Teaching a Book My Students Don’t Like

By Nick McDaniels — The interesting thing about adapting to the Common Core Curriculum, a curriculum designed to be slightly less prescriptive in allowing teachers to design lessons that meet the needs and interests of students, is that, in application, the Common Core, as I am perceiving it, has limited my teaching decision greatly.

This, in some ways, is great. I no longer have to think about what books to teach, how to teach them, what standards to address with which lessons. All of that is done for me. For this quarter, I have a book picked out for me to teach, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, with copies of the book for students to take home (the first time I have experienced this as a teacher) and the lessons that come with the book are well thought-out and useful.

HOWEVER, my students don’t like the book.

In my opinion, Bacigalupi does a great job of writing a near-futuristic post-apocalyptic account of what will happen if we let environmental degradation and the disparity of wealth grow out of control.

The book is attainable as it is written below my students grade level, but the adventure-based sci-fi thriller does not speak to my students, who are 15-18 years old (like the characters in the book), 100 percent students of color (also like the characters in the book), 85 percent female, and 75 percent not a fan of Ship Breaker. But, because I am required to teach this book, and because I find the social commentary subject matter somewhat important, I have to find a way to make this either as interesting as possible or as painless as possible, or perhaps both.

So how am I going about teaching a book that my students don’t like?

1) I’m pretending to like it more than I do. As teachers, we are often teaching material that we don’t enjoy and that our students enjoy even less that we do. But one thing is almost certainly true, if we show that we don’t like it, the students certainly won’t like it.

2) I’m honest about their feelings about the book and give them choice. We openly discuss the fact that most students are not excited about the book, and talk about the importance of reading it. Then, I give them choice in how we go about reading it (grouped reading, independent reading, book-on-tape, teacher-led reading, at-home reading). Varying the approaches tends to make the material more interesting.

3) I do not use the book as the center piece of the unit. I have arranged for a field trip to see An Enemy of the People at a local theatre, have partnered with a local rights group to bring documentary filmmakers and stars of the film into my class to discuss their film Dear Mandela, and I have supplemented the curriculum with informational articles to make the discussions relevant.

There’s in no telling how well all of this will work as there are still a few weeks left in the unit, but I’m sure that, in this case, doing something is better than doing nothing. I’ll keep you posted, and let’s hope the next book is more likable.

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