Teachers and Librarians Weigh in on “Twilight”

November 19, 2009 08:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
“The Twilight Saga” of books and films has millions of teenage and preteen fans, but its controversial themes have sparked a debate over its place in the classroom.

The “Twilight” Hype

With “New Moon,” the latest installment in Stephanie Meyers’ “The Twilight Saga,” hitting theaters Nov. 20, the hype among teenage readers, Hollywood reporters and now teachers and librarians has reached fever pitch. But the issue of whether “Twilight” belongs in school curriculums has been discussed since 2008, when the series became extremely popular among middle school students. 

Amrisa Niranjin of School Library Journal interviewed Amy Clarke, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and a teen literature expert, about the frenzy and fascination surrounding the “Twilight” series. Aside from the romance, Clarke says, “themes of family, free will, and the possibility of myths intermingling with the real world” have enticed teenage readers. Author Stephanie Meyer’s ability to reach and connect with her target audience has also been important. “Meyer also captures the intensity of young love and writes in a way that is hip but not ironic,” Clarke notes.

Asked why “teens find the supernatural so appealing,” Clarke theorizes, “I do think that the world we inhabit is kind of discouraging, probably kind of frightening.” But escapism “may be too easy an explanation—I think a lot of kids just find this stuff really cool,” she adds. 

Clarke says she would “definitely” include the “Twilight” books in her own curriculum, even comparing main character Bella to “Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet,” although somewhat less complex. Meyer’s themes of Native American mythology and religious inquiry also intrigue Clarke.

Illinois middle school teacher Mindi Bertels teamed with high school educator Patti Swank for “Twilight. What’s All the Fuss?” a presentation they planned to give at the 2009 National Council of Teachers of English. Bertels told Justin Gibson of Illinois newspaper the Highland News Leader that the popular books make use of various literary techniques and elements she teaches in the classroom, “such as structure, narrative voice, imagery, character development and resolution.”

According to Gibson, the two teachers chose to focus on “Twilight” in their presentation “because it opens up the doors of reading to children who typically do not read.” Swank continued, “There is that element of the teen years that are awkward, where they aren’t comfortable in their own skin. This (series) is something they can relate too.”

“Twilight” in the Classroom

In an article for The Examiner, Starr Weems de Graffenried interviewed teachers about using the “Twilight” series in the classroom. A sixth-grade language arts teacher named Sarah, who publishes an educator resource blog, said using “excerpts from Twilight and Midnight Sun” aided her lesson plans on “voice and point-of-view in novels.”

Teacher Kristen Watson Lombardi told The Examiner, “Using a book like Twilight would practically guarantee 100% participation of the students. This is a book they are already going to read, so why not use it to your advantage?"

The series’ popularity has even resulted in an entire Web site of “Twilight” lesson plans. Novel Novice Twilight encourages visitors to read beyond the series, offering “regular book recommendations,” and holding “fan fiction challenges” that encourage readers to try their hand at writing. 

Lesson plans incorporate historical facts as well as current events. Among the possible assignments included in the “Twilight themed unit plan,” available for free on the site, are “a collage of stories that follow the gothic tradition” and a “5 paragraph Paper about Forks, Washington.” The paper asks students to research population statistics and tourist attractions in Forks, and to discuss why the setting is crucial to the plot of “Twilight.” 

Opinion & Analysis: Controversy surrounding “Twilight”

Meyer’s series follows “the love affair between Bella Swan, who moves to a new school, and Edward Cullen, a mysterious heartthrob who belongs to a family of vampires,” according to Lauren Dickson of Australia’s The Daily Telegraph.

The love story and sexual undertones combined with fantastical elements have worried some schools. At Santa Sabina College, head librarian Helen Schutz banned “Twilight” books from the school’s junior library, saying, “There was a great level of concern from the teachers and we anticipated there would be concern from the parents” regarding younger students’ ability “to deal with the adult themes,” according to Dickson. Schutz did not elaborate, saying only that “the issues in the Twilight series are quite different from the Harry Potter classics.”

Meanwhile, one 10-year-old student, Emmi Payten, contradicts all the worry. “I know it's all just fantasy. I think it's really good, really interesting and bits of it are really funny," she told Dickson.

Background: How “Twilight” impacts young readers

Not every student is immediately drawn to the “Twilight” series, as Amy McRary explains in an article for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Middle school student Sarah Shipley-Powell, for example, didn’t like reading, and had difficulty at school. But she was enticed by the “Twilight” movie trailer, and when her parents promised she could see the film if she read the book, Sarah got focused.

At first, “I thought, ‘This is kind of boring.’ But I really wanted to see the movie, so I kept reading,” she told McRary. Three days later, she’d finished the book, and discovered a new love of reading. According to McRary, Sarah now “reads college-level books” and has brought her grades up “from Cs to mostly Bs, with a few As.”

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