I came to respect The Great Gatsby as a work of literature only after rereading it in college, but prior to that time, the feelings I associated with it could best be described as loathing and resentment. I can imagine the gasps as I type this. Gatsby is, after all, a beloved American novel which almost every American student has read, or “read,” by the time they graduate high school. Someone who reads this post will want to tell me all about how it’s his or her favorite book and that maybe I just don’t understand it or realize the literary genius it represents. Some of you will fondly remember the teacher who thoughtfully guided you through the text. I can only assure you that I fully understand it, and I liked my junior English teacher well enough.
So why didn’t I like one of the greatest American novels of all time? It comes down to two reasons, and a lot of us are already doing our best to address the first:
- The book was assigned to me to read. I had no choice – at a time in my life when I craved I read it because I was supposed to, but I resented the time it took me away from the books I really wanted to read. This website is a testament to the work that we’re doing to provide students with at least some choice. For more information on how to provide choice in a variety of classroom settings, I encourage you to peruse the wonderful posts on this site as well as the publications of Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller.
- Here’s the part that many of us are still developing: we talk with students and recommend books – often based on what they’ve enjoyed reading previously – and try to match students with their interests. We need to go further with our talks. Had my English III teacher spoken with me enough to understand even a little about my background, she would have known that being the poorest kid in the class and having another eviction notice on my apartment door made me reluctant (“angry” might be a better descriptor here) to spend my time hanging out with the likes of Daisy. I was surrounded by Daisies who worried about what seemed trivial to me. I worried about not eating; they worried about whether or not their nail polish would match their prom dress. I didn’t feel like maturely comparing my situation to the text; I wanted to escape via literature! I didn’t want or need to read a book at that point in time so fixated on money and superficiality. The assigned book caused me psychological distress that I still remember almost thirty years later. If this seems overly dramatic, imagine how texts were typically taught in the 1980s and still are in some classrooms today. We drudged through the book for at least a month, and I listened to conversations about wealth daily. Not cool.
Many of us get to know our students fairly well through book talks, conferences, class discussions, and casual conversations. A growing number of ELA teachers begin the course with writing assignments that shed light on a student’s favorites as well potential
emotional triggers, such as Mary Davenport’s frame activity, in which students decorate construction-paper “frames” and write brief, introspective pieces around the borders about the experiences that shape how they view the world. Davenport often gleans background information about her students that helps her recommend books to them, as social and emotional factors are every bit as important as reading (or dare I say it: Lexile) levels. Finding safe ways to learn about her students’ lives has allowed her to match readers with books they enjoy, and that is our mission: to expand our knowledge base about our students’ lives, without prying or making them feel vulnerable, so we can get the right books into their hands.
I would love to help teachers who are less experienced with conferring with students, and improve my own craft, so please share your strategies for getting to know your students’ emotional needs (as they relate to reading) in the comments.
Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition, PSAT Team, English 4, and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She wants her students to know that language is power – one that she hopes they will be able to wield for Good. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.