After three years as an eighth and ninth grade English teacher, I need two days of classroom discussion and a single writing assignment to distinguish the students who read and write at home from those who spend the bulk of their downtime in front of a television or computer screen.
The former possess a larger vocabulary, stronger grammar and spelling skills, and a more confident, developed voice – both in speech and on paper. This academic sense of self almost always translates to an equally strong sense of self outside of the classroom. Readers and writers take the time to study their own experiences and those of others, allowing them to digest, understand and navigate the increasingly tumultuous world in which they live.
I'm well aware that convincing a fourteen year-old to log off Myspace and pick up a book is not easy. Every time I hand out a reading assignment longer than four pages I'm met with moans and groans about its length. But, the act of reading itself is more important than what, or even how much is read. Fortunately, young adult literature and graphic novels are both approachable (especially to visual learners) and increasingly relevant.
In terms of self-motivated writing, an absolutely private journal and some sacred time and space to write in it can offer the coveted privacy many teens desire. When we free write in class I let students listen to iPods, use sparkling gel pens and supplement their pieces with drawings. Although I give them a “participation” grade based on their focus during this time, I will never collect their work. I will, though, be thrilled to read anything they care to share.
Last, but certainly not least, role-modeling is key. As a teacher, I do what my mother did with me and what I plan to do for my own children: read, write, and talk about my passion for both. The most important words and lessons are always unspoken. If you want to raise readers and writers, teach by example.