I have a passion for teaching English to high schoolers. A passion for seeing kids learn, seeing kids’ faces light up with understanding and excitement. Sadly, I see that light diminishing more with each passing year.
This week begins my 18th year of teaching English to secondary students. And every year, fewer and fewer students love to read. Heck, let’s get rid of the phrase “love to” and state the facts: Every year, fewer and fewer students read. Anything.
Or I guess I should qualify that statement — kids do read a little. And by a little, I mean memes. They’ll read something if it’s shorter than a sentence. And is paired with an image.
And they write that way too. Sentences are overrated. They want fragments, abbreviations, and emojis. That’s how kids communicate these days.
Which means my subject matter — literature and composition — is rapidly dying. It’s very nearly dead — and almost universally despised by my students. So I have a hard task in front of me, trying to save something most kids would love to see buried and gone.
On the first day of school, they are always so happy to brag to me about how much they hate English class. How they don’t read and they don’t want to. They once read a book in 7th grade, they’ll tell me when pressed, about some boy and a plane that crashed. “Hatchet?” I ask. “Yeah, that’s it,” they say. It’s the only book they’ve ever read. “Nothing since?” I whimper. They laugh. “Nope.” And my heart sinks. Every time.
How can I resuscitate a skill that far gone? Something that breathed — once — three years back and then flatlined, never to even be mourned?
We are in the era of smart phones and laptops. Kids don’t even watch television anymore. They watch their portable screens. And mostly quick, entertaining segments on YouTube. If it’s not quick, they won’t usually give it their time. And if it doesn’t grab their attention in the first 30 seconds, they’re hitting the search bar looking for something else.
Kids’ attention spans are jaded and fading. They want new, new, new and fast, fast, fast. And reading meets none of those requirements; writing, even less.
How do I, as an educator, compete in this fast and furious climate and culture?
Sometimes I worry that it’s just too late. That I simply don’t have the ability to raise Literacy from the dead. Indeed, the prognosis is bleak.
Case in point: my students from last year. I love them dearly, and I really believed that together, we’d made all sorts of progress. Now, I knew they weren’t out randomly picking up books instead of their iPhones, but I still thought I’d made some sort of impact. I thought they’d at least enjoyed the literature we read together.
But then I had a group of kids tell me a couple weeks back how much they hated To Kill a Mockingbird. Hated it.
And I wanted to cry. I failed them miserably. And I deceived myself in the process.
How can I remedy my failure? How can I bring the joy of reading and the art of writing back from the brink of death? Or is it already too late?
I know for a fact I can’t do it on my own. It’s impossible. Trauma surgeons have whole teams working in conjunction to keep their patients alive. From paramedics to ER docs to nurses to lab techs to anesthetists to surgical residents and attendings, everybody does their part, separately and together, to keep the patient from multiple system failure. Resuscitating literacy can’t all ride on me.
And it can’t all wait till it gets to me either. Fifteen years without a heart for reading is probably too late. Sure, I might find a feeble pulse in a couple of kids and nurture it back into a steady beat, but saving 2 kids out of 185 is not enough.
Nope, it’s got to be more and it’s got to begin sooner. It needs to begin at home. With parents and their babies.
Parents, read to your children. Read to them early — as newborns, even. It’s never too soon, I promise. Read them Goodnight, Moon. Read them The Grouchy Ladybug. Read them Green Eggs and Ham. And sing to them, too. Sing nursery rhymes. Sing The Itsy Bitsy Spider, sing The Wheels on the Bus. Heck, sing Baby Shark, if you dare.
But read to them, and sing to them, and foster in them the love of language.
Then, we teachers will keep it going — from preschool all the way through senior year and beyond. Together, we can foster lifelong readers and writers… and excellent communicators. This world needs these skills. Desperately.
It’s never too soon, but it can be too late.