Ed. note: Marni Spitz teaches U.S. History and Reading Lab at City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco. This is her first post for TEACHER VOICES.
There’s a lot that can be said about today’s teenagers. Yes, they love selfies. True, they really want more followers on Instagram. And I know, What’s with keeping stickers on their hats and texting in three-letter abbreviations?
Most of what we read and hear about today’s teenagers (we being the non-teenagers, and dare I say, “adult” members of the population) has very little to do with their love of reading. Some might argue that this is because kids these days just aren’t reading as much. With so much technology and so many distractions, young adult readers just aren’t what they used to be.
Yet as someone who has the distinct privilege of working with teenagers every day, I feel a responsibility to tell a story that highlights just the opposite. Teenagers ARE reading. And guess what? They’re actually loving it too! Although our world has changed quite remarkably, the power of a good book has not.
I’d like to tell you about a student, who like other teenagers loved selfies, Instagram, and kept stickers on his hat. Let’s call him Alex. This past school year was Alex’s second time in the ninth grade, and his second year in my class (lucky him!) :). Alex failed every single one of his classes the previous year. Alex was charming and popular, and clearly very bright. Yet here he was again, not doing a darn thing in my class, and completely fine with that.
Although an Independent Reading Program was, is, and always will be a cornerstone of my class, Alex had not finished one book in the 12 months he had sat in my classroom. In fact, Alex had never finished a book in his entire life. His reading level was at an 8.6 grade level, making him one of the better readers in the ninth grade. So how was it that a strong reader like Alex wasn’t finishing a book?
I would give Alex a book, which he would take, leave in class, and never take home. Little progress would be made on the book despite 15 minutes of Sustained Silent Reading every day, and eventually, I got sick of it. Alex was failing the ninth grade again, and on top of that, he wasn’t reading, AGAIN. As his teacher and advisor, I felt hopeless. I of course didn’t want to give up on Alex, but I had run out of options. I had conferenced with him countless times, given him countless book recommendations, given incentives (pizza party if you finish your book!), but up until about February, nothing seemed to work.
Alex remained respectful and charming but insisted that he just didn’t like reading. That is, until everything changed. EVERYTHING. I like to think that it was book destiny that landed a copy of Tears of a Tiger in my classroom library that fateful February day. A book like that was guaranteed to always be checked out. But…a student had just finished it, and like the students before her, she was raving about it and begging for the sequel. I told her to tell Alex how awesome it was (which she did), and then I figured I’d give one last teacher attempt to convince Alex to check out this book and challenge him to finish it by June. (Squeaky wheel gets the grease, right?) By this time of the year, we were doing a grade-wide competition to see which advisory could read the most books. I told Alex that our entire advisory was counting on him to finish his book. He smiled and said, “Okay, Ms. Spitz, I got you,” and when he walked away with it that first day, I sensed something was different.
The next day during SSR, I gave Alex his book and he READ IT. HE READ IT THE ENTIRE FIFTEEN MINUTES. Usually, Alex requested to leave his book with me at the end of class because he insisted that he would never read it at home and thus feared it would be lost. That first day, however, Alex asked if he could take his book with him! Excuse me?? You want to read MORE OF IT?!
As the days went on, I noticed that Alex was moving through his book at an incredible pace, and I made sure the rest of our class knew it. Alex reveled in this public praise, and within six weeks, he had finished his book. He FINISHED HIS BOOK. This was a big deal. Arguably, the biggest deal ever. The entire class cheered, and clapped, and laughed, and chanted “Alex” when he turned to that last page. I truly wish everyone in the world could have been in my classroom that day because it really did make you feel so grateful to be a person.
I had promised Alex that if he finished his book, I would make him a cake. He must’ve thought I was kidding, because when I came to school the day after he finished with a personalized cake (with images of his book cover toothpicked into the center), you would’ve thought I was giving him a check for a billion dollars.
Here’s Alex with his cake:
The entire advisory cheered for our new reader and the crowd went exceptionally wild when Alex got to place his “book post-it” on our advisory’s Finished Books Thermometer.
We cut the cake together as a class, and Alex shared why he liked his book so much. When asked why today was a big day, Alex replied: “I finished a book. I’ve never done that before.” When asked why he finished that specific book, he replied: “I like reading now.” In the middle of his second piece of cake, he asked for the sequel. A reader had been born in front of my very eyes. I’ve seen some pretty amazing things in my life, but this, dare I say, takes the (reading) cake. 🙂
Here’s a quick video of the celebration:
After this reading celebration, I noticed that Alex was making waves in his classes as well. His grades were improving, he was turning in homework, completing projects, and before long, was passing all of his classes (and even getting some Bs). He was emailing teachers for help, staying during lunch for tutoring, and in the midst of all this, Alex was READING.
That one book changed everything for Alex. At one point, the school was considering alternative options for Alex because it seemed he would fail the ninth grade for the second time. However, by the time June rolled around, Alex had not only passed all of his classes, he saw himself as a reader. He asked me what books he should read over the summer. He wrote me a letter explaining how finishing a book made him believe in himself and enjoy school more. He is now entering the tenth grade more motivated than ever, and while he loves his selfies, his Instagram, and his stickers on his hats, he is a reader. While I have countless copies of Tears of a Tiger, in thinking about Alex, I also have countless copies of tears of a teacher. 🙂