but it's not Freakeconomics.

I've listened to Made To Stick on audio and liked it so much I bought the book too. I think you'd really dig it and could use a lot of it in your writing activities.

-Mr. Christian

appopt said...

thanks, mr. c.

and let's not forget that I still have one of your books ...