Reluctant and rebellious teenage boys with learning difficulties, excluded from school and frequently facing worst case scenarios themselves, are notoriously difficult to engage in learning to read. I am sure most teachers would agree that it is more important to foster a life-long love of reading than the mechanistic ability to decode without any real engagement in meaning.
Although it is never possible to generalize, I have certainly found that many such boys are seeking to take responsibility, test their mettle and are intrigued by the idea of a teenager surviving alone in the Canadian wilderness. This is the theme of “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen, an American writer well respected in the US. The plight of a boy just like themselves had so gripped its early teenage readers that they asked for an even worse case scenario! In response, Paulsen wrote a sequel, “Brian’s Winter”, which can easily be read first and it is shorter. Personal qualities and life skills are presented through the protagonist’s actions and thoughts in shovelfuls, making it an ideal teaching tool and source of encouragement for these boys who need to develop their own resilience and ability to face difficult circumstances.
Following a dramatic worst case scenario of a pilot suddenly dying of a heart attack leaving our protagonist as the sole passenger obliged to crash land into a lake, the reader embraces the thoughts of What if…? What would I do in such a situation? While recalling their hero, Bear Grylls’, Survival and Bushcraft skills and setting their minds to practical problem-solving which is the great strength that these boys often have, they enter wholly into the scene and experience, possibly for the first time, the joy of reading. They find themselves not simply decoding but reading for meaning, identifying with the protagonist, feeling his pains, joys and hopes, benefiting from immersion in story in all the ways we value. Boys who find it hard to communicate with us suddenly open up and talk about real-life practical tasks such as how to light a fire, make a bow and arrows, find out if there is an animal hiding in a cave, whether it is safe to light a fire inside a wooden shelter, how to skin a rabbit and use its fur to make rope, clothing etc. All the skills which these boys often have in abundance, such as resourcefulness, creativity and ingenuity – skills which largely go unnoticed and unacknowledged in our classrooms – are demonstrated by this young teenage boy.
The readers become engrossed in problem-solving, empathising and predicting, all the while feeling good about themselves as they vicariously take risks and share the boy’s victories. Although initially attracted and drawn in by their interest in the physical survival skills needed in such a hostile environment, these readers soon recognise the significance of other personal qualities and skills. With the teacher’s help, they see the importance of maintaining one’s emotional and mental health through speaking positively to yourself, being self-disciplined, persevering with dull routines and even replaying in their minds, advice from the past. A boy, like themselves in so many ways, suffering the fallout of his parents’ messy divorce appeals to their imagination like no other. They read a whole book for the first time and are so enthused by the total experience that they go on to become readers which is surely the best indicator of success in education.