So you think today’s teenagers aren’t into reading? Talk to Bill Foster. He loves books – real books, made of paper and ink – and the fascinating realms they contain.
“I love the fact you can just take yourself into another world,” the Northview High School junior said in his native British accent. “If you’re stressed, you can go somewhere else for a while and just escape it.”
And yes, he’d rather read between cloth covers than from a Kindle. “I prefer something physical I can hold and put on the shelf,” he said.
Say what you will about stereotypical teens with their compulsive texting and social-media obsessions. At Northview High, students gather every Friday in Sheridan Steelman’s Advanced Placement Literature class just to talk about books. It’s called “Coffee House Fridays,” complete with cups of cocoa, coffee and pastries, and Steinbeck, Hemingway and Picoult.
Editor’s Note: The Road to Reading series explores some of the reading activities you’ll find in our schools as well as difficulties students may face when learning to read. The series also examines early childhood ties to literacy and new initiatives to help all children read.
Those are some of the authors students are reading or have read at Northview, where Steelman’s five AP-lit classes get to choose books of high literary merit in six categories throughout the year. They discuss them in “Socratic Seminar” style, a means of helping each other analyze and understand the text.
Enter the coffee and pastries – a relaxed vibe that encourages students to talk not just about their chosen books this year, but their favorite books of any year.
A Hunger for Books
For Morgan Bradford, who’s read more than 100 books this school year, Coffee House Fridays are a literary treat.
“Growing up, I never had anyone to talk about books with, other than my mother,” said Morgan, an effervescent junior. “I’d be like, ‘I just read a book!’ and people would be like, ‘Reading? What’s that?’ So coming into this class, I can talk about all the books I like. It’s so great.”
Steelman, who teaches 135 AP Literature students, designed the class this semester to help them apply what they learned in the fall. Following their Friday discussions, they write critical responses the following week. All of it helps prepare them for their AP Literature Exam in May – and to appreciate good writing.
“They just love to talk about it, and it gives them all these ideas for writing,” said Steelman, who coaches them on techniques to get deeper into the books. Allowing them to choose their own titles also has been a great motivator, she added: “They hunger for books.”
The class read four books together this year, including “Macbeth” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” a best-selling contemporary novel set in Afghanistan. They also are reading at least six books of their choosing — they’re challenged to read as many as 30 — from required categories including female and ethnic minority authors. They happily discussed them, along with personal favorites, on a recent Friday.
“We’re just going to talk about books you’re reading that you love,” Steelman told the class. This was after drilling them on literary terms such as terza rima and anastrophe, which one student called “Yoda talk.”
From Martians to Holden Caulfield
Arrayed in a circle,the class began by discussing “morally ambiguous” characters from their readings. Alia Legatz picked Valentine Michael Smith, the Mars-born but human protagonist of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Robert Heinlein’s 1961 science-fiction classic. “He’s trying to learn right from wrong, so that makes him morally ambiguous,” Alia said. “He doesn’t know what’s good or bad.”
Hannah Moore cited the violent, tormented Stanley Kowalski of “A Streetcar Named Desire”: “He does some messed-up stuff, but you can tell he loves his wife and his family.” Tyler Nadler named the title character of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” by George Bernard Shaw. “She does bad things for a good reason,” he said of Kitty Warren, a former prostitute.
When Steelman widened the topic to other favorite books, titles from today and yesterday flowed in. They included “Angels & Demons” by Dan Brown, “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury and “Kissing the Witch” by Emma Donoghue.
Emily Barnes named “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger as her favorite because of its complex teen protagonist, Holden Caulfield. “You’ll love him or you’ll dislike him,” Emily said.
Jon Krebs talked about “Flowers for Algernon,” Daniel Keyes’ 1966 classic about a janitor whose low IQ is dramatically increased by surgery. Jon said he relates strongly to the story because his brother has autism. “The way people treated him and reacted to him, I see that in the way people treat my brother sometimes.”
After class, he said identifying with characters is part of why he enjoys reading so much. “I connect really well with whoever I’m reading about.”