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, and 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.
Thompson was one of 700 English and language arts teachers who attended the California Literature Project Conference held recently 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.
Establishing classroom libraries is one effective technique, teachers said.
Thompson's 10th-graders have access to a crate with 80 books, mostly "easy reads" but also some challenging titles by essayist Lewis Thomas, Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges and others.
"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.
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 "Profiles in Courage" to the work of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev.
Whirry encourages her juniors and seniors to read anything on the classroom bookshelves that intrigues them.
Afterward, she sits down with each student and discusses the book, sometimes over a sandwich, an experience some students report that they have never had before.
"Interestingly, the most success I have with this is with my slowest students," said Whirry, who has been teaching for 19 years. "My best students want to read what's assigned. They'll ask me, 'What do \o7 you \f7 want us to read?' But the slower students will take the initiative in choosing a book."
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, friendship and loyalty.
"They also like to be frightened," said Purucker, pointing to the popularity among her junior-high students of thrillers by Ken Follett and Robert Ludlum.
As teen-agers put the books of childhood behind them, their teachers occasionally find themselves confronting parents offended by the adult language or mature subject matter of their children's reading.
During the 1984-85 school year, the books most likely to draw parental ire were four "young adult" novels by Judy Blume, who writes for youngsters about such controversial subjects as nocturnal emissions and the loss of virginity, according to a national canvass by People for the American Way, a civil liberties watchdog group.
J. D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," Robert Cormier's critically acclaimed "The Chocolate War," and John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" were also frequently protested by parents and community groups.
It is her school's policy to provide alternative reading material for students whose parents object to a particular work, Thompson said.
Perhaps because she knows how powerful literature is, Thompson takes a calm view of such controversy. "I don't mind," she said. "To me, parental objection looks a lot like an opportunity to teach somebody about a great work of literature."
Thompson recalled one Temple City parent who apparently believed that the teacher was trafficking in witchcraft by assigning works by Edgar Allan Poe and Hawthorne's story, "Young Goodman Brown."
"The woman sat in my class every day for six weeks," Thompson recalled. "At the end of that time, her parting words to me were, 'I'm going back to college.' "