We live in a world that is largely data driven. Teenagers, especially, are surrounded by quantifiable things. How many likes did my Instagram post get? What was your grade on the Social Studies test? Did you add another baseball hat to your collection? On the common application for college, students are required to record the number of hours they spent during each week on specific activities, even the ones they’ve done for sheer enjoyment. It’s become second nature for teens to connect to their worlds through data points.
It makes sense, then, that many high school students, when asked what they like to read, say, “I don’t like to read.” Or whine, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” when assigned an essay response to a work of literature. Reading is not something that gives them a countable result. When students finish reading a book, there is nothing they can record that is similar to the way they measure their activities and accomplishments. How, in this data-heavy world, are we supposed to convince young people that reading books matters? That the stories they consume while turning the pages are exercising their brains to become better at critical thinking and problem solving?
A Narrative Approach
When I opened my most recent box of books, the fourth shipment in an order placed last year, the first title I noticed was The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World by Frank Rose. After reading it, I’m excited to try out a new approach to motivating students to read. Though I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to incorporate this new knowledge into the library curriculum, I realize that in order to reach a large number of high school students, I’ll have to convince them that reading books will benefit them. It’s been well documented that reading creates empathy and elicits feelings that allow learners to expand their emotional storehouse. But less showcased are the practical benefits of reading that relate to real life.
Stories in the Real World
Stories play a role in every aspect of our lives. If learners become proficient at reading and internalizing the various parts of stories, they’ll be better prepared to become successful in business, artistic endeavors, and personal relationships. As Rose points out in his book, stories are the foundation for many successful companies and individuals (27-44). Whether it’s the anecdote a retailer uses to advertise its goods, the history a corporation highlights to convince people to invest with them, or the creative thinking a love-struck person practices to maintain a romantic relationship, people rely on stories to support their goals.
Companies like Apple, Google, and Warby Parker have embraced the use of stories to promote themselves and attract customers (Rose). Experts from all areas, including psychology, marketing, and economics, have realized that focusing on narrative thinking can advance their goals more efficiently. If we can find a way to teach this to students, and to convince them that reading both fiction and nonfiction books will give them an inherent understanding of story arcs and other aspects of narratives, maybe they’ll be more likely to pick up books and read. Without them even realizing it, they may even become hooked on the feeling of joy that comes from getting lost in the pages of books.
In an ideal school environment, I would collaborate with subject teachers to incorporate at least one book into their syllabuses each quarter. I would teach workshops to teachers and students, analyzing the power of stories to transform lives. I would face a stream of students each morning waiting by the school library doors, eager to return their finished books and take out new ones. In the absence of these scenarios, however, I’ll do whatever I can to get students reading. For now, that means figuring out ways to communicate to them that reading stories will help them become successful, self-actualized humans.
Rose, Frank. The Sea We Swim in: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World. W.W. Norton & Company, 2021.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.