Adolescent Literacy

Thinking about a number of things as I prepare to teach Reading in the Content Areas again:

One, how much of one’s approach as a high school teacher has to be triage for the damage done by previous teachers? Unlike a fifth grade teacher, who can look at a group of children and know that they might, with a lot of work, be able to catch everyone up, a high school teacher can look around the room and know that getting all student to grade level is nigh impossible. And all of the horrid things that have been done to kids in elementary school and middle school in the name of literacy…well, let’s just say that high school is a chance for a revenge, whether the suburban “I don’t hear you version” or the urban “read it yourself chump” version.

I think about Mathilda and the discovery of the joys of reading. How do you get teenagers to feel that same joy if they’ve never done so before?

From Sven Birkerts, whose Gutenberg Elegies I have assigned…I’m scared of the outcome — I love this book but I’m really worried my students will hate it.

“The main difference between childhood reading and reading undertaken later is that in the former, futurity — the idea of one’s life as a project, or adventure, or set of possibilities — has not yet entered the calculation. The child reads within a bubble. He is like Narcissus staring at his lovely image in the water’s mirror. He is still sealed off from any notion of the long-term unfolding of the life, except in the perfected terms of fantasy: I, too, will be a pirate…

The change comes with adolescence, that biological and psychological free-fire zone during which the profoundest existential questions are not only posed, but lived. Who am I? Why am I doing what I’m doing? What should I do? What will happen to me? It is in adolescence that most of grasp that life — our own life — is a problem to be solved, that a set of personal unknowns must now be factored together with the frightening variables of experience. The future suddenly appears — it is the space upon which the answers will be inscribed. The very idea of futurity now becomes charged with electricity.

Birkerts, S. (2006). The Gutenberg elegies : the fate of reading in an electronic age (Pbk. ed.). New York: Faber and Faber, 89.

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