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Your kids are reading different books

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Preston Utley/Vail DailyThe reading list in local English classes is changing to include more non-fiction and young adult novels.
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EAGLE COUNTY ” William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” full of the angst, violence, forbidden love and weepy melodrama so appealing to teens, will likely stick on high school reading lists for another few years.

The classic play is being read though with new “young adult” novels like “Romiette and Julio” and “Scribbler of Dreams,” both present-day interpretations of the well-known love story that will hook students on the plot before they navigate the difficult verbal terrain of Shakespeare.

It’s one of the many signs that the high school English class is modernizing, re-evaluating traditions and adapting to the 21st century lifestyle of a teen. There’s a lot more to it now than diagramming sentences and sifting through the dusty tomes of Charles Dickens.

The fact is that technology, mainly the Internet, is changing how students read and understand information, said Mike Gass, director of secondary education for Eagle County School District.

There’s more to absorb than ever through text messages, Google, Wikipedia, news blogs and advertisements, and all of this is competing with the old but still important world of classic literature.

The district is currently reworking its middle and high school language arts curriculum to better teach these modern students, who will have to make sense of the information blitzkrieg at their fingertips and still learn to understand “The Grapes of Wrath” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

As students leave high school and eventually college, the ability to absorb fiction drops in importance as they become enveloped by the scientific journals, business reviews and political blogs that feed and nurture their professions.

So, the world of non-fiction, long ignored by English classes in favor of analyzing literature, will soon be used more frequently in class, Gass said.

“In English class, we spend very little time reading non-fiction texts, even though non-fiction is the most relevant reading we could provide for students,” said Sandy Borel, an English teacher at Battle Mountain High School. “The reality is we become a nation of non-fiction readers when we exit high school. Literature takes a back seat to required reading of another sort.”

The brain really does work differently when understanding non-fiction. When a student is reading “Lord of the Flies,” for instance, they’re leaning how to track the plot, spot themes, feel emotions and understand the characters. With a block of text from “Scientific American,” they’re reading for answers ” for specific information relating to a project or research paper.

The district hasn’t settled on what non-fiction the students will be reading hasn’t been fully decided, Gass said.

Do you trust Wikipedia? How about Google? Part of modernizing the English class will be teaching young readers how to be tough critics of whatever it is they come upon while surfing the Internet.

“This is such a difficult skill to teach younger students who generally believe if someone took the time to write it, it must be true,” said Liz Qualman, an English teacher at Berry Creek Middle School.

In the old days, encyclopedias used to be the king of information filters ” unbiased, well-researched and permanent. Now, encyclopedias can’t keep up with the speed and up-to-date information provided by the Internet.

Teachers are solving this by encouraging kids to use school approved Web sites and reputable Internet research services such as Ebsco.

The wide variety of information on the Internet can also put students in an ethical dilemma, especially when they’re writing research papers and essays.

“It is so easy to cut and paste information and pass it off as your own, that teachers and librarians really need to be teaching students about the ethical use of information,” Qualman said.

The tough classics will still be taught, to both the love and chagrin of many students, but you’ll likely see some more recent and eclectic authors thrown in the mix as well as new genres and themes.

The high schools are offering elective classes in Hispanic authors, mythology, contemporary literature, cultural literature and film as literature. “The Alchemist,” written in 1988 by Paulo Coelho, is being taught in freshman and sophomore classes ” not exactly a traditional choice.

Qualman teaches both the full and condensed versions of the 1989 novel “The Power of One” by Bryce Courtenay, which is a modern and challenging read for eighth graders.

Then of course there’s “Romiette and Julio” and “Scribbler’s Dreams,” both written during this recent boom of new young adult literature hitting the market.

“The language arts teachers do a good job of staying in the loop of newer works, but they’re also the kind of people that will pull a classic off a shelf to read again,” Gass said.

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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