April 21, 2022

High Interest Books for Teens

We all know that students need to read more. But if we’re being honest, we know that many teens are not reading the works we assign, choosing instead to “fake” read their texts by watching the movie, reading online notes, or talking about the book with their friends and winging it during discussions. So how do we actually get them to read the texts we assign? We need to assign high-interest books. 

Classic Complications

Don’t get me wrong. I love literary classics. I am pro literary classics. I assign literary classics. But if we only assign the classics, we shortchange our students in a number of ways: 

  • Literary classics represent our historical culture and are important for helping students to develop a shared understanding of the world. But when we only teach literary classics, we ignore modern culture, detaching the literature we are studying from the world in which our students are actually learning. For reluctant readers, we may inadvertently convey the message that their lived experiences have no cultural value. 
  • Literary classics are loaded with complex, sophisticated syntax and vocabulary. This is actually one of the things I love about the classics and one of the reasons why I teach them every year despite the groans and protests of students. But our students don’t arrive to class already understanding these syntax structures and these vocabulary terms, often referring to elevated language as “old-fashioned language.” Absolutely teach these texts. Absolutely expose students to “old-fashioned language” so they understand more advanced communication options. But perhaps reconsider when and where to place these texts in your units so that they come only after students have been hooked on reading more generally. When these texts arrive too early in the year, students simply ignore them and revert back to the “fake reading” described above, eliminating any value these texts have to offer them. 
  • Literary classics often adhere to the conventions of their time periods. Modern communication forms, however, often employ a wide range of narrative structures, non-linear chronology, and even mixed-media. When we only teach the classics, students miss an opportunity to experience different options for writing which, in many cases, may be more reflective of the types of writing they will engage in outside of school. 
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Expanding Beyond the Classics

So how do we identify high-interest texts and how do we know which ones will work best for our students? While there is no one-sized fits all approach, here are a few strategies that may help finding the best books for your needs. 

  1. Ask your students. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to slip into the “teacher-knows-best” mentality. We know the content we need to teach and have *just the right book* so we don’t even bother to consider whether that book is still relevant for our students. By talking to your students about their interests, you can get a sense of what types of stories they are already primed to respond to. 
  1. Ask students to fill out a questionnaire that inquires about what books they remember loving and hating, what shows they watch, what music they listen to, and what hobbies they have. This information will let you know what types of narratives they are most likely to respond to, thereby overcoming some of their natural resistance. 
  1. Find out what students’ schedules are like by asking them to complete this sentence: When I’m not at school I… 
    You’d be surprised how much information this simple sentence starter can convey. You will learn if your students are engaged in after-school activities or jobs, if they have to take care of family members, and more. With this knowledge, you can better assess the length of the books you should offer your students. Even students who love to read may not always have time to read a long text; respecting their schedule outside of school can go a long way towards helping them find success. 
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“Artfulness creates a series of lessons so inspiring and lively that instructors may wonder why formula approaches ever became the standard for teaching the fundamentals of effective writing and reading.”

D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

  1. Consider the current events students are talking about when they come into the room. Are there certain stories that they feel passionate about? If so, what modern stories or authors may reflect those narratives? 
  1. Talk to colleagues. What modern authors have they been reading? A lot of times teachers have a “school” reading list and their own “fun” reading list. This dichotomy alone indicates a possible problem – reading is a magical experience, so if it feels like a chore, something is wrong. Why not use your “fun” reading list as a source for inspiration instead? Sure some of your pleasure reads may have a bit too much fluff or be otherwise inappropriate for school, but chances are you have some titles on your “to be read” list that are perfect for the classroom. I discovered three such books this past year alone during my “fun” reading time:  
  • Greenwood by Michael Christie 
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng 
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 
  1. Join a social media group that is focused on educator content. Alexandrite Publishing offers a variety of ways for teachers to collaborate with one another including our Facebook Group, Artful Education and our in-house membership program, Hidden Gems. Both communities offer benefits to teachers. Artful Education is designed to help advance effective strategies and promote a healthy work/life balance. Hidden Gems provides a comprehensive community where educators and writers can come to share best practices, strategies, or support questions connected to a range of topics including, notably, book clubs. Other social media platforms also offer a range of special-interest groups that can work for you so spend a few minutes poking around your world to see what resources you already have access to that you may be overlooking. 

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About the Author

Andrea Yarbough is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of Artfulness: Formula-Free Creative Writing Explorations for Secondary ELA Classes. Trusted by major organizations with curriculum design and professional workshops, she has extensive experience developing meaningful, effective instruction for students and teachers, resulting in better outcomes with less work. 

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