Are devices keeping our teens from reading?

A year ago I was happily plodding along on the treadmill at the gym.  I was doing what I always do – reading – while trudging along at level 4.  That’s grandma pace – don’t judge.  I switched the book back and forth while holding onto the rail but then had to lean it against the touch screen so it was straight ahead of me.  Before I knew it, I was running!!  I jumped off and saw that the touch screen had crept up to 14.  That’s full-sweat, sprinting-up-a-mountain fast.  If you know me, you know I don’t run, but I was — because the book was so good!! I was so completely engrossed that I didn’t even notice  how my legs became independent of my awareness.*

Is that kind of absorption an anomaly?  Would I have done that if I were a teenager?  Actually, I’d be more likely to be on my phone.  Anywhere you see a teen with time to kill, you’ll see them staring intently at their handheld devices.  If they’re not sending or receiving a text, they’re looking at apps, playing games or checking a status.  And it’s not just teens; adults are guilty here, too. Here’s a concern: teens have much to learn yet, like how to read body language and voice inflections, how to think and respond to a conversation, how to engage a real live human.  These are important skills, people!

A whopping 78% of teens have cellphones.  The Washington Post reports that teens spend an incredible 7 1/2 hours a day consuming media.  That’s mind-boggling!!!  After school and sleep and family time, when do kids read?  Additionally, articles have been written about the lost art of patience or how few of us allow ourselves to be still and have nothing to do for a moment without panicking (I’m at a stoplight….I can’t just sit here!! Where’s my phone?)  Following that lead, some adults bemoan that teens will know nothing of being quiet, reflective or patient.  Maybe….but does that define all teens?

While teaching at ZLO (Zacchaeus Learning Opportunities in Whatcom County) this year, I had reason to not worry too much about the demise of our kids at the hands of devices.  What you have to know is that I’m very passionate about books.  When I read a book I love,  I must tell someone about it!  Who better than my eager students?  So, knowing I had some real readers in one class in particular, I gushed about a novel I devoured in two nights.  I handed the book over to a girl who grabbed it before the jealous others and went on with class.  Two days later – two. days. – the book was returned.  She loved it as much as I had and read it just as fast.  This was great news to the other girls who had it on hold at the library and couldn’t get it fast enough.  Sure enough, two others read it in two nights as well.

This didn’t strike me as unusual because I knew the quality of these girls.  (For the record, the boys in this group are just as zealous about books) However, I sometimes forget that more and more kids choose a game or app over a book.  I understand the allure, but personally, I get bored with those.  I want to go away.  I want to meet new people.  I want to see how others react to situations I know little about.  Basically, I want to learn in the most pleasing way I know – through reading.

Thankfully,  I’m not alone.  Reading isn’t just for older people!  Teen fiction has been exploding and if you push aside the vampire and teen lust titles, you’re going to find some fine reading….books so good you’ll be completely engrossed.  Sure, there are books that leave me with a ‘meh’ but I ditch it and grab another.  There’s always another good one waiting to be discovered.  And if you find a great book – tell a teen!  They might be willing to put down their phone and tear through it in a night or two.

* the book was The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.


Moms know best

It was too quiet.  Usually her pencil flew across the page, eager to write with me.  Today, however, was different.  She sat morosely, sniffing, pencil frozen.  I tried my hand at light-heartedness -silence; I showed her my poem in progress – silence; I nudged her with an idea – silence.  15 minutes later, the situation hadn’t improved.  Time to text mom: “Please come now.”  We waited under a heavy blanket of awkwardness.  All smiles, mom came in and daughter burst into tears.  She didn’t want to do poetry and listed the reasons why it was too much to surmount.  Wise and patient, I was privileged to watch this mom calm her daughter, listen to her, empathize with her and then to tell her that she WAS going to do it.  I was surprised, but pleasantly so.  Willing to forgo a lesson that was pushing too many buttons, I set it aside as this mom insisted that her daughter push through her fears and uncomfortable perceptions and work harder.  I was impressed.

So often, I see how we parents are too quick to give our kids a pass on something that the child deems too hard.  In actuality, it is my firm belief that our kids are much stronger and more resilient than we give them credit for.  This mom knew that.  Happily, she’s not the only one.  A few years ago, Terri knew that her son needed one-on-one instruction.  She was right.  Schooled that way, he blossomed and covered two year’s content in one year (and the next and the next).  Pam knew that her son needed a boost, someone to encourage him and hold him accountable.  Laura knew that after a year of single instruction, her son needed a peer group.  Bethany knew that though her son felt he couldn’t work at a certain level, she put him where he’d be challenged and now he’s so proud of the work he is capable of doing.

These moms knew best!  What I value about them is that they know their children.  They know when to push and when to back off; when to wait and when to nudge.  Allowing your child to make some of their educational decisions is considerate; but making the tough ones for them based on what is seen in them is wise.

My own son is a little smarty-pants and a fantastic reader (I burst with pride) but he won’t sign up for a challenge.  So, I created one for him.  It was as simple as handing him a fat book with a “Here.  Read this.  I give you a month.”  His eyes gaped at Roots – the most obese book on our shelves.  Other adults, feeling sorry for this kid’s poor predicament, lamented that even they, great readers that they are, hadn’t read that book.  I toyed with the idea of letting him off the hook, especially since it was paired with his lack of verve.  But I remembered these moms I admire and kept the expectation that he would finish it.  Wouldn’t you know it?  He did.  And now I hear him referencing it proudly.  And as for my student who cried over writing poetry?  She dug deep and found that not only could she do it, but she did it so well that her peers admired her for her skill.

My kids aren’t old enough quite yet to realize how their mom has them figured out.  True, they surprise me sometimes, but I want to be the first one to say “You can do this.”  Sometimes we need to give them the mercy of bowing out of something, but more often then not, when all that seemed too hard is said and done, when they’ve listened to their moms, they’ll see that mom was right.

My 10 life-changing books

These books changed my world, making me see people more keenly, think about issues differently & hold dear some of my previously unclear beliefs. For these I am very grateful.  (See my last post for how to find a good book.)

Roots, Alex Haley  A good book is to be enjoyed; a great book to be felt… and this one delivers.  Some might remember seeing the moving 1977 mini-series but this book taps into so many more emotions.  I remember where and when I read it, feeling outrage at what one man could do to another and ‘watching’ the fall-out that entails.  But the human spirit is strong and can endure so much…I also felt inspired and privileged to have ‘known’ these people even though it was remotely.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak  I literally hug this book.  It’s true!  I’ve read so many WWII books but this one is so incredibly different that it’s unforgettable.  The writing leaves me in awe as Zusak is a master with words.  I adore the imperfect, interesting characters and appreciate being inside Nazi Germany simply as someone who has no interest in the war but must endure it.  Tragedy changes people and in this book, it’s for the better.

The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton  The only book on the list that I’ve read at least 15 times, I never tire of it.  Each time I teach it there are new nuggets to share.  Hinton makes us compassionate to the outsider and makes us question our own evaluation measures when judging someone such as their appearance and financial status.  Maybe the scruffiest person in the bunch is the most mild-hearted and kind, maybe even more so than the socially acceptable one.

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls  This is the first book I recommend no matter who asks.  This non-bitter memoir of siblings growing up with mentally ill parents was absolutely fascinating.  Multiple scenes will stay with you long after you put it down. You’ll read with disbelief that these tenacious kids not only survived but thrived.

Peace Like a River, Leif Enger   Enger’s tone is so comfortable, his style so engaging, his characters so real.  This story’s father is hands-down the best representative of a Christian man in fiction.  It’s a prodigal son story in reverse where the father (w/ narrator brother and precocious sister) seeks out the lost son.  God is the invisible travel companion through Minnesota and the Badlands in which faith is just as critical as family. My children still remember me reading winsome passages aloud to them while they ate breakfast.  I simply adore this book.

The Damnation of Theron Ware, Harold Frederic  The provocative title alone had me hooked and this classic from 1896 begs to be read today.  Not only is the writing superb, but the story line is fascinating.  A small-town preacher gets himself entangled in a mess from which he cannot extricate himself and I found myself thinking, how will this be done?  Frederic is a master of leading the reader while paying attention to his characters.  Two of his favorite themes are self-awareness & close-mindedness and this story addresses them expertly.

Hind’s Feet on High Places, Hannah Hurnard  Best spiritual book ever.  This seemingly simple allegory holds truths for anyone.  In her journey, Much Afraid travels where she doesn’t want to go but her Shepherd tells her it’s “safe to follow [my] voice” and she does to the High Places of Love but it’s not easy and each trial brings a new lesson.  When she questions him, he says, “I don’t know anything more exhilarating than turning weakness into strength, and fear into faith and that which has been marred into perfection.”  The author’s personal story of coming to faith and her nearness to Christ is just as good.

A Stranger in the Kingdom, Howard Frank Mosher  I’ll never forget laughing during some chapters and thinking deeply during others, especially when the residents of a small town have to face their “untested tolerance.”  It’s easy to proclaim you’re a tolerant bunch until someone comes along to test it.  Then what?  Only a few in town pass the test and love the stranger.

A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg  & Like Garlic for Sapphires, Ruth Reichl  These two books about food and food writing not only left me with serious travel-envy but a re-affirmation that food isn’t something that simply nourishes your body, but it’s what brings people together in myriad ways, evokes sweet memories and connects us to each other.

Something new and fresh for the teacher

When you’ve taught school for 20 years, you hear things like, “It must be so much easier now.” or, “It must be nice to have the summers off.” I think that means that there’s an assumption that I’ve a stack of files that I go to each week, pulling out what I need, knowing that it’ll work because I’ve done it dozens of times before.  Or, that summers are devoid of anything having to do with school.

I’m here to tell you – that’s not the case – for me, anyway.  With a sheepish shrug, someone just this week admitted that the reason he got out of teaching was because he was bored!   This man is creative and energetic and apparently, always up for something new.  But it was so refreshing to me because I’ve had the boredom demon nipping at my toes, too.  Thankfully, my role with kids who are always up for something new has allowed me to blend my need to teach something new and interesting to me – in new and interesting ways.

So although it’s true that a few novels just must be taught each year, my list of 14 novels this year includes some new ones, mostly because I keep reading and discovering novels out there that hold some fresh gems to me and my kids.   Perpetually gleaning, I’m finding unique expressions of words and concepts that inspire me to teach them in a way that captures my students’ interest. This in turn turns my creativity crank, making me an enthusiastic and excited teacher.  Just last week I was reading something and my wheels started turning…’maybe this would help my kids learn characterization….”  (This is how I think.)

I used to think, ‘why am I working so hard?’  Rewriting papers, designing files, customizing work for that student who sees life just a little differently….well, it’s because I love them and I love what I do and I’m fully aware just how blessed I am to have the job.  So my summers ‘off’ will continue to be spent searching for books to grab that boy’s attention, jotting down poetry ideas and developing my own writing because with material this good surrounding me, being bored is not an option.