Before I started reading novels in verse, I had no idea how important they would be to the readers in my classroom. So many of my students who say they hate reading will read these books of poems that tell a story. (Chasing Brooklyn is one of the girls’ favorites. The Crossover, of course, is one of the boys’.)
This week, Sung, one of my quiet students from Myanmar, asked for a recommendation for her next book. She reads far below that of an 11th grader in an AP class, but she’s tenacious and determined to catch up to her peers. She and I have focused on her fluency since the beginning of the year when in our first conference I learned she could read all the words in a novel, but she understood little of the meaning. (Similar to my ELL student who read every word of The Great Gatsby last year without comprehending any of it. This was before I clued in to her need to save face with their peers.)
“I am reading,” Sung said, “but I don’t know what’s going on.”
I’ve heard this before, and I always celebrate when my readers let me in on this secret. (It takes guts to be vulnerable, especially at 16.) In talking with high school students who struggle with reading, I’ve learned they usually have no idea why. Most of them think they are slow or dumb — or they simply claim reading is boring or dumb because it’s easier to say that than admit reading is hard.
The hard part for me is teaching them to read. My degree is in literature after all, and my Masters in Secondary Ed did little to prepare me for the adolescent reading crisis I face every day. So I teach reading by getting students to read. I talk to them about their reading and get them talking to me about their thinking.
Sung had just finished her 8th novel in verse, her favorite so far, Inside Out and Back Again. As I conferred with this reader, she told me she wanted to try something more challenging that was a ‘real’ novel. What she meant was a story with more words on the page. (Last year I caught one of my ELL students at the book shelf flipping through books. When I asked him why, he said he could tell if he could understand it depending on the “thickness of the words.”)
I walked to my “Explore: It’s Your World shelf” and pulled a few books I thought Sung might like: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, In Darkness by Nick Lake, Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse, a book of short writings by various authors about human rights, published in association with Amnesty International, and several other titles I cannot remember now.
Then, I gave her time to explore.
A few minutes later, Sung held two books in her hands and quietly told me she wanted to read them both. She left the room with Karen Hesse’s award-winning book and the anthology of stories by writers like these: Paulo Coelho, Yann Martel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ishmael Beah, and more. These are not difficult books. They are not complex. They are way too easy by most high school standards. But they are exactly what this young woman needs to not only grow in confidence as a reader, but to grow as a citizen of her world.
And an interesting insight? Quite often it takes more inferencing skills to understand the story in a novel in verse than it does with a story written in prose.
For a list of other novels and verse, see this post.
Here’s a highlight from my most recently read novel in verse, Audacity by Melanie Crowder. I think it will make a nice quickwrite at the beginning of the year as we build a reading community:
I passed my Spelling
and Mathematics exams!
I hurry after work
to the free school
to check the schedule
for the next round:
The thing that separates
rich from poor
in this world
A person can rise up
if she can read
if she can think
if she can speak.
I cannot attend
but if I share what I learn
with the girls in my shop
in between bites
ff Pauline shares
with the girl in her shop
in between bites
it is as if we all
Were there together.
these lunchtime lessons
spreading like fire
skipping from one box of tinder
to the next
across the shops
through the slums
until the entire city is alight