Teacher to kids: read anything, just read


THE DIARY of Anne Frank" was the assigned reading in English class, and you can guess how it went down with the male half of eighth grade.

Many of the boys dismissed it as a selection best suited for girls and dorks and withdrew their goodwill in an act of solidarity.

Even those of us who believe "The Diary of Anne Frank" is a masterpiece of children's literature can concede that a young girl's diary might not be the perfect carrot to dangle in front of the hyperkinetic middle-school boy who would choose to do anything else before he would choose to read.

And we would have a friend in Mary Leonhardt.

"Assigning class books does not work for so many kids," says Leonhardt, a high school English teacher in Concord, Mass., and the author of several books on how to keep kids reading.

"In elementary school, we are so concerned that the kids like the books they are reading, but by junior high, that all flies out the window."

Leonhardt comes from the comic-books, sports-pages, back-of-cereal-boxes school of reading to which so many of us mothers of reluctant readers belong.

These reluctant readers are not always boys, but they often are, and keeping them reading in junior high so that they can handle the challenges of high school is a concern.

"That's because the kinds of books that are looked on as classics are often 'girls' ' books," she said in an interview from her home.

"The drive toward political correctness means that the World War II book will be a young girl's diary instead of one in which there are men fighting."

In 28 years of teaching, Leonhardt has not found any book that all the students in a class will enjoy reading. She took a survey once and assigned the most popular book on the survey. But the minute it became assigned reading, students claimed to hate it.

So she just tells them to read. Read anything. Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Rosamunde Pilcher. Anything. And if they want an "A" or a "B" in her class, they have to read a lot of it.

"The only rule is that if you start a book and you don't like it, you can't continue. You must find something you like," says the author of "Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don't" and "Keeping Kids Reading."

"Poor readers believe there isn't any book they will like. Can you imagine what it does for them when they find one?"

Her students do common reading in class -- short stories or passages from books like "The Diary of Anne Frank" -- so there can be a class discussion on certain topics.

Even so, she finds that her students are more animated in discussions about characterization or point of view if they are discussing a book they have chosen to read.

The goal, Leonhardt says, is not to cross another title off the list of "Great Literature Everyone Should Read," but to read and read and read until you develop the sophisticated reading skills that only come with practice.

"It is kind of elitist to worry about whether these children have an exposure to Anne Frank or Joseph Conrad when we have the kind of literacy problems we have in this country," she says.

Misguided, too, are attempts to censor the books children read.

Reading a lot of Danielle Steel won't turn a young girl into an unscrupulous woman who sleeps her way to the top. And if it makes her an avid reader, she's even less likely to be one.

The same is true of boys. The jails are not full of men who read action-adventure novels about good vs. evil. The jails are full of men who can't read at all.

Leonhardt keeps her classroom stocked with garage-sale paperbacks and her lending policy is very loose.

And she gives students extra credit if they actually go into a bookstore and buy a book.

She says students were struck dumb the first time she suggested it.

"I want them to go into bookstores. That's where readers hang out."

Few colleagues have followed Mary Leonhardt down this path, despite years of preaching. "They are still tied to class books and the idea that students must learn certain reading skills like characterization, narration and imagery patterns.

"That's nice, but where on earth are they ever going to use that stuff?"

Leonhardt sees fewer and fewer avid readers among her students and that worries her. "There is too much else competing for their attention," she says.

But what worries her more is the number of adults -- parents and teachers -- who worry too much about the titles students are reading.

"Every year, it seems, there are fewer adults who understand that kids should just be reading."

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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