Within the first five minutes of talking with any teenager, I will undoubtedly ask some question related to reading. Do they like it or not? Or, perhaps, I ask for names of a few books they've read for pleasure in the past year(s). I ask because I think the answer reveals a lot about the student to me, and also about me to the student. As an aside, I do realize that in educated families very few young people read as regularly as their parents would like. This is typically why I ask the question when the parents are not present- or make clear that the discussion is between just me and the student at the moment. So why do I ask? I ask for the reason stated within the question: do you read? It's an important one as there must be learning going on outside of the traditional classroom and reading is the easiest and most accessible way to do this. If a student tells me that they don't read a lot of books, but they do read Scientific American or National Geographic, for instance, they have offered very insightful information into who they are as an individual and also where their interests lie. At the same time, the students learn from me that I care about their minds and I'm not only interested in the outcome of what will most certainly feel like a very arduous process: the transition from high school to university. At some point I almost always tell teenagers that whether or not they can do math will not define them in their college/university pursuits, but if they don't (like to) read, write or discuss ideas, they'll find themselves fairly hard-pressed to thrive in any classroom.
The fact is most curriculums for literature are outdated and not as relatable as we'd like to think. Why all kids read about Gatsby and Holden Caulfield still, I'm not sure, since there are so many amazing contemporary writer/thinkers, Franzen, Gladwell, Brooks, Levitt, etc … and many others who have created characters much more relevant to the teenagers of today. I insist on getting to know a student well enough so I can refer books which he/she will enjoy. My solution is not to eliminate Catcher in the Rye from mandated curriculum, but rather supplement it with reading that is more relevant to teenagers of the 21st century. So YES! I encourage reading. I basically insist on it. But this is not the only purpose of my question. The response I get tells me a lot about the level of anxiety that the particular student feels (and to be sure, every teenager has anxieties and insecurities which has to do with a growing sense of self-awareness, a defining characteristic of adolescence). More often than not the reply I get is sheepish and embarrassed. This is the beginning of my "diagnosis" (this does not necessarily carry a negative connotation) into issues ranging from lack of confidence to poor time management and all kinds of possibilities along the spectrum in-between. This is when the relationship really begins.
I love to work with teenagers because- though it may surprise most people- they have a fairly accurate understanding of their own intellectual strengths and weaknesses and are open to improving themselves, so long as judgment does not enter the conversation. This makes the relationship a very valuable and rewarding one, especially because these skills, this insight and optimism about intellectual growth, are not taught in schools.
This is the building block of how I work with teenagers and why it's so important for young people to have mentors. I don't claim that every 16, 17 and 18 year old I come across will always have something to learn from me. In fact, too many of my former students seem to be studying and working in fields that are as foreign to me as snow to Miami, but that's not the point. The point is that they are excited to tell me about their academic and professional journeys and explain what I don't understand. They have not only become interested readers (in most, but not all cases) but they appreciate the opportunity to be a teacher and mentor, themselves. If our goal is to create a world that is better connected than the one we currently have (not FB connections but real, human connections) then mentoring and a level of intellectual honesty and openness must be a priority.