Thursday, December 2, 2010

Book Club Exchange: Alison Hart

A few days ago, I reviewed a fun book for young girls called TAKING THE REINS by Alison Hart. (I'm also giving away a copy!) I am a fan of Ms. Hart's books for children and teens, and I admire her dedication to children and literacy. Many of you might remember that Ms. Hart wrote a guest spot for my Book Club Exchange feature a few months ago about some of the issues she faces as a teacher. I honored to welcome her back today with a follow up post.

Dear Ms. Hart,

My class of seventy sixth graders recently finished reading your book, Gabriel's Horses, during literature circles.  They all simply loved the book.  As we would finish up one chapter they couldn't wait to read the next one.  For some of my students it was actually the first book they have loved to read on their own.  . . .

As an author, receiving e-mails such as the above gives me a huge boost. I love that my novels are suspenseful, interesting and engaging to this group of students. As a teacher at a community college, however, the statement “For some of my students it was actually the first book they have loved to read on their own” saddened me. I teach reluctant readers who are working on pre-college skills. When asked the question “who has read or is reading a good book?” only one or two raise their hands. When does this detachment from reading start, I wonder. Why do so many kids become disinterested in reading? What can be done about it? The answers to these questions have been discussed and dissected for decades and still have educators and parents baffled. In a previous blog, I discussed aliteracy, which is when someone has the ability to read but has total disinterest in reading and books. I threw out these facts:

1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
80% of US families did not buy a book last year.
27% of adults in America did not read a single book in 2007 (USA Today)

In his book Readicide, author Kelly Gallagher gives further statistics and does not hesitate in declaring that too often aliteracy is “exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.” I would love to blame it all on the teachers, but I can not. As an author I visit schools where students and teachers are excited about reading and where books are celebrated. I also know that every day when I enter my own classroom, I celebrate the power and joy of reading. This semester I introduced literature circles to my students. The books were hand-picked for a variety of topics and genres as well as high-interest and readability. The students got to choose which book they wanted to read. In groups, they did pre-reading activities designed to improve their background information. For example, the group that read I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, the true story of a young girl from Yemen who is married at age ten to a thirty-year-old man, researched the country and its customs to help them understand the setting and context.

How successful were the literature groups? It’s hard to tell. Nothing was graded and I had no firm criteria for success. Groups met and set the number of pages to read and discuss each week. If a student chose not to read, there were no consequences--I didn’t want reading to be equated with punishment. There will be a final group presentation; however, the project is intended to share the book and will not penalize someone who did not read it.

Success? Failure? I can only judge based on comments from the students. Most enjoyed the books, some obviously more than others based on listening in on their discussions. Two students asked to read books from another group. One student asked for a recommendation for something similar. A handful said it was the first time they had even read a book. Did any students suddenly become enraptured with books? No.

Did “they all simply love the book” as the teacher expressed in her e-mail? No again. Still I am forging ahead--fine-tuning the groups for next semester. As an author and teacher, I understand the importance of reading and revel in the joy of a great story. It is a message I will continue to convey to my students every day and as best as I can!

Books my students (the lowest reading section) chose this semester:
I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Of Mice and Men
A Child Called “It”
The First Part Last
From Baghdad with Love

Alison Hart has been writing since she was seven years old when she wrote, illustrated and self-published The Wild Dog. (A book she still shows young readers to prove that it's never too early to be an author.) Today she is an adjunct college instructor teaching reading and writing as well as the author of over twenty mysteries and historical suspense novels for young readers. "I honed my craft writing Nancy Drew mysteries and quickly developed a love of strong characters who are thrown into suspenseful situations; in other words, I love writing books that keep young readers glued to the pages."

Research is another passion, and old journals, letters and memoirs are her favorites, often sparking ideas for future books. "When I read a diary written long ago, I feel an incredible connection to the past, a connection that I hope to bring to my own books. Well-researched historical fiction should bring to life the people, events and struggles of the past and make them relevant and real for today's young readers."

I am so grateful to Ms. Hart for writing this wonderful guest post. If you are interested in participating in a future Book Club Exchange, please contact me at bookingmama(at)gmail(dot)com.


Anonymous said...

This is an incredible post! Thank you, Alison! Working in preschool, I find that, from the very beginning, children (and, later, people) are interested in books. Only in the oldest two classroom are the three and four year olds starting to put letters and words together but from the two and a half year olds on down to the two month olds, our kids "read" to themselves, to each other, to the teachers of their own free will. It makes me wonder, what, if this seems to be such an innate human skill and love, do we do and when, to discourage these young minds from reading. Sad story! Thank you so much for this post. :O)

middle grade ninja said...

Wonderful post. Though I wish those statistics weren't true.

bermudaonion said...

I think some of that spark for reading has to come from home - the school can't do it all. Having said that, I do think the approach some schools take makes reading a chore rather than pleasure. Oh, how I wish we could come up with a magical solution.

Anonymous said...

This post really got to me. This is something that has been on my mind for a very long time. Thanks to Ms. Hart and all the others who work to bring books and reading into children's lives.

alison said...

Thanks folks who commented. It's a subject that continously whirls around in my brain with no answer! I hope you all keep doing what you can do about the issues--whether you are a parent, teacher or simply love books and can pass that joy along.