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Making Teens Read Can Be Quite a Trick

August 17, 1986|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer and

Teacher Anita Thompson is ruthless when it comes to inducing her 10th graders to read.

She'll even take their books away.

"No, I'm sorry," she tells her students at the end of the brief free-reading period that opens each of her writing classes at Temple City High School. "We can't read anymore. We've got more important things to do."

A 24-year classroom veteran, as well as a parent, Thompson has discovered that nothing more effectively motivates teen-agers to do something than being told not to do it. All's fair in love and reading, she believes.

"I love to watch the way they go about getting the books," the 47-year-old Sierra Madre resident said with a satisfied laugh.

"They do this thing where they'll say, 'You wouldn't let me borrow the book, so you know what I did? I checked it out of the library.' "

Thompson was one of 700 English and language arts teachers who attended the California Literature Project Conference held Wednesday through Friday in Long Beach. Sponsored primarily by the California Department of Education and UCLA, the conference brought together teachers from throughout the state to consider ways to make literature meaningful to students.

Between sessions, Thompson and other local teachers talked about the special problems and satisfactions of teaching literature to adolescents in an age of music videos.

Almost anyone can get youngsters to slog through classroom assignments, the teachers said. Much harder is helping them become genuine readers, people who will spontaneously pick up a book for whatever information, pleasure or consolation it affords.

Establishing classroom libraries is one effective technique, the teachers said.

Some Challenging Titles

Thompson's 10th graders have access to a red plastic crate filled with 80 books, mostly "easy reads" but also some challenging titles by essayist Lewis Thomas, Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges and others. The crate is a step up from Thompson's original book container--"just an old, discarded box covered with paper, the kind of thing teachers are famous for," she said.

Half the books were contributed by the students themselves.

"Typically the books they choose are a couple of grade levels lower than they can handle, but that's OK," Thompson said.

"This is reading for recreation. They are no different than I am. For relaxation I don't pick Proust or Goethe. I want Stephen King."

Thompson finds that even before students finish their personal selections, they start reserving books that their classmates like. Classroom best-sellers include Douglas Adams' comic science-fiction novel "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and its sequels.

Secondhand Books

Dr. Marilyn Whirry, who teaches writing and literature at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, also has a classroom library--400 titles ranging from John F. Kennedy's nonfiction "Profiles in Courage" to the work of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, most of them bought secondhand.

In addition to required reading, Whirry encourages her juniors and seniors to take home and read anything on the classroom bookshelves that intrigues them.

Afterward, she sits down with each student and discusses his or her book, sometimes over a sandwich, an experience some students report they have never had before.

"Interestingly, the most success I have with this is with my slowest students," said Whirry, 53, who has been teaching for 19 years. "My best students want to read what's assigned. They'll ask me, 'What do you want us to read?' But the slower students will take the initiative in choosing a book."

Judith Guest's novel "Ordinary People" is a favorite, especially with her less able readers, said Whirry. She suspects that many of them see reflections of their own lives in the economically secure but troubled family portrayed by Guest.

Tested Themes

Certain literary themes have time-tested appeal for teen-agers, the educators said.

According to Mary Purucker, a veteran English teacher who is the librarian at Malibu's Lincoln Junior High School, adolescents respond most strongly to works that deal with such non-frivolous themes as survival, the search for identity, rites of passage, and friendship and loyalty.

"They also like to be frightened," said Purucker, 52, pointing to the popularity among her junior-high students of thrillers by Ken Follett and Robert Ludlum.

The educators said that they often rely on these themes to tempt students to try top-quality mainstream or adult literature.

For example, John Steinbeck's tragic novella about friendship, "Of Mice and Men," is popular with young teen-agers.

"One of the reasons they take it out of the library is because it's short," said Purucker. "But then they read it and find it compelling. That was true for my son. I think it was the first adult book that really moved him."

Teen-agers often resonate to less predictable works as well. Anita Thompson said her Temple City students love T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Echoes Uncertainty

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