Why Can’t We Read Things Like This for Class?



By Constantine Singer

Constantine Singer is a graduate of Earlham College and Seattle University. He is in his 21st year as a teacher, the last 10 at Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy. Earlier this year Green Dot teacher and author, Singer, reflected on his experiences using culturally relevant text to cultivate a love of reading in students. His debut novel, Strange Days, is available from Putnam/Penguin Teen.

I didn’t come to Green Dot as a regular classroom teacher. I was hired at Locke ten years ago to be part of the Credit Recovery program, which is for students who were off track and beyond their graduation date. It was a challenging assignment and not what I imagined for myself, but it’s something I’ve come to love.

My students are the ones who struggle the most in school. They are often far behind in credits and their skills are often very low. Many of them are seniors (or older) who have never written an essay or completely read a book.

Good days for me were ones when a student picked up a book they’d been eyeing. Great days were when they came in later, on their own time, to talk about what they read.

That’s hard for me because I love books. I read, teach, and write them. When I took the job, I inherited several bookshelves of Young Adult literature which sat, ignored, in the storage area behind my room. One of the first things I did was move them out into the open and then add parts of my own library into the mix.

Back when I taught English and history, my classroom was filled with books. I figured that every time a student’s attention wandered, it would land on a book on a shelf – one with an eye-catching binding or one with a title that piqued curiosity. Good days for me were ones when a student picked up a book they’d been eyeing. Great days were when they came in later, on their own time, to talk about what they read.

And, of course, even in the Credit Recovery classroom students still investigate the shelves. I try and share the books they look at and sometimes they take one home. There are a lot of books I never see again, but that’s more than made up for by the times when a student who hasn’t shown much interest in things before brings a book back and wants another.

They always ask: “Why can’t we read things like this for class?” When I taught English, I worked hard to have high-interest books, but I also wanted to make sure that my students were reading the good books with me – books that mattered. If I was going to teach the elements of story and literary criticism, I figured I should do it with the books the kids should have read anyway – there’s a lot to do in a year and double-dipping seems prudent.

Sometimes it worked– teaching allegory and symbolism to 9th graders through Lord of the Flies was brilliant fun. My students were always proud of themselves and I was always proud of them. But if the goal is to teach the standards, I’ve come to believe it makes a lot more sense to use books that kids want to read.

It was an epiphany for me. I could teach the essentials of allegory using Maus by Art Spiegelman, or Superman Comics which were written by Jewish immigrants about an immigrant who becomes the embodiment of American ideals and fights against self-seeking (Lex Luthor) and blind obedience (General Zod). Either would be more accessible than Lord of the Flies. I could teach the elements of narrative poetry with The Poet X or A Long Way Down more easily than I could with Pound or Eliot.

Let them learn on high interest stories which are easier to decode, then let them prove themselves by analyzing the same properties in a good book? I could teach with the fun books and test with the “good” ones.

When I wrote my own book, Strange Days, I was thinking a lot about this. I wanted it to be fun and accessible, but I also wanted it to be a useful teaching tool. As I’ve gotten to know a lot of other Young Adult authors, I’ve learned I’m not alone in that. Many of us write our books with an eye towards classroom use (and if you ask us, many of us will even donate a few books to your cause).

Last year, I convinced a friend to use it in her classroom to teach the Hero’s Journey and Freytag’s Pyramid in lieu of The Grapes of Wrath. Her school is a Title I school, which means that it serves a high need and vulnerable student population. The students would still read Grapes of Wrath, but it would be summative, not expositive. This year she’s doing it again, but with all her classes.

Why? Simply put, the results were better. Her students actually read the book and since they weren’t struggling with archaic meaning and lack of cultural context while they read it, and because they were into the characters and the story, they were able to focus on learning the structure which was the actual point.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be my book, or any book in particular – that’s the point. Almost any book can be a vehicle for learning about literature, not just the “good” ones.