ALAN v21n2 - High-School Reading and Junior-High Hope: The Tom Sawyer Solution

High-School Reading and Junior-High Hope: The Tom Sawyer Solution

Steven VandeStaay

Tom Sawyer is a typical young adult reader. Tom is active. He "reads" the situations he faces with an eye to responding; and in each case his response reflects his needs, thoughts, and feelings, as well as the context of his situation.

Tom is what Tom does . Tom doesn't "appreciate." He acts. He is most fully alive when most fully engaged. Inertia is his antithesis. That's why the situation he finds most difficult to surmount is a "cave," a chamber of endless false options all but empty of possibility. Contemporary notions of reading could be matched with no better representative. To be Tom is to read.

No accident, then, that Tom is of junior-high age: when love of mystery and suspense weds a youthful hunger to "figure it out" and an expanded sense of the possible, a thirteen-year-old will devour books like small burgers. Those of us who teach in junior highs and middle schools have all seen it.

Extend the metaphor, however, and the comparison proves disheartening. As a teacher who has moved from working with eighth graders to seniors and back again, I know this only too well: wily junior-high readers too frequently become apathetic and resigned as they move through high school. The possible becomes the mandatory, reading becomes "literature," and even the best of teachers find themselves passing out books to students as listless as Tom and Becky three days into their confinement in the cave.

The fact of this attrition is now widely acknowledged. In fact, Clary (1991) points out that it was partly in recognition that "reading often decreases in [late] adolescence and later life" that Congress designated 1991 as "The Year of the Lifetime Reader."

Why this reduction in reading occurs is a matter of much debate. Some argue that we err in the books we prescribe to high-school students or, indeed, that we go wrong in the very act of prescribing. Others claim that we err not so much in the books we give our students, but in what we ask them to do with those books. It is my own view that, while both views go far to explain the problem, the degree to which the first determines the second has not yet been recognized. This connection becomes apparent when one looks more closely at what it means to read and at the changes that have begun to spill over into secondary classrooms from the junior-high use of Young Adult literature.

Getting to Tom

Comparing the reader to Tom Sawyer would not have made much sense twenty years ago. Traditional notions of reading demanded a simpler comparison, for example, looking at a house. Only one couldn't look directly at the house. To see it, the reader was to retrace the steps of its construction in a "skill-based" process of recognition.

However, theorists eventually noted that this traditional model made more sense to masons than to children, who, after all, know houses long before they know bricks. The child leaps directly to "whole language" and structures -- to meaning, it was said. Consequently, reading theorists began to raise new questions: Where does the textual "house" exist? Do you see the same one I see? Is there, in fact, such a structure? Or do we merely have "a sort of blueprint for meaning, a set of tracks or clues the reader uses to build a model of what the text means" (Pearson, 1985) .

The broad range of answers to these questions -- sometimes called "constructivist" (Tierney, 1990) -- shared a key understanding: reading as an active process of engagement between the form and content of the text and the experience and needs of the reader wherein meaning is created. In these terms, to read is to create.

Think, again, of Tom. The possibility of what he might do with a situation drives the way he "reads" it, not the converse. Everything deserves scrutiny because everything is open-ended -- even whitewashing a fence. Little wonder, then, that Tom loves books: the same hunger for adventure and possibility that drives his play propels his reading.

And Tom does read. Twain tells us Tom furnishes his gang members' pseudonyms ("Huck Finn the Red-Handed," "Joe Harper the Terror of the Seas," "Tom Sawyer, the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main") from his "favorite literature." Other inferences that can be made about Tom's reading include his familiarity with adventure and travel genres and the disdain with which he treats the less well read of his friends. As Huck reports,

I didn't see no di'monds, and I told Tom Sawyer so. He said there was loads of them there, anyway; and he said ther was A-rabs there, too, and elephants and things. I said, why couldn't we see them, then? He said if I warn't so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote , I would know without asking. (p. 269)
Thus while -- apart from Don Quixote -- we don't know exactly what Tom reads, we can form an idea of the kind of books Tom spends his time in: long, difficult, archaic books. (My guesses include Robinson Crusoe and The Thousand and One Nights. ) In any case, we can surmise that Tom spent a good deal more time reading than is commonly supposed. If Tom were not thirteen (my guess), he might even be considered a prodigy of sorts. But it is not unusual for thirteen-year olds to read so widely and voraciously -- it is only unusual if they continue to do so as juniors and seniors.

Thus the crux of the matter: If Tom is the veritable embodiment of what it means to be a reader, why then does Tom hate school? What happens to the appetite and energy for reading, so common in our Toms and Beckys and so uncommon in our juniors and seniors?

Tom in School

One of the many distinctions between the junior-high and senior-high classes where I've taught is the access to YA literature afforded the younger students. These books are read both independently and as class selections, and their impact has led to indelible changes in material, method, and reading. Teachers would be wrong to credit themselves for the addition of this literature, however, since the process of accepting it has largely been one of acquiescence: students have always read this literature -- even when it included Don Quixote . All we have done is to choose to work with, rather than against, their interests.

In the senior high, where "Literature" supplants reading, class time is spent on more canonical texts we've decided our students should "know." After all, senior-high students are more adult: they can handle adult themes. And it is our job to "prepare them" for college.

This change is an insidious one because it is much more than what it appears -- much more than a simple shift in what is read. Whereas our junior-high novels confirm the choices our students make for themselves, senior-high selections paint student choices as insufficient. The attempt is to encourage our students, to challenge them and to extend their thinking -- to persuade, not dissuade. But dissuasion is too often the result, and thinking is more routinely curtailed than extended.

This reaction occurs because the senior-high emphasis on "literature" throws the focus away from reading and onto what is read, turning books into subject matter. Moreover, since there is so much sacred knowledge surrounding this subject matter, students are repositioned as teacher-dependent in order to approach it.

The result of this repositioning and new emphasis upon subject matter is a severe truncation of what it means to read. Whereas we now understand that reading involves both "constructing and responding to meaning," we limit our senior-high students to "recognizing" by the very nature of the tasks we have given them, if not our specific instructions: " Look for the symbolism . . .," " Search for evidence . . .," " Find the main idea . . .," we tell them. Like the endless dead-end passages of Twain's cave, these activities promise freedom while forbidding it, denying our students the range of response opportunities that true "reading" demands.

Apart from demeaning our students' interest in their own reading and restricting the range of thinking they can apply to a text, such limitations frustrate students. By eliminating the response component of reading and by artificially dividing what is left into disparate parts, we destroy what is essentially a gestalt process. Reading is rendered incomplete, reduced to but half a gesture.

No wonder Tom hates school. Left to himself, he turns his books into vehicles of great possibility. When life seems "but a trouble" (p. 66) , he wanders through the woods, searching imaginatively among his memories of the stories he has read for a suitable counter-life to the melancholia he feels. When happy, he rounds up his friends to reenact scenes from his favorite books, changing and commenting on them as he pulls together tragedies, romances, and adventures to create texts of his own.

How different from the recitations Tom fails at so miserably! And how different from our own senior-high emphasis upon "recognition." Or, to put it another way, how little progress we've made from the days of Tom's recitations. But unlike Tom's teachers, we know better. It may be no accident that Twain focuses on Tom's response to literature and pays comparatively little attention to the moments he spends in a book, but it has taken us 115 years to figure out what he meant. Now that we have, it is all the more tragic that we do so little about it.

What to do with Tom

Short of abolishing required texts (an approach Tom might argue for), a sensible approach is to examine solutions that have worked for secondary classrooms. Patricia Spencer (1989) is a case in point. While pleased with her students' ability to recognize existential themes in the literature of her Advanced Placement course, Ms. Spencer fought their dissatisfaction and lethargy. Then, on the whim of a student's challenge to "read something contemporary," she sent them home with a copy of Chris Crutcher's teen hit, Running Loose .

The result, as described in her essay "YA Novels in the AP Classroom: Crutcher Meets Camus," was students who demonstrated both interest and response. Pleased, Spencer extended the experiment to include Crutcher's The Crazy Horse Electric Game and Norma Howe's God, the Universe and Hot Fudge Sundaes . Though careful to describe these books as "supplements" to her core texts, she was nonetheless unequivocal in her assessment of the benefits afforded the class by the addition of the new texts:

Adolescent literature in an advanced-placement classroom connects classics to the present. Even those students who read Nietzsche on their own find relevance and pleasure in sharing the lives of fellow teenagers Louie, Willie, or Alfie. If the purpose of a unit on philosophy in literature is to ask students to think more deeply about life, death, and their place in the universe, then this succeeds: perfunctory discussions dissipate. Personal, passionate, probing exchanges vitalize literary discourse. Existential engagement in AP English . . . thanks to an unusual comparative approach. (p. 46)

The emphasis on "engagement" and "comparative" is key since they indicate -- not simply that the students were more interested in these texts -- but that they were able to "do" more with them. Apart from their value as heuristics to the "classics," the inclusion of these "simpler" books led Spencer's students to responses and thoughts characteristic of a much higher order of thinking. It should also be noted that the inclusion of such books -- books students choose on their own -- work to affirm students in their own reading and to encourage the appetite and interest in independent reading so often abandoned in the later, secondary years.

Hence "The Tom Sawyer Solution." After all, despite hunger, thirst, fear, and what seems a hopeless dependence upon the adult world for their salvation, he and Becky make it out of the cave on their own . Similarly, it remains the saving grace of middle-school students that they do as much as they do on their own . Tom may not have had much "truck" with school, but he loved to read anyway. So, too, have my eighth graders fed their own interests and literary appetites, year after year, and rather in spite of what I do.

And, interestingly, things have changed for the middle-school years. YA novels are now common across the curriculum. "Classic" selections remain, but they are no longer so frightening because they are no longer so sacred. And, most importantly, teachers have changed their approaches in response to the changes in texts.

This change in approach has been a matter of necessity. Without sacred knowledge to refer to, teachers have been thrown upon their own wits. Fortunately, and as Tom demonstrates, students have provided strong clues as to activities that might provide a wide enough range of possible responses to reading. And changes in the notion of what it means to read have been there when we have bothered to look.

Thus many junior-high students now have at least some access to reading material that reflects their own choices and concerns. Not inconsequently, more junior-high teachers emphasize "independent reading" or, when bold enough, "love of reading" as curricular goals. Response journals, readers theater, literary letters, and other open-ended response possibilities have also become common practices in junior highs while remaining the exception in high schools, where the emphasis on "literature" leaves less room for such endeavors.

It is in this sense that books drive curricula and that YA literature has so positively impacted our curricula. Furthermore, since YA literature is more prevalent in the junior high than the high school, the junior highs have naturally been the greatest beneficiaries of this phenomenon.

This statement is not prejudicial. Junior-high teachers are not better than high-school teachers. But, in the junior high, we've changed the books; and, because we've changed the books, we've also changed what we do with them. And that's why attitudes toward reading -- and toward time spent reading -- are so frequently better in junior high than high school. Think of Ms. Spencer: she may say she simply "supplemented" her course with YA novels, but the effects of this change speak to a much greater impact. She changed the course -- changed the way she teaches -- because she added YA novels.

In this sense, the changes that the middle-school years have seen are "student-driven." Hope for the high school lies in the spill-over from these changes: in teachers who move from middle school to high school, wondering what goes wrong; in students who doggedly carry their energy and appetites with them as they move through the grades; and in the new notions of reading and texts that justify what Tom has always been telling us.

Spencer and other senior-high teachers like her are proof that this can be done. Running Loose didn't become an AP text at a curriculum meeting. Instead, the decision to use the book rose out of her own dissatisfaction and the suggestion of a student. Indeed, it could be said that she did not so much "assign" the book as permit her students to read it. Next she further expanded her curriculum on the basis of what her students did with the book -- that is, on the basis of the skills and insight that spilled over into their reading of more difficult and traditional texts.

Such is the benefit of change: it may save our students and our "literature."

Pipe dreams? Maybe. Still, it's worth noting that the most influential and widely read "teaching" text of the last twenty years, Nancy Atwell's In The Middle , rose out of her work with junior-high students, writing workshops, and YA literature. And, of course, there's Tom: still smiling, and, for all his tom foolery, a "classic" text himself. What luck to have canonized the very scoundrel to turn it all around.


Atwell, Nancy. In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents . Boynton/Cook, 1987.

Clary, Linda Mixon. "Getting Adolescents to Read," Journal of Reading , February, 1991, pp. 340-345.

Pearson, David P. "Changing the Face of Reading Comprehension Instruction," The Reading Teacher , April, 1985, pp. 724-738.

Spencer, Patricia. "YA Novels in the AP Classroom: Crutcher Meets Camus," English Journal , November, 1989, pp. 44-46.

Tierney, Robert J. "Redefining Reading Comprehension," Educational Leadership , March, 1990, pp. 37-42.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer . The Modern Library, 1875.

______. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . The Modern Library, 1884.

Instructor at Milsaps College, Steven VandeStaay is the author of Street Lives: From Destitution to Community Builders.