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Finding a Twist for a Reluctant Reader

By Julie Scullen
 | Mar 16, 2016

It was Tornado Awareness Month. I’d just spent a class period with a group of seventh graders deeply involved in close, authentic readings on tornadoes. We had read about what causes them, their impact, how to protect ourselves from these swirling monsters. It was the last period of the day, so I was just about to collapse into my desk chair and start scanning e-mail when I realized I was not alone.

Brandon was still there, and he was annoyed. Brandon was not yet an energetic reader, so I was not surprised he was annoyed. Of course—we had been reading that day.

“I need to talk to you, Mrs. Scullen.” He paused for effect. “Just so you know, I don’t believe in tornadoes.”

I must have looked bewildered. He continued.

“You know, they can do a lot with computers these days.”

And he was gone. Off to the bus. I sat there with my jaw hanging open, reanalyzing my life choices.

Brandon was an enigma. Not only did he not believe in tornadoes, he also didn’t believe he would ever read and enjoy a book. I had been trying my best to find just the right thing for him. We’d had some successes and some misses, but nothing that really gave him that “good-read” rush of adrenaline that I was hoping he would have.

Then I remembered it was almost time to start my end-of-the-year read-aloud, and I was again hopeful. Like so many books my students read, I knew it would be a slow start, but after a few chapters, they would love the book.

For several years I had used the book Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls to finish our year. This book is hysterical and tragic, sentimental and old-fashioned. It’s a gem of a coming-of-age novel. I used this novel as a read-aloud “year-ender,” because the school library would close for inventory, leaving my students without access to books, and I wanted to keep them reading. Each day my mantra would be, Don’t worry. You are going to LOVE this book.

My students would respond with familiar eye rolls and groans. “This book will never be good!” Jay Berry (the main character’s) sister believed in fairies and made wishes in fairy rings. She played in a treehouse. And she was 13—too old for that! “Oh man, Mrs. Scullen! Seriously? Fairy Rings?”

Just as I said with so many book recommendations for my students, I would repeat: Don’t worry. You are going to LOVE this book. This is a story you will remember forever. Trust me.

There were always one or two Brandons in every class with “the attitude.” Arms folded. Face of disdain for old-fashioned language.

“Have I ever steered you wrong about a book before? Trust me, you will LOVE this book.”

About halfway through the book, Jay Berry gets himself in a jam. Spoiler alert: Jay Berry finds himself in the woods with a chimpanzee and about 100 little monkeys from a circus train wreck, and a still full of sour apple mash in barrels on the way to being fermented into whiskey. I’m betting that none of you have ever been in the presence of 100 drunk monkeys, but Wilson Rawls apparently had.

If you want to build an eagerness to read from a book, read aloud a chapter of a book describing the behavior of drunken monkeys who manage to trick a young man into drinking sour mash and losing his britches in the woods.

Then, ask students to predict what his mama is going to say when he comes home from the woods, drunk and without pants, and tells her a bunch of monkeys tricked him into getting drunk. “Honest!”

Now you have their attention. Even Brandon’s.

The best part happens after the book concludes, when the students—previously full of disdain—had to admit they “did, kinda, sorta, like this book.” Then they ask if Wilson Rawls had any sequels. Did he write anything else? Can we ask him to visit our school?

My response? “Hey, if you are looking for a good summer read, Wilson Rawls did write another book, Where the Red Fern Grows.

Every child a reader? A book for every reader? Yes. Maybe not this book, but there is one. There is even a book for those who don’t believe in tornadoes.

The task is so big; the work you do in your schools is overwhelming. I get it.

My mantra for you is this. There will be many Brandons. You will have to work hard to win him over, but don’t worry. He’ll get there, as will all the others. You will LOVE this work. This is a story you will remember forever.

Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.



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  1. Gloria Diehl | Apr 24, 2016
    Thanks for the read! I agree, there is definitely a book out there for everyone - even for students that don't love to read. I can tell that you are good at motivating your students. Do you have any tips for motivating students that don't like to write? 
  2. cnn | Mar 30, 2016
    <a data-mce-href="http:/" href="">cnn</a>

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