Care and Feeding

Why Do Teachers Love Sad Books Like Where the Red Fern Grows?

Plus other reading and writing questions, answered.

Boy reading a sad book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My wife and I are parents to five children, ages 17, 15 (twins), 12, and 8. When the 17- and 15-year-olds were in seventh grade, they had to read Where the Red Fern Grows and watch the movie. It did not go well for two of the three of them, and both my wife and I hated having to relive that book, too. (We both had to read it in school ourselves, and neither of us enjoyed it—my wife was particularly traumatized by it.)

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This year, it looks like our 12-year-old will be reading it for school as well. We are not looking forward to this. Our 15-year-old is especially worried about our 12-year-old’s reaction to this book, as the 12-year old is the most empathetic of our children. Our 15-year-old wants us to petition the teacher to not have it as required reading and to especially not show the movie. The 12-year-old already read Call of the Wild over the summer and had a pretty strong reaction to it, so we can only imagine what the reaction will be to Where the Red Fern Grows. None of us understand the merit to it—the kid works hard to buy two dogs, works hard to train them, a neighbor boy dies by falling on an ax, the dogs win some competitions, and then they both die and the family moves away.

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We are deciding between just preparing our son for the book and talking to the teacher about it. But we wanted to get another teacher’s perspective on why this book is assigned reading. What does this book provide that can’t be achieved by another less tragic book? We aren’t parents who shield our children from the awfulness of life, but there are certain books and movies that we prefer not to read or watch (like The Fox and the Hound), and this is one of them.

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—No More Dead Dogs

Dear No More Dead Dogs,

I guess I should disclose up front—I love Where the Red Fern Grows. My teacher read it aloud to us, and it’s one of the few things I remember from middle school.

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That said, there is no piece of literature that is irreplaceable. I’m sure I just offended a bunch of authors/critics/scholars/religious people, but every story element exists in more than one work of literature. Every aspect of the human condition exists in more than one work of literature.

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But let’s talk about your specific situation. While you say you’re not parents who shield your children from the awfulness of life … it kind of seems like that’s what you’re doing? And that’s OK! You said your wife was “traumatized” by the book, and if your son is as sensitive as you say, it might be good parenting to keep him from reading it. You know him best, so take this next part with a grain of salt.

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There’s a case to be made for pushing kids out of their comfort zones, reading things that make them somewhat uncomfortable. That’s where the magic happens; that’s where they discover blind spots, open themselves to new perspectives, and make deep connections. There are novels besides Where the Red Fern Grows that could (and will) fit the bill, of course, but Rawls’ book is not just boy-gets-dogs-and-they-die, as you say. It explores deep themes—perseverance, sacrifice, the beauty and danger of the natural world, and, maybe most importantly for your son, masculinity and emotion (I find this analysis of this theme in the book particularly good).

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You ask, “What does this book provide that can’t be achieved by another less tragic book?” The answer is you’d have to know what the teacher’s goals are. Is it to analyze characters? Point of view? Setting? Plot? Conflict? Theme? Style? Voice? Structure? Linguistic devices? Narrative devices? Something else?

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So ask. Tell the teacher about your experience with the book and about your son’s sensitivity. Give them a chance to make their case for Where the Red Fern Grows. If they don’t provide a compelling reason for your son to read it, request a different book. The worst that can happen is they say no, and then you just spoil the hell out of it for your son. If you take some of the sting out of the sad parts, who knows? He just might love it.

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—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

I have fifth and sixth graders who love to read, but they despise reading logs. When they have to do reading logs, they seem to read less than they normally would, out of spite, or we spend a ridiculous amount of time fighting about whether they’ve filled them out. This is starting to impact my sixth grader’s English language arts grade, since the logs are required for credit, and he’s instead taking a zero each week. But he reads a ton. I’m curious if there’s any benefit at all to the logs (other than teaching them that reading is a chore and something to slog through so they can say they did it)? Am I missing an educational benefit to the logs? They seem like a complete waste of time to me, and potentially actively harmful to independent readers.

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—Love to Read, Hate to Log

Dear Hate to Log,

Ugh. First of all, this sounds maddening. I’m sorry this has been such a fight with your son, and I think I’d be tearing my hair out too.

The research is unanimous: Kids who read on their own and for pleasure reap significant benefits, from better vocabularies to increased general knowledge to stronger empathy and decision-making skills, and reading logs are a common strategy teachers use to try to nurture eager bookworms. The rationale, I think, is that the logs create an accountability metric for an independent practice, in the hopes of building a lasting habit (and, for those who complete them, a reinforcement—I can still conjure my 7-year-old self’s bone-deep feeling of triumph upon strutting into Pizza Hut with my completed Book It! button in hand to receive my reward of a free personal pan pizza). I think they can also aim for skill-building. The most perfunctory reading logs just ask for a time record or page count, but better-designed ones may ask students to practice metacognition strategies—monitoring one’s own understanding, drawing conclusions from stated details, making supported predictions and connections—that improve overall comprehension.

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So that’s the hope. Do they work? There’s not a lot of hard data. Some pieces about the practice  link back to one 2012 study, which found that mandatory reading logs negatively affected kids’ attitudes toward both recreational and academic reading. My impression is that many people (like you, like your son, and like plenty of teachers) feel in their gut that they’re rote at best and actively discouraging at worst, but it hasn’t been heavily explored in research.

That said, teachers also know that kids need to be reading independently, and they are hampered by limited time and a hundred and one curricular demands. You can only throw your weight behind so many things, and I think reading logs are often used in the hopes that the habit will create itself. In my own career, I attempted to incorporate reading logs once—they’re less ubiquitous in middle school than elementary—and quickly backtracked when wide swaths of my students, like your son, were consistently accepting zeroes rather than completing them. Could I see a scenario where I got a different result? Maybe, if I’d tried to invest thought and planning into developing the logs into a meaningful, rewarding practice for students. But I think reading logs are generally meant to be a substitute for that intentional work, and so they turn into a box-checking chore that students resist, forget, or fabricate.

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You asked me for some perspective on reading logs, not what you should do about them, so I won’t go too far in telling you how to handle the situation. But briefly, I’d say try reaching out to the teacher, just to share what’s been going on with your son. Open the door to communication. It’s always a good place to start.

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—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school, New York)

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My third grader is doing virtual school this year. She really misses her friends and teachers, but in general has done very well. There is one area where she really struggles: personal narrative essays. By the end of the year, she is expected to be able to type her own personal narrative of several paragraphs in 45 minutes.

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Every time she is given a practice essay, she melts down in tears and hides in her room. The first time it took two days to get her to squeeze out about four sentences that could generously be called a paragraph. Today we’ve spent all afternoon with multiple breaks to cry in her room to get two paragraphs so far. And that’s with me finally just sitting beside her and prompting her to write one sentence at a time.

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Her teacher says that this is difficult for all of the students at this age and we should just keep practicing. We started working on her typing skills because I thought part of the problem might be that she can tell a story out loud much faster than she can write or type. Her reading and comprehension are good; it’s just writing things down that is difficult. She has such a mental block about it at this point that it can take a couple hours to convince her to just write something, anything! Do you have any suggestions about how to help her get more confident and have writing not be such a negative experience?

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—Why Is This So Hard?

Dear Why Is This So Hard,

I have exceptionally strong feelings about this topic. As a novelist, an author of nonfiction, a columnist, and also a person who teaches children to write, I have come to understand the fundamental flaw in the teaching of writing: The people who teach writing are almost never writers. They ask students to write essays but have not written an essay themselves in years. They ask children to write fiction and poetry, yet they do not write any of this themselves.

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The result is an asinine system wherein students are given 45 minutes to write an essay when no professional writer in the world would ever engage in a timed writing assignment like this.

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Telling a child that she must write a certain amount of words or paragraphs in a given time frame is useless. It’s a recipe for anxiety and formulaic drivel. It’s the creation of people who do not write but try to imagine what writers do.

I hate this so much. This is why the adults of our world do not write. With the exception of emails and text messages, how many adults write poetry or fiction? How many keep a journal? How many write letters to the editor or even letters to family members? How many people take pleasure in writing?

The system for teaching children to write is ridiculous. Your daughter is having a perfectly reasonable reaction to ridiculous expectations. It’s a system that rewards formulas, rule-following, and the exclusion of creativity, individuality, experimentation, and voice.

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I hate it.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I have some advice. (I actually have a book’s worth of advice, but I suspect that much is not appropriate for this column.) So let’s go with a few big pieces of advice:

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Writers need four things to be successful:

1. Time
2. Choice
3. Audience
4. Purpose

Ensure that your child has all of these things.

1. Make sure that your child has a quiet space and time to write. Write alongside her whenever possible. Make it a family affair. Let her know that part of writing is also thinking. Just sitting. Doing nothing. Allowing your mind to wander.

2. Allow your daughter the choice to write whatever she would like, and give her ideas from which to choose. Teach her about epistolary novels and the various kinds of poetry and ABC books and varieties of fiction. Writers get to choose what they write. Allow her to do the same.

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3. Provide your child with the ideal audience for her work. Allow her to read her writing to you without distraction. If you’re cooking, let dinner burn. If your phone is dinging with texts, stick it in the freezer. Let her know that her voice is the single most important thing at that moment. Don’t say a word about spelling or handwriting. This is the perfect way to steal a writer’s enthusiasm and joy. Offer at least six compliments for every one suggestion.

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4. Find a purpose for her writing. Enter online writing contests. Hire her to write your emails. Write letters to businesses that fail to deliver. Write thank-you notes to the kind Starbucks barista. Photocopy her poetry and send it to family members. Have her fiction professionally bound. Give her an authentic, meaningful reason to write.

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Will any of this help your daughter with her upcoming asinine essay? Maybe.

When she starts to feel better about writing and starts to see herself as a writer, assignments like this will become easier for her. But in the short term, you may want to look at using a tool like Google Voice to allow her to get her rough draft down on the page. The real writing happens after the initial draft, so whether or not that draft is typed, handwritten, or recorded isn’t important. Allow her to get her words down on the page.

Allow her to work on multiple projects at a time. Allow her to abandon things that she doesn’t love. Allow her to use pencils or pens or crayons or whatever else makes her happy.

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Explain to her that the 45-minute writing assignment is just a hoop in need of jumping through. Get it done. Put it behind you. Then we can do some honest-to-goodness writing.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

How much should I make a second grader try to read for herself each day? And what do you do with a kid who has no interest in reading—either for fun or for function?

My 7-year-old refuses to read outside of assigned schoolwork, even when playing a video game, looking for a street name, when presented with a menu, and so on. “What do you think XXX starts with?” is met with real frustration and anger. She doesn’t get too mad when I spell a word I’ve just said or she has mispronounced, but I don’t know how much that helps with reading.

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She rides out the clock on “quiet reading” during the school day, sitting quietly near a book rather than trying to read it, so I have been having her try to read aloud to me, since we are home. (Her teacher doesn’t approve, but I don’t see how this kid will improve if she doesn’t do the work.) She doesn’t really care about it and won’t comprehend anything unless I stop us and ask a lot of questions, which is very tedious at this reading level. She gets pretty frustrated with the interrogation.

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She practices her sight words and spelling list semi-willingly, but she does not want to read. The sight words do stick and she reads them fluently, but they do seem to be the only words she knows, and she is not interested in a new word encountered on the page. She does OK with attempts to spell, but has no real interest in writing either.

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Reading is my very favorite thing to do, and we live in a home surrounded by books for all members of the household. I am happy to read books aloud, and I do believe that audiobooks count as reading. She likes stories, and she loves learning about science. But she definitely thinks of reading as work that needs a boundary around it, rather than a thing that people do, constantly, and she does not seem to believe that if you practice it will improve tremendously and quickly.

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At what point do I refuse to read menus and game screens and so on to her unless she tries first? How hard should I push her to try outside the prescribed school work?

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—We’re Gonna Be So Much Happier When This Clicks

Dear Clicks,

Wow! There’s a lot to unpack here. From what you say, it sounds like your daughter is a very strong visual learner who learns best by pictures, as opposed to a verbal learner who’d prefer learning by words. This would explain why sight words are semi-acceptable to her—she may enjoy memorizing the way the word looks, which uses a different part of the brain than decoding meaning.

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Since reading clearly feels laborious to her, the key here will be figuring out an incentive or motivation that works for her learning style. I’d sit her down and ask why she likes reviewing sight words but dislikes reading so much. This will give you a place to start the conversation, and from there you can see if you can drill down to get to the root of the problem. She may find the reading sessions too long, the books too difficult or just flat-out boring. Once you’ve identified the most uncomfortable part of reading for her, you can begin incrementally changing the behavior.

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I’d also consider revisiting some phonics instruction. Struggling readers often lack a strong basis in phonemic awareness. Programs like ABCmouse or Wilson Language Training’s Fundations have made a huge difference for many of my students.

If that doesn’t work, you may want to check in with her teacher to see if they are experiencing similar behaviors in class. If your daughter seems to understand the material and read well in class, it may be an indication that you need to let up on some of this at home. But if her teacher is noticing that she’s struggling and a bit behind, I’d also consult a learning specialist to get a better idea of what specific strategies may work for your daughter. This person could also support you should your daughter show signs of a learning difference. I’d ask her teacher if your school has support on site, or her teacher may be able to refer you to an administrator or district office that can help you find one.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

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My fourth grade daughter is a joy to be around, a good friend, and a well-behaved student. She loves to read and write, does her homework willingly, and has a great imagination. But she is a terrible speller. What can I do to help?

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