Sunday, June 12, 2011

I love a good coming of age story.

I have a good number of Latino students, so this school year, I charged myself with the task of collecting enough books featuring Latino protagonists to go around. My goal was to give those students a story they could relate to in hopes that the reading flood gates would open for them. You see, many of my students (Latino or otherwise) have a reading level that dips far below their grade level. What's worse, many of them don't own any books or subscribe to any magazines! Together, the combination is lethal. Most of them claim that "reading is boring" or "there are no good books," but the real problem is that they feel like they can't read and they're embarrassed. If they're 13 and aware that they're reading at a fourth grade level, they are much more likely to proclaim, "Reading sucks!" than to pick up a book actually designed for fourth graders. These books look and feel childish, and that's the last thing a 13-year-old wants to be.

As a teacher, the benefits of having an extensive classroom library are two fold. As a favor to myself, I collect books so I can point students who are whining about a book in a new direction, so I am not constantlly sending students to the library (many times just so they can get out of class), and so I can offer struggling readers books that look and feel age-appropriate, but are easy enough and fun enough to read that they feel successful. While this task is expensive (I shop on the bargain shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble, at community book sales, and at garage sales, but boy does it add up), laborous and time consuming, it's well worth it. More importantly, students see my large library as a clue that reading is important, an essential component to a student's growth. Okay, so those aren't the words they choose (more often it's, "Why do we have to read so much?"), but when I look around my classroom during independent reading time and see 30 students genuinely reading, it warms my heart.

Let's get back on track. While I certainly didn't collect "enough" books featuring Latino protagonists, I collected a fair amount. As best laid plans often do, my plan to read all of the books I collected went awry. Given the nature of Young Adult Literature, it's often hard to stomach some of the "youngest" of plots. I did, nevertheless, read a few. One of the best was Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan.

Living in Mexico during the 1930's, Esperanza's family is wealthy and well-to-do. Esperanza wants for nothing and has servants who cook her meals, clean her room, and do her hair. She isn't a spoiled brat, but she knows no different, so she takes advantage of the luxuries that her life provides for her. The night before her birthday, her father, a land owner and well-known businessman, is killed. This, of course, shakes Esperanza, Mama (her mother), and Abuelita (her grandmother). Shortly after, Mama is approached by Tio Luis, who asks her to marry him. A faithful wife, Mama declines. Tio Luis isn't happy and makes the family's life so difficult that they decide to migrate to the United States. This journey is a hard one. They must sneak across the border and must do so in the worst of conditions. Esperanza finds that life in California is nothing like the life she lead in Mexico. In order to survive, Esperanza learns that she must work. At first, she spends nights crying herself to sleep because she misses Papa and her old life. Proving that the will to survive is one of human-kind's greatest strengths, Esperanza comes out of the tunnel a winner.

Esperanza Rising is a coming-of-age tale that I'll never forget. While Young-Adult in nature, the issues surrounding the story are meaningful and indicitive of many generations of immigrants who decide America is a place they can call home.

I have a student who started out the year reading at a fourth grade level. She read Esperanza Rising and she was hooked. Her reading level has since Risen. I hope she continues to read over the summer and for the rest of her life.

1 comment:

  1. THAT is what it is all about! In the library I am always searching for the titles they want to read. It may be Shakespeare, Austin, or Paul Langan and Anne Schraff that hook then into reading. Does it really matter? Whatever hooks them is the stepping stone to everything else.


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