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Hiram Professor Studies Middle School Readers

Thanks to Hiram College Professor Jennifer Miller, seventh-graders at James A. Garfield Middle School in Garrettsville got the rare chance to do what many readers only dream of – meet an author face-to-face and ask questions about why and how he wrote his book.

Miller, associate professor of education and director of assessment at Hiram is researching the question does meeting an author influence middle school children’s motivation to read? So, as part of her research, she arranged with the faculty and administration at Garfield for all seventh-graders to read “The Sledding Hill,” a novel for young readers by Chris Crutcher. For several weeks this term the students, guided by their Garfield teachers and Miller, read and discussed the book during their classes in preparation for an all-day visit by Crutcher.

“The Sledding Hill” tells the story of a small community and officials’ decision to ban a book from the library. It focuses on themes of free speech, educational freedom, censorship and social justice. In March, Crutcher spent a day at the school with the students, who bombarded him with questions about why he wrote the book, how he got the ideas for incidents and characters, and his motivation for the plot and resolution.

“The students had generated questions for him,” Miller said. “They got an opportunity to meet with him and ask questions in small groups rather than in a large assembly, or lecture setting.” Miller said Crutcher (who is also a columnist, educational consultant, winner of numerous awards for his young readers’ fiction, and a recent lecturer at Hiram’s Lindsay Crane Center for Writing and Literature) fielded questions and discussed his book with groups of 25 or 30 students for 50 minutes each. The students learned that many of the characters and incidents in the book are based on real people and events in the author’s life.

“The most frequent question seemed to be why (Crutcher) ended by having the effort to ban the book succeed,” Miller said. “I think the students’ sympathies probably were with those in the story who wanted free speech and free access, but Crutcher’s answer was that he chose that ending because ‘that is the way it works’ in the world, and it is important to know that.”

The Garfield seventh-grade reading project is only part of Miller’s larger study, and she has yet to analyze the data from follow-up interviews she conducted with a core group of the students. But she said it appears personal contact with the author enhanced the students’ appreciation of the book and stimulated their interest in reading. Case in point: The students were so involved they found a mistake in the book – an error professional editors and even Crutcher had missed. “That (finding the error) is indicative of how closely they read the book, ” Miller said.

Whatever Miller’s ultimate research findings show, some results are clear now: A group of local seventh-graders got to powwow with their book’s author, and that enriched their learning – and reading – experience.

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