If you've read my other posts, you know I'm a Twi-hard, a fan of the Twilight phenomenon. But as a classroom teacher, I have an educational reason for appreciating Twilight-y-ness infiltrating our culture. The reason? Scaffolding readers.
To "scaffold" in educational terms is to continually build from one level of learning to another. A sixth grade student who reads on a third grade level will not be able to comprehend sixth grade texts independently. She needs to be "scaffolded" from her current literacy skills to her appropriate level. There are many, many ways to do this. So many in fact I could argue there are as many scaffolds as there are children who need them. Ideally, all teaching should be tailored to a student's independent skills, goals, interests, etc. But the reality is in today's classroom, it isn't possible to tailor every lesson for every student. A diligent teacher will develop student-centered learning projects so lessons are more readily molded to each student independently, meeting him where he is and scaffolding him to where he needs to be. One way to do this of course is through independent reading projects.
As part of a school wide literacy curriculum, my students participated in a quarterly assessed independent reading project. Students were required to choose four books a quarter, read them, pass the AR tests with at least 80% accuracy, and develop a visual display from a list of projects linked to the quarter's learning objectives. This could be anything from a poster describing a similar theme in all four books and how the student linked the theme to her own life, a series of book reviews posted to Scholastic's "What Are You Reading?" website, or even the old standby diorama depicting a setting not described in the book but one that would still fit within the world, like Hermione's dorm room or a shop in Hogsmead Hogwarts students never enter. These projects were about promoting growth in independent reading, academic accountability, and building personal connections to literature. For the most part, students loved these quarterly reading projects. The products were imaginative and adventurous and the best from the school were displayed in the library or on the main hallway. It was a great way to promote reading in a creative, competitive way at a school where most of our students entered reading below grade level. But the project was still a challenge and not all students achieved their goals. This is where Twilight and "scaffolding" comes in.
From what I can discern, Twilight is written between a fourth and fifth grade reading level. Not exactly the kind of book that should provide an academic stretch for a sixth grader, but remember, most of our students did not enter middle school reading on grade level. They also did not read independently as a habit outside of class and most, with the exception of the Potterheads, had never read books much thicker than 100 pages on average. "Big" books like the Harry Potter series and the Twilight saga were simply intimidating because they were so large. While the reading level may be appropriate and the student's personal interest may be high, many balked at the amount. All those pages...it was like standing on the beach with someone telling you to swim for Africa.
But sometimes, when the stars align, the impossible begins to happen. This is what I love about teaching...I can make the stars align.
I want to tell you a story of a student named Claire (not her real name). I taught Claire from sixth through eighth grade. She did not have the best home situation, stood a foot taller than her friends for most of her middle school years, and did not strive particularly hard in class. But there was something there. Claire, when I could get her to do her homework, showed promise. And she longed to be part of a group of friends. She longed to feel an emotional connection with school. Understand, Claire never became one of my "special case" students where I acted as mentor and teacher both inside and out of the classroom. We never did anything beyond the school day and she constantly waffled in her grades. But I talked with her about stories -- books, TV shows, movies, country ballads lyrics about the family and love Claire craved. Then I matched Claire up with books she could read. I "scaffolded" her from where she was in her independent reading skills to where she could be. I gave her funny books at first to read on her own, like the Dear Dumb Diary series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Then I put her on The Whipping Boy and Shiloh and Goosebumps ghost stories. In class of course I continued to purposefully teach literacy building skills like visualizing and making connections to the text, to other texts, and to the world. Finally, Claire made it through sixth grade with a C average in my class.
In seventh grade, Claire started off shaky again, missing school and cutting up in class. But she wanted to read Twilight. The first movie was scheduled to come out in the fall and the friends Claire wished she had were all giggly over the books. They walked the halls with hardback versions of Eclipse and Breaking Dawn tucked under their arms. This, I saw, was a perfect opportunity for scaffolding. I knew Claire could comprehend the book at grade level, but she needed to motivation to stick with the huge chunks of text. I loaned Claire one of my classroom copies of Twilight and promised her if she read the whole thing, I would help her with the AR test at the end. Claire's eyes bugged out of her head when I handed over the book. It was by far the thickest novel she'd ever considered reading and the sheer size of the spine was intimidating. I sweetened the deal. Read the book and I'd let it count for three of her required independently read books for the quarter. Still hesitant, Claire took the book and like my third grade teacher did for me, I chatted with Claire about her progress. Had she gotten to the beach scene yet? No? Well, just wait because it was a good one. What did she think about how Edward acted in the Biology class? Did she like the Port Angeles rescue scene? Had she watched the movie preview yet? No? Let me bring it up so she could see it online.
For two months, we talked about that book. Where she was in it, what she thought of it, how much or little she enjoyed certain parts. Two months to read a book I'd finished in two days. But you know what happened? Claire did finish. She passed the AR test with minimal prompting. The best part? When I recommended a Heartland series horse book next, Claire didn't hesitate. She'd just climbed the literary equivalent of Mt. Hood--scalable by a fit person led by an experienced guide--and she was riding the thrill of a successful summit. After Twilight, a "little" horse book was achievable in Claire's mind even though I knew it was still a stretch for her independent reading level. But she read the text and passed her project, this time without my help.
It wasn't perfect for Claire after that. She still missed homework and still had trouble outside of school. She didn't magically win friends, but she did start to connect with a small group of girls who loved reading, the ones who visit the public library for fun and spend half their lunch periods with noses in pages. Claire still struggled, but the struggle became worth it. For the first time, Claire connected with books and a group of readers on a deeper emotional level than humor or thrills. By eighth grade, Claire tackled Elie Wiesel's Night with determination and composed three beautiful essays as we read the text in class. She developed a stronger interest in her other subjects--history, math, science. She completed and submitted a "This I Believe" essay to NPR's online data bank after reading essays written by other people. And she not only finished, but excelled in her independent reading projects every quarter. I cried with Claire at her 8th grade graduation and told her how proud I was of her. She Facebooked me over the summer and said, "Mrs. Rook, I've been reading every day." Music to my ears. And her first semester in high school? She's made all A's, helped the marching band win first of fifteen in their regional competition, and was elected freshman class vice president. For the first time, Claire is talking about college as a real possibility, something she should consider for her future. She would be the first in her family to attend.
Am I saying Twilight made Claire a better student and a confident teen? No. But the Twilight phenomenon prompted Claire's motivation for even considering such a "big" book and the emotional connection she felt while reading helped pull her through. She wouldn't have tried if she didn't want to be part of a group and she wouldn't have stuck with it if she hadn't felt compelled to struggle through and turn the pages. With all of my teaching and lesson plans and projects, I couldn't have scaffolded Claire to reading on grade level if it weren't for Twilight, both as a fan-driven phenomenon and as a big book written on an achievable grade level. Twilight wasn't a miracle, but it was a boost of self-esteem, it was a conversation starter, and for Claire, it was an accomplishment. One that bridged the world between children's books and young adult fiction. Twilight made Claire believe it was possible, and desirable, to spend the effort to improve her literacy, skills she later utilized to connect with a classic like Night and compose her essays, skills that improved her understanding in her other classes. Again, I'm not saying Twilight is a panacea. But in this case, for Claire, that book tipped the scale for one girl teetering between school success and school failure. Fan or not, I am grateful to have had Twilight in my scaffolding arsenal.