|Glendean Hamilton, a student teacher in inner-city Massachusetts, used Real Stories to capture the attention of a classroom of reluctant readers.|
Last year, Glendean Hamilton was a college senior and a student teacher struggling through her first intensive teaching assignment. It was a tough one: 8th grade English, at an inner-city school in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her class was right before lunch. And, as she confided to her mentor, Alison Overseth, "My kids just don't want to read anything!"
Overseth, the Executive Director of the Partnership for After School Education (PASE) and a longtime supporter of Youth Communication, suggested she give some Youth Communication books a try. So one Friday, Hamilton introduced her class to Real Stories, Real Teens, an anthology of true stories about friendships, peer pressure, parents, and other critical teen issues. The book was awarded Best Curriculum in its class by the Association of Educational Publishers.
"I really thought it was a great concept," Hamilton recalled. But the classroom would be the real test.
When directed to read, her students usually didn't. But on the day she brought in Real Stories, they didn't want to stop. "At the end of class they said, 'Can we take these with us?'" Hamilton recalled.
"I heard that in other classes, when they finished their work early they would ask, 'Can I go to Ms. Hamilton's class to get a book?' And this was the book they were coming back to get. It was wildly popular."
Hamilton began using Real Stories every Friday, pairing it with a novel about young men trying to survive in rough neighborhoods. The class would read part of a story, then stop to reflect and talk about what the character could do to handle the problem in front of them.
"Before, the students' general attitude toward reading was, 'This is a thing we have to do for a test. It's not something we're going to enjoy. It's just another task,'" Hamilton said. The characters they read about were often unrelatable. "We did a lot of text-to-self connections," she said, "but that was always hard, because the characters felt nothing like them. And that led to even more apathy toward reading."
But with her new Friday sessions, that attitude began to change. "They became more eager to read all the time," she said.
Hamilton attributes Real Stories' success to its ability to bridge the gap her students so often felt between school and the chaos of life outside it. "They could see their world in it," she said of Real Stories. "I wasn't asking them to separate from their reality."
The book "allowed them to connect even deeper and use their own background knowledge," she said. "I think that was empowering for them."
As a culminating assignment, the students wrote their own personal narratives. The fact that the stories in Real Stories were written by actual teens, she said, helped her own students to think, "I have a story to tell."
Now a 6th grade teacher at another school with a similar population, Hamilton says she is planning to reprise her "street unit." And she will be ordering more copies of Real Stories.
"Real Stories connects in a way that isn't forced," she said. "It's something that will resonate."