How I Got Middle Schoolers to Read Great Books Again

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Passing on the gifts of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Bradbury, Orwell.

I’ve always enjoyed children and books, so four years ago I left my job as a whitewater rafting guide and applied to teach English at a little Catholic school in the mountains of North Carolina. I bought a blue suit jacket from Goodwill, brushed up on my St. Thomas Aquinas, and bid farewell to my leaky shack and shaggy-haired neighbors on the Nantahala River. Miraculously, the parish entrusted me with 42 souls between the ages of 12 and 14. They told me I would begin at the end of August, offered an annual salary of $19,000, and extended to me a glorious amount of freedom. In asking me to educate the students, they didn’t shackle me with drawn-out and dreary national standards. That autumn I began a new journey, the most eye-opening adventure of my young life.

What does it mean to be educated? After fours years at Hillsdale College in Michigan, I knew that education went far beyond empiricism, standardization, and technological training. The Latin root word for education is educere, meaning to draw out. But what are educators suppose to draw out? I determined it must be love—love of goodness and truth; love of beautiful things; love of making and creating; love of each other; and most importantly, love of Christ.

I imagine the experts would find this theory whimsical and superfluous. Undertaking to teach 12-year olds to love the good life? The clerk at the Dollar Store thought even engaging with middle schoolers was hazardous to good health and an utter waste of time. “You must be crazy!” she told me.

In late August the journey began. While I understood my destination, my route was undecided. Faced with a cacophony of educational cure-alls, effective new techniques, and all-mighty technologies, I decided to begin in a place small, simple, and eternal. I opened my favorite books. I turned to timeless authors to show me the way. “Writers are lovers,” Ray Bradbury says. Okay, Mr. Bradbury, I thought, you’re in. Fahrenheit 451, with all its “damns” and “knock the sloth on its ass,” would belong to the eighth graders. My instincts also told me to go with C.S. Lewis and I re-read The Abolition of Man. “The role of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Exactly! C.S. Lewis and his beautiful allegory The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe would be just the starter book for sixth graders. Unexpected parties, squishing dwarves with your butt, and slaying goblins…..Tolkien would lead the seventh grade.

Following the torch of these wise and brilliant imaginations, I planned my curriculum. I eventually settled on a dozen novels, four for each middle school class. Naturally, I added a healthy dose of short stories, poems, grammar, and writing. Our compass, however, would be great books. But how would the kids respond? It was the great unknown. The societal consensus indicates that kids don’t read anymore. Perhaps my journey would be over before it even started, and I’d retreat bitterly into the banal world of handouts and the preachy, multicultural eight-page stories found in most textbooks. Maybe I’d burn out, as so many teachers do, and return to the river.

Two years later, I was strolling through the halls when the art teacher pulled me aside. “I’ve never seen the kids so excited about reading,” she said. She was right. My students relished books. I had seen them chant for me to read to them. Fahrenheit 451 and The Giver shocked them, as good dystopias often do. One student was in near hysterics at Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, his new favorite.

I witnessed them blush when Tom Sawyer does his cartwheels in Becky Thatcher’s front yard. The boys most definitely saw Tom in themselves when they show off at lunch and on the playground. They were enamored with Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Toad. One diminutive sixth-grader insisted I call her “Toad” for the rest of the school year. The seventh grade laughed loudly when the Pigs drunkenly galloped around Animal Farm and grew very angry when they sent Boxer to the glue factory. The boys loudly sang “Beasts of England” in their bunks on their class trip.

For the school talent show, the eighth grade recreated the Fall of Troy. They made armor, a trojan horse, and included lots of sword fighting, archery, ominous drumbeats, and slow dramatic deaths. One sunny afternoon a few students voluntarily ate lunch with me and invented riddles, as Bilbo and Gollum had done deep in the Misty Mountains. Yes, they were certainly in love with books and many other good things.

One might think me spoiled to have such eager and earnest students. Sadly, a taste for literature is considered an advantage wealthy parents bestow on their kids as small children. Time to read is a luxury, right? This is hardly the case with my students. More than half of them are second-generation immigrants. Their parents speak Spanish and work hard as painters, house cleaners, restaurant workers, and landscapers to pay the tuition not covered by parishioner-funded scholarships.

Books guide us through the seasons every year. Rich autumns, snowbound winters, and sweet-smelling springs are all marked by characters, stories, discussions, and projects. It’s always new and exciting, but there’s a beautiful rhythm to life in the mountains. When the cherry blossoms burst open in May, the eighth graders prepare for their departure to new schools. It is both joyous and bitter. Most students say they don’t want to go on to high school. For their graduation we celebrate the Mass and throw a party. I gift every student a hand-chosen novel. The book is both a map for the road ahead and a token of gratitude.

Phil Morgan is a freelance journalist and English and Spanish teacher living in Hendersonville, NC. His writings have been featured in Eastern SurfBlue Ridge Outdoors, and WNC Magazine.