Reading Books: An Introduction
Danielle Heyman Feist

efore beginning a brand-new novel, it occurred to me that some of my seniors hadn't completed a novel in their entire lives. (I have heard students mutter this under their breath.) On the other hand, I had some acid-closet readers in my twelfth grade English class as well. With such a mix, I hoped to use the READERS as a tool to persuade the sometimes-non-readers to consider this new novel. (Each student was assigned to choose a twentieth-century "world" novel.)

At the start of class, I handed out a list of quotations about reading:

"A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way." -Caroline Gordon, How to Read a Novel.

"I hope that...they did for you what any good story should do -- make you forget the real stuff weighing on your mind for a little while and take you away to a place you've never been" -Stephen King, Afterword to Different Seasons.

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." -J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye.

"It was like a novel so disgusting you just have to finish it." -Stephen King, Misery.

"I am a part of all that I have read." -John Kiernan.

Students freewrote in their personal journals. They could explain the quotation in their own words, agree or disagree, and react to one or more of the quotations. Before they wrote in their journals, I acknowledged aloud that some students in the class have NEVER ever completed a novel, and that they might write their journal with THAT AUDIENCE in mind. (I presented this with feigned shock and lots of humor, so that it didn't seem like I was insulting anyone.)

As the students volunteered to read that day's journal entries aloud, I spontaneously went to the board and made two lists: 1) What can books do? 2) Advice on how to read a novel. I listened nonjudgmentally and let the students share advice with each other. As the board filled up from one class, it occurred to me that I didn't want the next class copying their ideas. During my break between classes, I typed their answers into Powerpoint and erased the board to start fresh with the next class. In the next two classes, I typed their advice into Powerpoint as they read their journals aloud (without showing the previous class' answers until the very end).

The answers that surprised me were the ones where students sincerely believed books could take the reader away from her problems and immerse her in another land. (I wonder if the Caroline Gordon quotation inspired them to think this way.) I was also fascinated by the dynamics of the classroom: in every period, the pro-reading advice seemed to evolve into a sort of POSITIVE PEER PRESSURE. In other words, since almost 100% of the journal readers were focusing on how books can IMPROVE you, the class discussion became persuasive. The only anti-reading comments I can recall were ones saying that movies were more visually appealing and time-saving. Some students, in their advice, talked about study skills such as taking notes at the end of each chapter to avoid that feeling of "what in the world did I just read?" Many students discussed the elements of choice. If a book isn't working for you, STOP READING. Don't waste your time. Find a book that is appealing to YOU PERSONALLY. Talking about the idea that reading isn't only "mandatory" or "assigned," but that the reading process and the particular book are both CHOICES. This was the goal, to empower students to realize that their senior research papers would connect to their novels of CHOICE, and so their commitment and interest level was also a choice.

The advice that they gave each other was MUCH BETTER than I could have expected. Also, as we chose clip art to accompany certain pieces of advice, the class became committed to the Powerpoint presentation.

A day later, the English department chair popped into the classroom. Spontaneously, I asked the class if I could show him their Powerpoint presentation on books. They said YES. We added some John Coltrane jazz on the CD player, and I read it aloud as if it were amazing, profound poetry. They watched their show for the second time, excited to see their own comments and eager to hear his reaction.

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