If there are two things true about my class, it is that when students are here, I’m encouraging them to think around corners for what isn’t stated. If there is a third thing true about my class, it is that my students are readers. Voracious. Carnivorous, Herbivorous, Omnivorous, and other various-oruses. In the first half of our 2018-2019 school year, my students have read fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, horror, nonfiction biographies and memoirs, narrative poetry, and many other genres, almost any kind of writing glued into and bound between two covers. Some of the books they read have passed between so many hands that I or my teacher’s aides have been gluing or rebinding books all year, and others have been so new that students have been able to hear that delicate cracking of the spine that comes only on the first opening of a new book.
In total, it has been an extraordinary semester for reading, and in my four core English classes - three freshman, one junior - we have been taking data to find out just how good. The numbers are staggering, to put it mildly. But before we get to that, I would like to point to what my students think you should be reading.
On the last instructional day of the semester, my students had some brief conversations about what they’ve read and what they would recommend. The product of these discussions is included in the accompanying gallery. I encourage you to explore the list (clicking through will take you to Amazon, if you want a copy).
What I notice about this list is how broad the variety of recommendations are and, in other ways, how narrow.
My students are clearly engaged with a full-on love affair with villainous characters and villainous settings. More than a third of these are novels following characters who are antagonists in their worlds, killers and potential killers, and an additional third place their characters in dystopian settings and situations.
There is also a clear interest in novels whose characters with whom my readers can develop extended relationships; a significant majority of these novels are those whose stories continue into a larger series. This is likely a result of demographics - young adult fiction is regularly extended into sequels - but likely speaks to a developing comfort that comes with returning to characters, worlds and stories that reward students at length for investing in that first novel.
Still, these recommendations include stories with challenging content and situations, some fanciful (Rant) or dire (A Clockwork Orange), but others grounded in honest experience (Purged: Rehab Diaries). And, most surprising to me, there is room for literary fiction like Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which is not only the second most recommended book, but the most borrowed book from my library.
These 21 books are the distilled recommendations of my students, and I’m pleased to see how much they are stretching their legs (or their fingertips) in the exploration of literature. But to really get a feel for the breadth of their reading, it is necessary to look at the data itself.
Reading by the Numbers
I said my students turned pages. How many? 142,671 pages. Since August 13th. That’s four months. I’m astounded.
For context, I have my students keep this data every year, and last year, when my four core classes (two freshman, two juniors) totalled up the entire year’s reading, it amounted to 197k. My students this year are on track to blow past what I thought was an unprecedented, untouchable number, and they’ll do it months before the school year ends. I am beside myself with respect for the dedication and passion with which my students are finding and exploring books.
And, to be perfectly honest - and braggadocious - I am proud that I’ve played a role in that. Certainly my coursework has played a part; students are required to be reading regularly any book of their own choosing, regularly recording their progress and trying to read at what I believe is a good recreational reading pace for a mature reader, about one book every month. Students are also encouraged to read with partners or small groups, and for doing so they receive extra credit - just this week I witnessed a group of students, each with their own copy of the same book, reading together out loud. THIS WAS NOT AN ASSIGNMENT!
But more than anything, what has got these students turning pages isn’t an assignment, but the availability of books and the opportunity to page through them. My classroom library now contains more than 1,400 books from more than 800 authors, and students are making regular use of my library. Already, these four classes have borrowed more than 300 books from me this year (370+ if you include Creative Writing and AP Lit students!).
Last year, a total of 483 books were borrowed from my library, the greatest utilization I have seen since I started my library four years ago. Here again my students are on track to overtake - by a wide margin! - the performance of previous years’ readers.
Not only are my students borrowing books from me, but they are using their own home libraries as well. All told, they have finished 432 books. This makes more than one hundred books being started and finished by my students each month.
And, maybe even more important, students are also abandoning books. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I regularly encourage my students to abandon books. This, to my mind, is a sign of a discerning reader. Students abandon books for a variety of reasons, all of them valid. I have students who have told me that they “don’t read books,” and so they abandon books with greater frequency trying to find one that speaks to them. This healthy habit has led to one of these students informing me that they have not only found a couple books to really enjoy and finish, but has resulted in them reading more than 800 pages this semester, more than the student believed they had read in the last three years combined! For others, abandoned books speak to a willingness to explore the landscape of authorship. These students are picking up authors and genres they’ve never considered reading before, sampling different cultures and protagonists and conflicts, becoming a student of the world through literature. Reading is a space with so many opportunities that I love to see students taking risks in the underexplored niches of the written word! In total, more than one hundred books were started and set aside by my students this year. A few in there were picked up again and finished too - sometimes the wrong book is really more of a “the wrong time” book.
A testament to how much exploration is being done is the degree to which I’ve witnessed students making choices in their reading based on who the characters and authors are. More than ever, my students are trying to read stories with LGBTQ+ and minority characters and authors. They are choosing to read stories about places they may never visit. They are reading books with stories and characters who represent their own personal experiences, cultures, and conflicts. They are reading new fiction and the old cannon, from novels released since August to the earliest written stories of the English language (Beowulf, three borrows this year). They are reading to experience and share experience. And my goodness, They. Are. Reading!
Are you KIDDING!?
The so what here is that my students - and I would wager teenagers in general - are incredible connoisseurs of literature, and while their palettes are still developing, they are becoming culturally and experientially rich through their reading. I have the data and the anecdotes to back this up. And if all of this wasn’t enough for me to well with pride, and I assure you, I am so welling, my students are also generous of literature. I have received dozens of books from students this year. At random a student will ask, “Do you have this?” and hearing that I don’t, ask if they can give me a copy. For these donations I am honored. Passing along a favorite book to new eyes and fingertips is a special, personal kind of gift that I cherish.
Students have also been generous in sharing with me their reading. I have had more conversations about literature that were entirely prompted by students than in any year previous. Last week a student asked about motifs in a novel, and previously another student commented how much they connected to a particular character’s struggles, and still others have made connections to other novels and films and their own personal lives.
And, maybe one of the coolest parts of this whole adventure in page turning is that students keep coming back to me. Not just to borrow my books, but to ask for my opinion. I’m regularly asked for recommendations, and with their precious time students trust these recommendations. I am honored to play the role of book sherpa, and I look forward to another semester of guiding my students where they will let me and watching awed at where they will take themselves.
So, thanks, page turners. See you in 2019.