Written by John Szozda
Friday, 29 August 2008 08:53
Sandor Hornyak is reading Stephen Colbert’s I am America (And So can You.)
This is not your Daddy’s Shakespeare. Nor, is it what you’d expect a student in an honors language arts class to be reading.
This is not Hamlet.
This is satire from Comedy Central.
Finally, some sanity.
Reading in high school should be fun, relevant to the reader’s life and it should not require reference books and teachers to interpret what teens see as by-gone writing styles or boring historical eras.
I know what you’re thinking. Colbert is no Shakespeare. I agree, but can’t we read Shakespeare as adults, after we’ve developed a love for reading and an appreciation for books? Mandate Shakespeare and we turn off teens.
Marcia Punsalan realizes this. She teaches language arts at Clay High School. In her Honors Literacy Inquiry class, her students choose the books they read.
EJ LeMay chose Mitch Garwolinski’s Silent Screams of a Survivor, a first-hand account of how a Polish-American boy survived the holocaust.
Lauren Stoldt chose Crank, by Ellen Hopkins, a book about a teen’s addiction to crystal meth.
Last year, another student read a three-volume biography of Richard Nixon. In that class, 70 students read more than 1,500 books. One student, Alyssa Emch, read 71.
You can guess by the volume this is not a cake class. Students are required to read at least 200 pages a week. They have daily homework. They write essays, letters and a journal.
Students receive full credit and the volume of reading prepares them for the demands of college. The assignments help them meet standards for both the state proficiency tests and the NCAA Clearing House.
Punsalan says her goal is to create life-long literate readers better able to comprehend and use information for practical reasons and personal development, but, most of all, to expand horizons.
Most teachers insist students listen to their lectures. But, if Punsalan’s students open books to read while she’s talking, she lets them read. She says, “That’s how they connect with the world. That’s how they understand the world beyond their doors, by meeting people they would never meet. They’ll learn more in that book than they’ll learn from me.”
She adds, “We can’t tell teenagers what they must do and expect them to love it. It doesn’t work that way. We have to get a bunch of teens to teach us how it should work.”
Punsalan’s fresh approach may come from the fact that she came late in life to teaching. She started out as a microbiologist then took time off to raise five children. When they grew up, one challenged her to become a teacher. She did, at age 50. She’s been teaching at Clay for the past 14 years.
Her belief that students who self-select their books will develop a life-long passion for reading is not unique. She developed her class from philosophies researched by the National Council of Teachers of English. She credits the Oregon Schools administration for allowing her to implement the program which has proven to be popular among students. Seventy were enrolled last year, this year, 90.
Here’s what some of those students wrote in their final assessment about last year’s class:
“I realized I can read what I want and still learn about parts of speech (foreshadowing, flashbacks…that kind of stuff)…Reading in this class is what makes learning fun.”
“I’ve learned how to recognize conflicts, elements of literature, and otherwise important details in the texts, and the best part was that I didn’t even have to be poked and prodded by a teacher.”
“Giving students more options and the chance to be creative will give them more incentive to actually read the book, instead of looking up their summaries on Sparknotes.”
“I was pretty hesitant about signing up for this class last year knowing that I wasn’t a huge fan of reading, but I’m so glad I did. I now love reading, and it has a whole new meaning to me.”
Today’s students tend to have short attention spans. It’s the age of the sound byte, the internet, high definition television and video games. A book, however, can be just as engrossing, just as vivid and just as entertaining because it triggers the imagination. The key is to make reading compete with technology. Marcia Punsalan has found a way to do that.