WESTERN WRITERS COUNT
by Jay Marie Nitschke Current Library Board Member, Retired Spanish Teacher, Drama Director, Fiction Teacher
Several years ago, when teaching in New Rockford, North Dakota I had an English fiction class on my schedule for the last half of the year. That year was a bit different than other years because I had three very reluctant readers in my class that were all seniors and all needed another half year credit of English to graduate with their class. They were not happy to be in the class and made that very clear to me and the others in the class. They did understand that passing that class was necessary for them to graduate and there was not another English class being offered that they could take that would allow them to meet the standards necessary to accomplish the task needed for graduation.
One would think that in and of itself, that would have been a good motivator for them and they would have been putting their best feet forward toward meeting the necessary goal. That however, did not seem to be their objective. Doing as little as possible, constantly complaining about the reading material and disrupting the class as often as they could did seem to be their objectives. After the first novel the class read or should I say the entire class but three boys read I was at my wits end. I needed to stop the frustration for the other students in my class as well as for myself and the three difficult students.
That motivated me to call a meeting with my three non-reading students, the principal and their parents. My plan was to seek to find a solution to the problem and to get these boys to graduation with their class. I knew in my heart they really did not want to not graduate. But did not want to read what we were reading. I also knew that doing more of what we were doing with the texts I had available in the classroom was not going to motivate them to read or much less discuss literature, so seeking an alternative was a goal for that meeting.
Like many of that style of meeting, it began with the parents telling the boys they would do the work, the principal agreeing to that statement and the boys looking as dejected as they did every day in class. Seeking to bring about a miracle I ask them what type of novel could they see themselves reading. Two boys said none and one quietly said why can’t we read a western. Leaping on that simple suggestion, I readily said I would not be opposed to us reading a Louis L’Amour novel in the classroom, stating that he could qualify for a regional writer so it would meet the standards of the class. I knew the principal did not want us adjusting the class for these reluctant students as he was tired of their actions and did not want students in other classes to think they could set the curriculum. By stressing that Louis L’Amour lived in Jamestown, ND for a period of his life he could qualify for the regional writer portion of the class and it could solve the problem.
After further discussion with the group the principal did agree to buy enough Louis L’Amour novels for the class and the boys had to sign an agreement stating the requirements they had to accomplish for each class or they would be removed and would not be able to graduate. I walked out of the meeting excited that we had a plan a signed agreement and all would be good going forward.
That however, did not prove to be the case. Some of my regular students in the class were not happy when I announced that when we finished the novel we were on we were going to read a western novel by Louis L’Amour. One even stated that she did not think we would be able to discuss the things we normally did like, development of character, style of writing etc. When I asked why she thought that she said, western writers were not “high quality writers.”
I pushed my relationship with that student a little and asked if she thought I would bring a poorly written novel into the classroom. Well, she agreed that would be out of character for me and agreed to give it a chance. The result, Louis L’Amour came into the classroom.
Discussion of all aspects of literature, like foreshadowing, plot developing, charter building, vocabulary selection continued as was normal in the classroom. Tests were given and the entire class managed to pass the class. My reluctant readers thanked me for letting them read something a little different and some of my standard readers in the class stated in their final essays about the book or the author that they were amazed the quality of writing was more complex then they had imaged and they enjoyed the variety.
One could say Louis L’Amour saved that class and all involved with the class. The following year when I was again teaching that fiction class I had students asking if we were going to read a western again. I smiled and said sure, Louis L’Amour was a fine western writer.