« Children's, Editorial

Why Writers Need English Teachers

By Carol Jago

A writer’s best friend is the English teacher. I don’t mean the teacher who taught you grammar or the one who force-fed you Julius Caesar. I’m talking about the English teacher who puts your books in students’ hands. Without this Pied Piper even the juiciest new novel can languish untouched and unread. Employing a curious combination of authority and charm, English teachers entice their charges to pick up a story and sample what’s on offer. You need them.

Carol Jago

“Chloe, I just read this book and thought you’d like it,” I scribble on a Post-It note stuck to The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I do it quietly. No one else in the classroom notices, but in a matter of weeks the charming and heart-breaking story about love in a time of cancer has made the rounds of all Chloe’s friends. In a few months the novel reaches that tipping point where other students feel left out if they haven’t read the book all the cool kids are talking about. A bestseller is born.

Speaking of tipping points, why does anything with Malcolm Gladwell’s name on the cover immediately take up residence on the best-seller list and rest there for months, even years? Thank English teachers. They are the ones who first read “Black Like Them” in The New Yorker in 1996 and wondered if their students might find the young writer’s style and message compelling. Essay by essay — I see “The Sports Taboo: Why Blacks Are Like Boys and Whites are Like Girls” as a tipping point — Gladwell’s writing crept into the curriculum. His work now appears in most college composition textbooks and Outliers is a staple on high school AP Language course syllabi. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Gladwell excerpt appear on the AP exam a few years hence.

But how to reach those teachers who might promote your book? The good news is that English teachers are always looking for the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games. They want to “sell” students on reading as much as you do. Twitter groups like #engchat and #titletalk convene on Twitter once a month to share ideas about books new and old that are working for their students. A few uber-readers: Teri Lesesne @ProfessorNana, Donalyn Miller @donalynbooks, Franki Sibberson @frankisibberson, and Paul Hankins @PaulWHankins, to name a few, influence a great many others with their recommendations. Word of mouth, buzz, continues to be an enormously powerful method of disseminating book news where online or off.

Another avenue for new books to travel from you through English teachers to a wider audience is the adult book club. No one is more likely to belong to a book club than an English teacher. Think about The Help, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Cutting for Stone, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. These are all novels that book groups nation-wide loved. Over time, those titles began appearing on high school reading lists. I know that whenever I had a book I hoped to have adopted into the Santa Monica High School curriculum, I first introduced it to our English Department’s book club. If the novel was a hit like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I could be sure it was well on its way to classroom libraries. Teachers recommend books they know.

The bard said it best, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves.” We all have a stake in the digital generation becoming readers. Let’s work together to make it happen.

Carol Jago has taught English for 32 years. She is past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author of With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature (Heinemann).

DISCUSS: What Makes a Children’s Book Great?

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  1. Posted May 31, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I knew that. I am happy to know all of those English teachers on Twitter and many more. They are the most passionate readers out there, and we share our enthusiasm for the books we read with each other every day. Others? @katsok Katerine Solokowski, @mentortexts Jen Vincent, @sylvie_shaffer Sylvie Shaffer, @colbysharp Colby Sharp, @cbethm Cindy Minnich, @kelleemoye Kellee Moye, @DavidAEtkin David Etkin. Don’t forget the librarians: @MrSchuReads leads the way.

    As a publisher sales rep, interacting with all of these generous teachers refuels my own belief in the love for books and reading when I am talking to my booksellers about the books I sell. Teachers and booksellers have a priceless role in presenting books to an audience that is enjoying access to some of the best publishing into their market segment of all time.

  2. Posted June 1, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I love the idea of a tipping point with books–so true, but I never thought about it that way Thanks for the mention-I rely on so many of you to recommend books! I feel lucky to have so many reader friends!

  3. Posted June 2, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Carol – Thank you for sharing those appreciative comments and savvy marketing tips. We need to encourage one another and serve as literary scouts for our students so they can deepen their interests and develop their understanding of our fascinating world.

  4. Posted July 20, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Yes, schools need what the author calls English teachers and what I’d rather refer to as a literature appreciation teacher. We need teachers who will promote reading just as much as we need teachers who can help students make sense of math and science. As to how to find material that is appropriate and will inspire kids to read more there are dozens of methods. When I taught I would (perish the thought) cut short stories out of books I read that I felt would be of interest to my students. For instance, I found many stories that were the basis for the original The Twilight Zone — stories written by Richard Matheson, in particular. My students gobbled up these stories and I would often later show the Twilight Zone video so they could compare and contrast the story with the television version. With YA books now being so much in vogue all teachers have to do is subscribe to any of a number of newsletters and read some of the recommended books to find appropriate and inspiring material for their students.

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