Tag Archives: reluctant readers

Finding Success in Hell

Guest Post by Jackie Catcher

flames“Ms. Catcher, do you have Inferno?”

Inferno?” I asked.  I looked up at Sean*, a skinny freshman with small gages in his ears and a bleached blonde buzz cut.  His punk skater image matched the rebellious reputation of the book he had recently finished: The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  This was the first time he had come to me with a book request for his independent reading.

“Yeah, you know that book about hell.”  I couldn’t help but chuckle—when Sean came into my classroom he associated books with being in hell, now he wanted a book on hell.

“Um, yeah, let me find it.  Dante’s Inferno?” I repeated again.  I tried to mask my surprise but could hear my voice crack with the title.

“Yeah, that one,” he said straight-faced.  The image of my tired college English professor popped into my head; the threadbare sports jacket he wore as he droned on about Inferno; I remember feeling like he single-handedly had pulled me through all nine circles of hell.

Sean owned the video game adaptation of the book, which had sparked his interest.  I handed him a copy, warning, “This is a hard read.  Even if you get through part of it, that will be impressive!  I read this in college.”  I felt the need to somehow soothe his frustrations even before he started.

“Ok.” He brushed off my warnings.

Every day I watched Sean crack open Inferno and slowly make his way through the convoluted English translation.  And every day I expected Sean to walk into my classroom and abandon the book.  But he didn’t.

“How much does he really understand though?” asked another teacher after I brought up Sean’s accomplishments.  She made a good point.  Not only was Sean in my academic class, the lowest level in my tracked high school, he had also scored partially proficient in reading on the New Hampshire state standardized tests over the past two years.  Even if Sean didn’t understand the book in its entirety, I believe he gained just as much as any freshman English major dissecting the poem.

Sean might not have delved into the intricacies of the epic poem, but he took away a sense of confidence and pride that can only accompany struggle.  Many students lack the reading stamina Sean exhibited, an essential skill for success in post-secondary schooling.  Students can be quick to abandon books, and I have found that it isn’t until students become more developed, advanced readers that they understand the value of pushing beyond the first ten or even one hundred pages of a book to get to the “good stuff.”  Despite Sean’s distaste for reading prior to this year, his hunger for a challenge paired with the independent reading initiative allowed Sean to build his stamina and prove himself as a reader.  As Sean said, “I kept telling myself it’s just a book.  You can keep reading.”  Reading Inferno stemmed from his curiosity and transformed into an undertaking of pride.

Sean’s experience with Inferno didn’t include deep literary analysis and his takeaway would most likely make my stuffy college professor cringe, but I’d argue that Sean learned the lesson Dante intended: perseverance and hard work lead to significant achievements.


*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the student

 Jacqueline Catcher is a first year teacher at Exeter High School in Exeter, New Hampshire. She teaches Academic and College Preparatory Freshman English and an upper level elective writing course using the workshop model.  She can be reached at jcatcher@sau16.org.


Reel Reading for Real Readers: Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

ReelReading2My students have asked for this one, but I didn’t have it on my shelves. Thankfully, Bruiser is a book I got in my box at the ALAN conference. this book jumped to the top of my TBR pile, and I read it the day I got home from Boston.

I love it when a book makes me want to be a better person. Bruiser did that for me. I am not sure this book trailer does the book justice, but I especially like how the students who made it made the opening look like a real movie trailer.

This is a book that’s going to have a waiting list.


Reel Reading for Real Readers: My Friend Dahmer

ReelReading2My Friend Dahmer by Berf Backderf only sits on my shelve until I book talk it just once. My students are fascinated when I tell them that the book is based on a real boy who grew up to be a real man who murdered people. They only know of serial killers from TV and the movies. I get the “pleasure” of introducing them to a real life psychopath. It creeps me out a bit that this is such a popular book, but students love to read it.

Rethinking: Real World Learning


I can’t say that I’ve ever posted an assignment to readers of my blog before, but I do promise this is not an exercise in futility. It will be worth your time.

After reading this article:

These Are the 30 People Under 30 Changing the World

Ask yourself:

  • What are you doing in your classroom with teenagers that is really pretty trivial in the scheme of life?
  • Is dissecting Silas Mairner for the 83rd time really necessary when kids in your classroom are quite literally curing cancer & making millions in real life?
  • How might you bring real life into your classroom and make learning relevant for kids?

I know when most educators say, “I’m trying to prepare these kids for the real world,” they are referring to the “real world” as the time when students have graduated high school or college and are living on their own, but let’s be real with ourselves. The world that our learners are currently living in is the real world. Why do they have to wait until they are 18 years old, or older, before what they are learning in school becomes relevant?

Personally, I was blown away to think about all the things that young people are currently doing to change the world in which they live, and I immediately began to think about how we could be doing school differently to support the ingenuity and innovation of our learners. Hopefully you will take a minute to think about that too.


Photo credit: Werner Kunz / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Reel Reading for Real Readers: Meta Maus

ReelReading2The book Maus by Art Spiegelman made me a believer in graphic novels. Maus II was just as influential.

One year I applied for a grant and got the funds to create a whole set of various war-themed graphic novels for literature circles in a gifted/talented humanities class. I no longer teach that class, but my friend Tess does, and she’s the owner of that box of beautifully written and illustrated graphic novels. I remember the first year we used them, our student Claudia said, “I got a question right on the AP World History exam because of something I read in the book about Gaza.” I had no idea at the time that graphic novels could be so powerful and so important. Now a few years later, I have a small collection that a few students eventually work themselves into.

This is a trailer for Maus completed by some students (not my own) using DSI Flipnote Studio. It’s cool, and now I want to download the software. The trailer is well done, too.

He read ZERO books before he came to me. Not Good Enough.

He came to me pretty much hating to read. This tall freshman, eager to talk and laugh, and constantly wanting to do anything else but open a book. He admitted that he read zero books his 8th grade year.

The first book I got him to attempt was Game, a chapter book of about 160 pages that took him four weeks to get through. Every day I had to put a hand on his shoulder and whisper “Get to reading.” Next, he tried Gym Candy, and while he seemed to read it faster, he couldn’t tell me much about the plot or the characters.

Finally, with a stroke of luck, this young man picked up Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach. I had book talked it a week or so before, reading the first few pages to the class. At the time, R.J. wasn’t interested. When I saw him with this book, I hurried over and practically begged him to give it a try. “Okay,” he shrugged and moved away from the bookshelf toward his table.

Every day for two weeks, R.J. came to class and told me how much he had read. “I like this book,” he smiled at me more than once. He finished this book in two and a half weeks, and then took himself to the bookshelf to find I’m with Stupid. (At the time, we thought this was the next in the series.)

When I finally made it over to kneel by R. J.’s table and conference with him about his reading, he told me that the beginning was hard to read because the main character’s family was “weird,” but he really liked the parts about football. We talked about character development and how the main character Felton changes throughout the book. “He grows up,” R.J. notices. I asked him what kinds of questions he would ask the author if he had the chance, and then I remembered:  I follow this author on Twitter.

“Hey, R.J., let’s take a picture of you reading this book and tweet it to the author. I bet he’ll respond.”

“No way…. Oh, okay.”

So we did.

RJ tweets to author

RJ tweets to author responses




R.J. left class that day feeling pretty special. He will finish his fourth book this week. His personal reading goal for the whole year was only FIVE.

Now, here’s the really cool thing:  While wondering the exhibition hall at NCTE in Boston, I struck up a conversation with the representatives from Sourcebooks Publishers. They asked if I knew of the books by Geoff Herbach, and, of course, I had to tell them about R.J. Then one of those very sweet insightful women reached under the table and handed me this:

Fat Boy cover

She understands the value of nurturing readers. She’s helped me make a difference in the life of this young man. I wish I could describe the yelp I got when I told R.J. he’d been gifted with an ARC of an ARC — how cool is that?

I’d love to hear your best “Conquering the Reluctant Reader” story. Please share.

Reel Reading for Real Readers: Stephen King Fest

ReelReading2I am not much of a horror reader, but I am a Stephen King fan. I remember the first of his books I read was It, but I don’t think I finished it. Too chicken. I also read The Long Walk, which I thought was an okay read until the end, and I thought it was stupid–probably because it made me mad.

My favorite King book is Misery, maybe because it’s more realistic than some of the others. Annie Wilks is a truly frightening character. (Now that I am a Criminal Minds re-run junkie, Annie scares me even more.)

Since I am trying to get many of my student readers to reach beyond YA fiction, I’m thinking a few Stephen King book talks with a few book trailers might be just the thing for Halloween.

The movie for Misery was almost as creepy as the book.

And, of course, the new movie version of Carrie is in theaters now.

Reel Reading for Real Readers: Lone Survivor

I am always on the lookout for books for my boys– my own and those in my classes.

I heard about Lone Survivor on a blog post that talked about the author Marcus Luttrell’s speaking tour. The author of the blog said Luttrell was warm and funny, and his story would break your heart. I couldn’t help but want to share this story of survival with my boys.

I still haven’t read this book. It’s been in too many male hands. Now there’s a movie coming out, and since the book is always better than the movie, I’ve put on my wish list two additional copies.

Take a peek at the movie trailer. I know, the movie is Rated R. If the book had a rating, it probably would, too. It is about war after all. How could it be realistic if it weren’t?

Converting the Fake Reader

I’m trying something new this year:  my students are reading every day. Last year I reserved Friday for independent reading. Students did okay with that, but few read as much as I had hoped they would. This year I dedicate the first 10 minutes of every class to silent reading. We’ve been in school a month, and I have many students who have finished a book–some have finished three and four.

The first week of school I set the expectation, and I talked about books a lot. Every day I introduced a book and its characters to my students. I read passages and book covers. I testified to the importance of a book in my life. I read reviews and showed book trailers. I worked at getting a book in every single student’s hand. And it’s paying off.

Even for Ever.

Ever is that one student. You know the one. He grabs the first book off the shelf and pretends to read it. He does this every day for a week. You know he’s a Fake Reader. You’re just waiting for the right time to talk with him about it. Then one day he leaves The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells in the classroom–you know he’s not reading this book anyway. What normal sophomore would? So you hide it just to see what book he’ll choose to Fake Read next. He doesn’t. He sits. And does nothing.

Finally, you make your way to talk with Ever. “What’s up with this Fake Reading?” you ask.

He mumbles something that you don’t understand.

“If you tell me what you’re interested in, I can help you find a book,” you offer.

He shrugs but walks to the bookshelves, soon returning to his seat with a bright non-fiction paperback. You don’t see the title, but you watch to see if Ever’s reading.

Nope. He’s an Advanced Fake Reader.

Then he surprises you. He asks for help finding something real and historical, so you offer a stack of memoirs with authors from Cambodia, Iran, and South Africa. He doesn’t even bother to pick them up, but he’s drawn to the shelf they came from. You can see it in his eyes.

You’re pushing but not too hard. You barely know this child, and you know the first three weeks can make or break the relationship with a student for the whole year. Then you see him. He’s got a thin book–historical fiction. And he’s reading. He’s really reading Once by Morris Gleitzman.

The next day Ever is one of the first students in class. You glance over, and Ever is reading, and the bell hasn’t even sounded yet. You walk over to offer a bit of praise.

“Hey, Miss, I’ve read 120 pages since yesterday!” he tells you. And inside you’re grinning so widely your cheeks hurt.

Ever finishes that book the next day and reaches for Then.

Then You know you’ve got him when he turns the pages in Now.

And maybe, just maybe you’ve converted the Fake Reader.


How do you get your Fake Readers to give a book a try?

Reel Reading for Real Readers: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

20130207-190708My own sons love to read books on war. That’s the main reason I have so many in my classroom library.   My twin sons Zach and Chase both plan to enlist in the military after they serve two year missions for our church. Every once in a while they will come home from Barnes and Noble with a new book. Chase brought this one home just yesterday:

Every once in a while I come across a book that I surprise them with, and usually they argue over who gets to read it first. Good Soldiers by David Finkel is one of those books.

My sons were reluctant readers in middle school and most of high school. The majority of their teachers stuck to the required reading of classical literature and rarely talked about books other than those they were reading for class. Chase finally found books as a way to escape bullying, and Zach found he liked a lot of the books Chase was reading. They became readers on their own, which I am grateful for, but I still think “what if?” What if a teacher had taken the time to learn of their interests in the military, in war stories, in patriotism? What if a teacher had let them read where their passions lay? Maybe they would have had a much more enriching experience in high school English.

I haven’t read Good Soldiers yet, but Chase has. He read it in a day.

Good Soldiers Audio Book Review:

David Finkel reads an excerpt:

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