Monday, December 19, 2011

Connecting with kids through books

Wow, it's been nearly two weeks since my last post :/   

I blame Christmas to-do lists and sickness. And general laziness. Too many good movies on right now. So anyway, in the spirit of spreading holiday cheer, I wanted to recognize several students and teachers for recommending some of my favorite reads. All were inspired through vicarious experiences of their excitement in the reading. 

Looking around the classroom at the books kids are choosing to read, it is a wonder that we grown-ups put so little stock in the value of picking those same books up ourselves. We are constantly trying to push what we believe is appropriate and engaging reading material on students. But how often do we read what they actually like? It seems kind of backwards... 

Grown-ups tend to have much longer attention span, and what may take us only a chapter to quickly read and get sucked in, would bore a kid to the point of putting it down and walking away. Or even worse, we get to the middle school level and do fewer and fewer book talks, just when students are the least willing to find books on their own. And the biggest problem of all, is that the most popular titles that all the kids want to read, are the first ones to be re-checked out and wait-listed. 

How about we flip this around... let's look at what the kids are reading, that sucks them in quickly and keeps them grabbing for sequels, and see if we like it too. Obviously we have classics and required choices for in-class reading, but for strictly pleasure-reading, what are they picking? And are there educational ties, grammar and structural and thematic lessons in the text that could lead to some engaging class time?

I have very seldom been misled by a title recommended by a kid. Except Artemis Fowl. I got through the first four before I threw in the towel. In general, YA reading is chock-full of first loves, embarrassing social situations, coming of age and life-changing events, and the inevitable discovery of morals and strength the protagonists never knew they had. What more could you ask for? Honestly, that's a pretty similar tale to most grown-up literature I read too. Just without all the swearing, violence and sex.

I'll keep them down to initials so no one (or their parents) gets embarrassed or pissed off. Starting most recent, and working my way backwards... 
I may write a blog poking fun at zombies, but I never thought I'd actually enjoy reading about them. Thanks to G.Z. for loaning me this surprisingly engaging and action-packed post-modern apocalyptic tale! 

Rot & Ruin takes what I think is an entirely new perspective on how humanity may kill ourselves with technology and super viruses; as well as delving into the ethics behind killing zombies who were, at one time, family members and friends of some one. 

What right does one person have in taking the life of a zombie (even a math teacher!), if the zombie isn't hurting anyone? And is it cruel to torture a zombie, just because s/he can't feel pain? That we know of?

Previous to the zombie adventure, the same student had loaned me his copy of another tail of death and doom. Instead of dealing with the living dead, the Morpheus Road series (soon to be a trilogy) thrills with supernatural forces leading to a family secret that changes the main character's life. 

I wasn't nearly as engaged by the first book (The Light) as the second one (The Dark). The sequel retold the story of the first book, but from a deceased character's perspective. The unique way in which the after-life is portrayed really makes sense, and has altered my perception of what may wait for us after death in a similar fashion to the movie "What Dreams May Come".

Often in class while reading the first one, I would refer to the character and make metaphors between his conflicts in the book, and what we were studying in math (with linear relationships and independent/ dependent variables). By referring to memorable scenes and characters in the books, more students are likely to read them and share in the discussion.

My Hunger Games / Mockingjay t-shirt, and poster from an awesome colleague, have had a similar effect in bringing students together to talk to me and each other about the content. I love hearing about what scenes and ethical dilemmas inspire or disturb them, and what they feel that means for their own lives. So a big shout out to K.D. who I had in one lone trimester of Spanish, and was sneaking the books out every second she thought I wasn't looking (before, during and after instruction). Or just blatantly reading them in front of me. I finally gave in and downloaded the audio versions of all three books. 

After my first read, listening non-stop to the futuristic/ possible America/ dictatorship/ reality TV/ gladiator-style / teen romance / big-brother is watching your every move all wrapped into one, I wasn't sure if I would want to read them ever again. But I did. Twice. Some of the imagery is so violent and disturbing (especially in Mockingjay) that you wonder kids don't have nightmares about them. But they probably do. 

Once again, similar to the above novels, the main character is an older teenager, around 16, whose world is completely turned upside down. It is a very good message to kids to be thankful for what they have, and to appreciate the blessings of family, freedom, and security. And full bellies!

The title refers more to the gladiator-style games the teenage "tributes" play in, than to games about hunger. Although most of the characters have been hungry their hole lives, and nearly starve in the "arena". All three books are page-turners from start to finish.

Continuing to move back, I'll retreat to last spring, and thank my coworker J.K. for recommending When You Reach Me, after hearing about my interest in A Wrinkle In Time. The latter was a lit-circle choice when I was on 4th grade, and the former actually refers to it several times within the text. It is the favorite book of the protagonist, and the content of both books relates on several levels.

I would be tempted to start my own book talks when the content spills over into math and science topics, just to show the students how interrelated the disciplines really can be. Time travel, paradoxes, and multiple dimensions are not only fascinating, but foster interest in higher math, to make the content more understandable. 

Not to mention that one of the side characters repeatedly runs naked down the main street of the town in his attempts to land in the exactly right moment in his past to change his future. I don't remember where exactly he ended up finding clothes... I guess I'll have to read it again!

Moving further back through my own timeline, I'd like to thank the exuberant and bold J.R. for adamantly choosing Bella for her Spanish name, and not being afraid to shout to the world how wonderful the books were. That was at the height of their popularity, right as Breaking Dawn was debuting, sparking a controversy as to whether the 4th installment should be allowed in schools. (The characters marry and copulate and then talk about the copulations in a pretty PG-13 way). 

The Twilight Saga is, however, a fantastic read. Anyone who has seen only the movies is truly missing out. The books are told in first person, from Bella's perspective, and the viewer really misses out on 2/3 of the story, which is how Bella interprets and reacts to the insane events surrounding her. 

There are very few dull moments in any of the four books, and there are a surprisingly extensive number of references to classical literature, music and historical events dating back to the 1600's. Having read these, I have to thank the main character Bella, for finally inspiring me to pick up my next recommendation. 

Jane Austen's complete novel works. And Wuthering Heights. Yes, I said it, being the Zombie that I am... a fantasy book character finally was the last straw that made me want to read these British classics. After reading the Twilight series so many times, I wanted to know what was so interesting that Bella was going on and on and on about them through all four books. I had already read 1982 and Animal Farm and R&J of course in my own high school courses, but for some reason, we never read any Austen. Go figure. 

Bella nearly has a meltdown as she pulls out her beaten compilation of Austen novels, when she realizes that nearly every book has some character named Edward. Or Edmund. And she's right! Why does Jane Austen insist on using so many similar names in all her books? Honestly I don't really care. They're all equally wonderful. Although I have a picture here of Pride & Prejudice (I must read the zombie version soon!) my favorite Austen is probably Emma.

And now for a couple that are completely unrelated to the above, other than they were recommended by family members, who kept saying "you would love this!". Until I finally did read them. And yes, I did love them.

Take this book, Life of Pi... which is currently being made into a movie. My cousin was reading it, and lent it to me, so I read it quickly, and gave it back, and loved it... and wanted my own copy... which my sister didn't know about... and gave me a copy for my birthday this year anyway! Small world!! 

It is a very unique and odd book, also filled with disturbing images and a teenager coming of age. On a life raft. With a tiger. Lost at sea. Oh yeah, and his parents and their entire traveling zoo (sans Tiger) just drowned in a boat accident in the middle of the ocean. :(

My last recommendation has consistently been a favorite amongst teens, and is ALSO FINALLY being made into a movie!! Ender's Game is, and will probably always, be my favorite book of all time. The hold-up has of course been technology that can adequately support the vast futuristic environments and creatures that will need to look realistic if this is not going to flop. 

Set in the not-so-distant future, humanity has finally set limits on child-bearing rights due to the over-population of Earth. A powerful alien race similar to ants has come to invade the planet for a second time, and in preparation of their attacks, young genius children have been bred for battle command in outer space. Andrew (Ender) Wiggin arrives at Battle School with a lot to prove, being the youngest, one of the smallest, and by far the smartest kid to come through the zero-gravity training facility in many years. 

In the process of learning the ropes of Battle School, he hacks computers, gets into life-and-death struggles in the showers (it's more gory and less x-rated than it sounds), makes a number of dubious friends, and masters the art of the Zero-G lazer tag game that simulates and alien attack. His training starts out as a game, but it ends in a much different manner. A must-read. And then the sequel. And then that sequel, and that sequel, and the various prequels, and the parallel futuristic stories from Ender's perspective... just can't get enough. It's got everything. Love, Power, War, Ethics, Family... 

Now I'm starting to sound like Stefan, the "city correspondent" from SNL. Better stop while I'm ahead. And start correcting that pile-o-homework I've been putting off by writing this. Oops.