I love to read. As a middle school language arts teacher, part of my job is to teach reading — not just the mechanics and strategies. I try to inspire children to be lifelong readers.
Most middle schoolers don't like to read. Most people don't like to read. Or they think they don't. There are statistics about that, but as Mark Twain believed, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."
The key is to get the right book into the right hands. As much as I love Hemingway, Cather, Faulkner, Twain and Hawthorne, those aren't the only passages to literature. The older they get, the more students will be exposed to the canon.
At a bookstore where I worked for a few years around the turn of the century, the most common questions were: Where is the new Oprah book? That diet book? The trendy book about making money? Can you find me that new self-help book? (The last being the most oxymoronic question you could ask.)
I don't recall people asking for Shakespeare. Those readers knew their way around a bookstore.
As the students get older, they are tested for more nonfiction on the FCAT. I address that extensively, but if I help them to read and write, the test takes care of itself. Address the test, don't obsess the test.
My love of reading spawned from my family. My parents loved to read, which spread to my siblings, which spread to me. My mother and sister read to me. I devoured my older brother's 23-volume Chip Hilton sports series many times over.
But it shouldn't just come from home.
Mrs. Osborne, my fourth-grade teacher, catapulted my love of literature by reading aloud to me — and, I suppose, to the rest of the class. It was her choice of titles that helped. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Born Free, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Island of the Blue Dolphins. It has been more than 40 years and I still remember.
Not that there aren't voracious young readers. There are. With the help of series like Harry Potter, Twilight and Eragon, there are legions of young readers. Still, I have a plethora of students who come to me each year never finishing a book. I change that.
Besides many short stories and poetry, I mix up the novels every year, but there are a few, like The Outsiders, that are guaranteed winners.
One illusion that I entered teaching with, among many, was that I would be able to assign a book and they would read it at home. Doesn't happen. If I want to be sure they have really read the book, we have to do so in class. Aloud.
That doesn't mean I don't give homework. I assign short, nightly reading and four independent book reports on books of their choice. I understand that some won't do that. However, if they do, they read a minimum of eight books each school year.
I'm a bibliophile. I collect books. My classroom has 11 bookcases. This, with our school library, helps me put the right book in the right hand. A sports book in the jock's hand, a sci-fi book for another, an S.E. Hinton book for the reluctant reader. The week that "angst" is one of our vocabulary words, I slip Catcher in the Rye into the hands of the one student who is ready.
The hardest part is to get them into the book. Everything moves so fast today. If you don't grab their interest right away, the students are ready to give up.
One day, I think I know how to answer "this story is boring" after they have read only 10 pages. I show them a corner of a painting. I show them another corner. "I don't see anything," they say. I then try the analogy: Sometimes you have to have the patience to read the whole book to judge whether you like it.
And they still don't get it. I look at the floor. I expose the whole painting. I almost start over again. I stop. I see the hand. I nod. I listen.
"Mr. Bastable, some of us are just going to see some stupid, ugly flowers and some of us are going to see a van Gogh, and it doesn't matter how much of it we see. Just keep showing us the flowers and maybe we'll like them."
I smile and say, "Stay gold, Ponyboy."
George Bastable is chairman of the language arts department at Charles S. Rushe Middle School in Land O'Lakes.