The link below is to an article that takes a look at how ‘not’ to get your teen back into books.
When you think of inner-city teenagers, what springs to mind? For many, it’s hoodies, video games – and probably hating Shakespeare. But my research proves that this stereotype is far from the truth.
Shakespeare holds a contested place in the English national curriculum as the only compulsory writer to be studied between the ages of 11 and 16. This imposed curriculum attempts to situate Shakespeare’s plays as part of national culture, rather than purely as an exemplar of high art. But teens are rarely asked directly about their experiences of education, and about its relevance to them.
Instead, they are often represented as a homogenous group who are bored and resistant to studying Shakespeare, particularly when it comes to struggling with the language he used.
However, my research with over 800 students in four London secondary schools offers a very different picture. I asked these 13 to 14-year-olds what they think and/or feel when they hear the word “Shakespeare” – and some of their answers defied expectations.
What students say
Many students told me that they actually enjoy studying Shakespeare in school. From comments such as “I feel happy because I like most of his plays”, to “I feel excited because Shakespeare was the best writer ever […] a legend or genius”, they expressed levels of interest in Shakespeare that are rarely acknowledged.
These students also did not see the language as a barrier, but as a challenge to be embraced. One commented: “I also get quite happy because we do not often look at texts with old English.”
In this large cohort of students, some comments stand out, showing how varied and individual their responses are. One described Shakespeare as “one of my inspirations for writing poetry”, while another said that “although I don’t really like English, I like his plays a lot”.
Teachers seem to play a key role in developing a positive attitude in some of their students. One student said that “all the work I’ve done on Shakespeare has been interesting and fun”, while another said she “really enjoyed the last play that we did”.
This study did not look in detail at what actually happens in the classroom, but many of the students’ comments suggest that having the confidence to approach a Shakespeare text with a positive attitude partly comes from the teacher’s attitude to him and his work.
‘Be not afraid of greatness …’
In addition to the wholly positive comments, some students demonstrated a more mixed response to the subject. One student told me that “sometimes it’s interesting and sometimes it’s just boring ‘cause in Year 7 I remember we did this one play for a very long time and it was just kind of the same thing every lesson for a double lesson”.
Here, the lessons were clearly not varied enough to hold this student’s attention all the time, although the comment suggests that the student knew that studying Shakespeare could be interesting and fun, even if it isn’t always like that in practice.
For others, the choice of play is key: “Some Shakespeare plays are more interesting than others, in my opinion.” One of the students I interviewed also articulated a clear tension in her attitudes towards studying Shakespeare. She said:
The good part is because everyone goes through different stuff, some people can relate and they can feel like they’re not alone or like this has happened before and studying Shakespeare makes you see the world differently, […] and the bad thing about it [is] learning how to write in the Shakespeare kind of structure when it won’t be useful in the future.
For a number of students, there are perhaps inevitable negative connotations attached to the word “Shakespeare”. Some did describe Shakespeare simply as “boring”, but others explained their reservations in more detail. One said: “I feel like I’ve heard the word Shakespeare too much and that I don’t want to talk about him.” Another thought “about long complicated language that no one understands”, while further complaints were about how “it is unnecessary to learn about as I don’t understand what’s beneficial for us as students”.
Overall, the students involved in this research demonstrated a breadth and depth of response to Shakespeare that counters the generalised belief that teenagers respond poorly to his work. Indeed, used as an introductory question to establish students’ attitudes to Shakespeare before attending a production at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, in London, I have been fascinated by the variety and subtlety of thought they have demonstrated.
As one said: “I feel honoured that I’ve covered Shakespeare in school, because telling people you have read his plays makes you sound smart.” The sense of privilege inherent in this comment, despite the fact that everyone studies Shakespeare at school, is clearly something to cherish.
Most of us spend much more time with digital media than we did a decade ago. But today’s teens have come of age with smartphones in their pockets. Compared to teens a couple of decades ago, the way they interact with traditional media like books and movies is fundamentally different.
My co-authors and I analyzed nationally representative surveys of over one million U.S. teens collected since 1976 and discovered an almost seismic shift in how teens are spending their free time.
Increasingly, books seem to be gathering dust.
It’s all about the screens
By 2016, the average 12th grader said they spent a staggering six hours a day texting, on social media, and online during their free time. And that’s just three activities; if other digital media activities were included, that estimate would surely rise.
Teens didn’t always spend that much time with digital media. Online time has doubled since 2006, and social media use moved from a periodic activity to a daily one. By 2016, nearly nine out of 10 12th-grade girls said they visited social media sites every day.
Meanwhile, time spent playing video games rose from under an hour a day to an hour and a half on average. One out of 10 8th graders in 2016 spent 40 hours a week or more gaming – the time commitment of a full-time job.
With only so much time in the day, doesn’t something have to give?
Maybe not. Many scholars have insisted that time online does not displace time spent engaging with traditional media. Some people are just more interested in media and entertainment, they point out, so more of one type of media doesn’t necessarily mean less of the other.
However, that doesn’t tell us much about what happens across a whole cohort of people when time spent on digital media grows and grows. This is what large surveys conducted over the course of many years can tell us.
Movies and books go by the wayside
While 70 percent of 8th and 10th graders once went to the movies once a month or more, now only about half do. Going to the movies was equally popular from the late 1970s to the mid-2000s, suggesting that Blockbuster video and VCRs didn’t kill going to the movies.
But after 2007 – when Netflix introduced its video streaming service – moviegoing began to lose its appeal. More and more, watching a movie became a solitary experience. This fits a larger pattern: In another analysis, we found that today’s teens go out with their friends considerably less than previous generations did.
But the trends in moviegoing pale in comparison to the largest change we found: An enormous decline in reading. In 1980, 60 percent of 12th graders said they read a book, newspaper or magazine every day that wasn’t assigned for school.
By 2016, only 16 percent did – a huge drop, even though the book, newspaper or magazine could be one read on a digital device (the survey question doesn’t specify format).
The number of 12th graders who said they had not read any books for pleasure in the last year nearly tripled, landing at one out of three by 2016. For iGen – the generation born since 1995 who has spent their entire adolescence with smartphones – books, newspapers and magazines have less and less of a presence in their daily lives.
Of course, teens are still reading. But they’re reading short texts and Instagram captions, not longform articles that explore deep themes and require critical thinking and reflection. Perhaps as a result, SAT reading scores in 2016 were the lowest they have ever been since record keeping began in 1972.
It doesn’t bode well for their transition to college, either. Imagine going from reading two-sentence captions to trying to read even five pages of an 800-page college textbook at one sitting. Reading and comprehending longer books and chapters takes practice, and teens aren’t getting that practice.
There was a study from the Pew Research Center a few years ago finding that young people actually read more books than older people. But that included books for school and didn’t control for age. When we look at pleasure reading across time, iGen is reading markedly less than previous generations.
The way forward
So should we wrest smartphones from iGen’s hands and replace them with paper books?
Probably not: smartphones are teens’ main form of social communication.
However, that doesn’t mean they need to be on them constantly. Data connecting excessive digital media time to mental health issues suggests a limit of two hours a day of free time spent with screens, a restriction that will also allow time for other activities – like going to the movies with friends or reading.
Of the trends we found, the pronounced decline in reading is likely to have the biggest negative impact. Reading books and longer articles is one of the best ways to learn how to think critically, understand complex issues and separate fact from fiction. It’s crucial for being an informed voter, an involved citizen, a successful college student and a productive employee.
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If print starts to die, a lot will go with it.
Young adults who are, perhaps, still figuring out their needs don’t need to be overburdened with books they won’t like. The last thing we want is for a young reader to get turned off and lose out on the immeasurable benefits reading provides.
As a researcher looking at diverse representations in young adult literature, I often get asked for book recommendations.
Since I believe all readers are looking for an emotional connection to a story, I start with authenticity as my keystone. In order to form a connection with the experiences of characters, including their travel and journeys to new places, the writing should emerge from a place of authenticity.
Diversity plus critical issues
Author Corinne Duyvis started the hashtag #Ownvoices in 2015 to promote this idea of authenticity and “to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.”
Very basically, when an author shares one or more of the marginalities of their diverse protagonists, it is considered to be included in #Ownvoices. In terms of diversity, most publishers use the definition put out by We Need Diverse Books: “…including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of colour, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”
The hashtag has taken on a life of its own since Duyvis recommended its use. Many published books now market themselves based on #Ownvoices. And Goodreads lists have taken up this call as well. Readers looking for #OwnVoices will find many suggestions – and many more coming in the new year.
I hope this is a turn in publishing and that the well of marginalized stories written by authors most qualified to tell them never runs dry. It’s the surest way to an authentic, empathy-promoting experience for readers.
The current Top Five
Many of the teachers or parents asking for recommendations are hoping to give young adult readers an exercise in critical literacy to provide them with the opportunity to think about something long after the final page is turned. By “something,” I mean an important social issue or nuanced knowledge about a difficult concept or historical time period.
If a book meets both of these criteria — and if I’ve read it myself or have placed it on my “to be read” shelf — it warrants a recommendation.
Here are five books, very recently published (between September and December of 2017), that have made my list. At the end of each book description, I’ve included a question that might serve a critical thinking discussion once the book has been read.
This list is clearly not exhaustive and I present these as suggestions — ones that may warrant further research. Teachers or parents who know the readers they’re offering books to may need to look up any trigger warnings beforehand.
I recommend adults read books along with younger readers: It’s vital to meaningful conversations. I have left questions in my descriptions to prompt some discussion. Furthermore, I think adult readers may be pleasantly surprised with the rich and important storytelling happening in the young adult literary world.
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Starfish (Simon Pulse) features Kiko, who suffers from anxieties. She’s waiting to escape an abusive family situation by getting into the art school of her dreams but when she doesn’t get in, she takes the opportunity presented by a childhood friend to tour other schools.
Kiko, the main character who is half-Japanese, takes a journey that ends up being one of personal growth. The journey allows Kiko to embrace who she is, to learn more about her heritage and to speak up for herself. The writing is lyrical and endearing and we get a lot of Kiko’s internal thoughts and feelings.
There’s a love story here too. I would have liked it if Kiko’s path to self-love was not so knotted up with her childhood friend. But perhaps that’s me being old and young adult readers will like this aspect the best. What will you and your young adult readers think?
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
They Both Die at the End (Harper Collins) is an interesting genre mashup — both speculative and contemporary. With the whole “there’s an app for that” times we live in, it feels very timely.
In an alternate reality, two teen boys spend a day together after learning it will be their last. There’s diverse representation here and definitely a message that seems suitable for young people attached to their phones at the expense of experiencing the world and making real connections.
In my literature classes, we talk a lot about how classic children’s books tend to have “didactic” elements – morals embedded into them and modes of socialization or teaching children how to be in the world. Thinking through themes a writer develops, how do contemporary didactic modes operate here or in young adult literature more generally?
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Dear Martin (Crown Books) takes up the story of Justyce McAllister, a full-scholarship, Ivy League-bound, Black 17-year-old boy who learns that when it comes to racism, none of these accomplishments matter.
The title takes its name from the letters Justyce writes to Martin Luther King, Jr. while he grapples with racial tensions and police oppression. It’s a story that seems ripped straight from the headlines and has been compared to The Hate U Give, this year’s very successful YA book by Angie Thomas. Both of these books are important and necessary, and sadly, deal with inequalities that plague young adults of colour. How can literature combat systematic oppression and social ills?
Warcross by Marie Lu
Warcross (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers) has already wracked up a record number of positive reviews from readers. It’s a new series by the author of other YA favourites, including The Young Elites series.
In it, teenage hacker Emika Chen finds herself embroiled in a virtual reality game that’s taken over the globe. It’s an international spy adventure with a diverse cast in a near-future sci-fi world and it’s pretty awesome!
I think this one will organically prompt a discussion about “global virtual crazes” – and while its clear these virtual crazes might be ‘bad’ I wonder if there are positives to be found also?
Whichwood by Tahera Mafi
Whichwood (Dutton Books for Young Readers) is the second book set in the Furthermore world. The first was a middle grade book but this one has been aged up to Young Adult. Inspired by Mafi’s Persian culture, it tells the story of Laylee, a 15-year-old with so much tragedy in her life, tasked with washing bodies of the dead to prepare them for the afterlife.
I’ve long been a fan of Mafi’s — her writing is lush and her worlds are so imaginative. Moreover, it always feels like everything she writes is a metaphor for something larger. But because her plots are so gripping, it’s not always apparent what exactly. Notwithstanding that themes in literature vary depending on individual reader’s responses to content, what do your readers find are the takeaways in this one?
The link below is to an article featuring a number of lists, including the ten best reads for teens. What do you think of the lists in this article?
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the new Penguin Australia website for teens – ‘Penguin Teen Australia.’