Monday, September 20, 2010

Speak Loudly

Those of us involved with books - especially children's books hear of banned books a lot - the controversy is nothing new.  Yet, I managed to be surprised almost every time it happens.

First it was Sherman Alexie's Diary of a Part-time Indian.

Now it's one of my favorite books of all time. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.  (Read Laurie's fantastic response HERE.)

I first read Speak a few years ago.  I was teaching high school English in San Diego.  During my second period class, I had 30 students - 28 of which were very open about telling me they 1. Hated Reading and 2. Hadn't Read Anything Since Goosebumps.

We had a rather strict curriculum and students were supposed to read The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Catcher in the Rye. In that order. Over the span of 18 weeks. With the exception of The Scarlet Letter, I love all these books (and even Scarlet Letter has merit, it just wasn't ever for me).  But in a class of kids who rolled their eyes at me, I knew it was looking to be a tough year.

I took a chance and brought in a manage of the local Barnes and Noble and asked her to bring a slew of books that were popular for teens.  She discussed them, read a few excerpts, passed them around.  I bought a copy of each one and set up an alternate assignment, an independent reading assignment, where students could replace one low test or essay grade with a higher score based upon a book of their choice (subject to approval).

That was the year I got into YA literature.  And so did those 28 kids who swore to me reading was a waste of time.

I saw Twilight spread like wildfire through the classroom and ultimately the school.  I witnessed students discussing Looking for Alaska without a teacher prompting them to do so.  Students who would have told me poetry was evil and something they couldn't possibly ever understand read Crank and asked me if I could pre-order the next Ellen Hopkins' book.

They still weren't all that stoked about the books they had to read for class (and I don't doubt that many of them didn't read most of those assigned chapters).  But they were excited about reading.  And they read something.


Which is the point.

Weighing in on the newest appalling book banning article.  I can say I think Wesley Scroggins is a moron - one who most likely didn't even read Speak since he misinterpreted the book, and rape is a serious issue, something teens need to read and talk about.

But more than ever I want teens to read.  I want everyone to read.  I want people to love it the way I love it.  They don't have to become book hoarders like I am, but the power of the written word - I want them to experience that.

13 comments:

Melissa said...

What I loathe about Mr. Scroggins is that he uses the platform of Christianity to condemn books that make a statement and that teens actually want to read. I don't think he realizes that by telling teens not to read them, even more will, and that comforts me a lot.

Jacci said...

I worked very hard encouraging high school students to enjoy reading; I work very hard now encouraging adults in drug rehab (which is where I work now) to enjoy reading. You are never too young or too old to to be taught the joys of sinking yourself into another world.

Emilia Plater said...

Awesome post! "2. Hadn't Read Anything Since Goosebumps." I know so many kids like this, and it's just like... whaat? haha. Omg, I would have loved to have you as my English teacher. But not really, because then you wouldn't be agenting and that would suuck! ;D

Jessica Lei said...

"The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Catcher in the Rye."

I remember all of those. I particularly had a hard time with Huck Finn. But don't these books address some really tough topics, just like SPEAK?

Some people have some really serious blinders on when they read books--and they wear these when deciding how they'll live their life. It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest this might be the reason the world is the way it is. Turning a cheek away from our society's problems isn't fixing anything.

Tere Kirkland said...

At least banning books does one good thing: motivates kids to search out these books and read them. I know that's what I did when I was a kid, only there weren't so many YA titles being banned back then.

Most kids have a built-in bull-sh^t meter that not even censorship can repress.

I haven't read speak or Alexie's book, but they are now on the top of my list for Banned Books Week.

Thanks!

lotusgirl said...

What a gift you've given those kids. You've helped change their reading habits for a lifetime. So many teachers are afraid to break out of the ruts of their curriculum. I wish more programs included more recent books. In middle school and high school is such an important time to help kids find out that they love reading. I had a hard time with books like The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick. If I hadn't already known that I loved to read, those would have totally turned me off to it.

Speak is a beautifully wrought work and deals with something that girls especially need to understand.

This is too hilarious. My word verification is "crank." Do do do do...twilight zone.

Michelle said...

That's so awesome! I think that many people who say they dislike reading just haven't found a book that speaks to them. I think it's amazing what you did for those kids. :)

April (BooksandWine) said...

Suzie, I loved this post! Thank you for sharing your story about getting your students into YA. They were quite lucky to have you as a teacher.

Knowledge is a powerful antidote to book banners.

suzie townsend said...

Jessica,

Yes and despite my dislike of Scarlet Letter, they're all classic books that I think should be read. But I have to admit I had much more appreciation for Huck Finn when I read as a teacher than as a student. As a student, it was long and I didn't get half of it, and I was always rushing to try to get all my homework done on time, so half the time I ended up skimming and using the cliff notes or friend who probably read something method. And I liked to read.

In a class of juniors who didn't read, I found that most kids used the cliff notes or a friend to probably read method rather than reading the book at all. In which case, I'd rather them read something - no matter what it is.

Abby Minard said...

It saddens me that this man lives in my town, and is talking about the school district my daughter goes to. I feel a certain sense of responsibility because I live in the same town. All I can do is fight this, and hope to overturn the ban on Slaughterhouse Five. Twenty Boy Summer is currently on review, and Speak has been saved for the time being.

Kara Mustafa said...

I rented CRANK on audio book from the library for my adolescent lit class. Since the syllabus says "your choice must be appropriate for a secondary classroom," I had to run it by my professor. When I told her CRANK had been banned in many school districts, she smiled and told me to use it, saying "that's usually a good sign."

Nikki said...

Suzie - this guy makes me crazy. Also, he creeps me out.Let's hope he goes away soon, and that the attention his messed up opinions has garnered will help more teens find these books - books so many of them will love, and will learn from.

I love the image of you turning on that class full of kids to books - it's how I think of you. You love books so much, and I can just see a bunch of reluctant readers thinking "Well, if Ms. Suzie thinks we'd like it, I guess we might."
Keep fighting the good fight. *hugs*

Dee Marie said...

I’m always surprised when I hear the statement that teens don’t read. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been on the Goodreads.com community far too long. One of my favorite groups is filled with teens that not only love to read, but more importantly, they love to write. I am constantly in awe of their imaginative stories, and have dubbed them the “Young Prose Society.”

The exciting part about their writing is that no subject is off limits. They write about eating disorders, cutting, homosexuality, child abuse, bullying and all the heartaches (and joys) of just being a teen.

Thank you so much Suzie for finding innovative ways to encourage your students to read. For every great novelist is also an avid reader. Who knows, perhaps one of your students will be the author of the next great American novel.

Dee Marie
Author of the "Sons of Avalon" saga

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Five Random Things About Suzie

1. I drink so much orange soda, it's probably running through my veins. I've been known to go through a twelve pack of diet sunkist in a day.

2. I'm legitimately nocturnal (or a vampire). I will be so exhausted at two pm that I'm falling asleep standing up - it has happened before, at Six Flags no less - but as soon as the sun goes down I'm wide awake.

3. I have a gorgeous unused $6000 Reem Acra wedding dress hanging in my closet, and it showed up on my doorstep the same day my (now ex) fiance broke up with me. And thank God for that. I wouldn't have wanted to waste that dress on him.

4. Social anxiety plagues me daily. I write a script and practice in front of the mirror when I have to make a phone call, but most people who interact with me have no idea how nervous I am (or perhaps they lie) because I've worked so hard to try to overcome it.

5. I'm actually worried that I will never love my children (when I do have them in the far off future) as much as I love my dogs. I just like animals better than people - they're sweet and innocent and soft and furry - is that so wrong?