In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.
This month we talked to Paul Davenport, the author of two of our graded readers, Princess on the Run and Stubs Grows Up. Paul worked as a teacher for almost 40 years and has written about 30 stories for language learners. He talks about his reading and teaching, his background and shares his views on reading in school.
Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): Where are you from?
I'm from Houlton, a little town in northern Maine, although it didn't seem little to me when I was growing up there.
HRB: How did growing up in Maine shape your mental landscape?
In many ways, but perhaps mainly nurturing in me a love of the Great Outdoors. Maine is a large state, thinly populated, with a great outdoors, lots of woods, streams and lakes. As an avid fisherman, I spent a lot of time outdoors, casting flies and dangling worms, hoping to catch some of those beautiful Maine brook trout. Also, the highly competitive basketball league I played in brought out some good qualities in me, such as the discipline required by constant training, teamwork and the will to win.
HRB: How have your childhood experiences and hobbies influenced your teaching and writing?
Many of my stories, for example Snakeman, S.O.S. Rocky Hill, Horror Trip on the Pecos River and Crossroads to Love are set at least partly in the Great Outdoors. In many other stories, such as Stubs Grows Up, Run for your Life and Showdown at St. Ann's, sport plays an important role. In several other stories such as Rapping for Shelly, King of the Rappers, Kevin Not Alone and The Heart of Boston Rap, music is the central theme. My father played piano in a band, I played the saxophone.
HRB: What made you move to Germany?
A German girl! We lived a while in the United States, but her love of Germany was stronger, and after a few years we moved to Germany, a move I've never regretted. Germany is a great place to live. The only thing I miss is the good fishing.
HRB: Where and why did you start writing?
Where? In Houlton, in middle school. Why? It's in my genes. I started writing long ago, when I got my first crush on a girl in middle school. Instead of giving her chocolates, I wrote poems for her. In college, I was a steady contributor to the college literary magazine. During my teaching career, I wrote over fifty articles about teaching tips and techniques for journals for English teachers. I also wrote plays for my students to perform. I submitted one of those plays, The Royal Choice, to a publisher and it was published. That motivated me to keep writing and I began writing school readers. Publishers liked the results and it's been my good fortune that most of my manuscripts have been accepted for publication.
HRB: What were your first stories about?
Wolf Watch, my first reader, is about a killer wolf. The second, Snakeman, is about a school bully and his gang.
HRB: How much do you think your reading has influenced your writing?
A lot, especially authors like T.C. Boyle, Kathy Reichs and Michael Connelly.
HRB: How many stories have you written?
Somewhere between 25 and 30. I've stopped counting. That includes 7 titles from my own little publishing house, Davenport Stories.
HRB: What do you enjoy reading?
Thrillers, detective stories and adventure stories.
HRB: How long have you been teaching?
I taught for almost 40 years. Now I'm retired and enjoying it.
HRB: Can you give us some techniques teachers can try, to get teen students to read more?
Techniques can certainly help to motivate students to read more, but what is more motivational, in my opinion, is when the teacher herself enjoys reading, treasures the English language and values the power of expression. One technique that occurs to me is for the teacher to show their love of language by quoting a 'purple passage' from a good reader. What I call a good school reader is a treasure chest of authentic language, language in context, language which shows the student in an entertaining way how the English language works.
HRB: What do you think of the role of reading in second language learning?
It can be a very important role. When students get immersed in the world of a good reader, they will begin to understand and appreciate the power and the beauty of the English language.
HRB: What types of stories do you think teens like the most?
Their taste has changed through the years but in my experience what they nowadays like the most are topical stories, stories about current issues and concerns, such as cyber mobbing or the use of dating apps like Tinder.
HRB: You are a second language learner, too. Do you have any learning strategies to share?
My only 'strategy' would be to study hard to learn the language and continue to try to improve your skills, even after you have reached a working level of it.
HRB: How do you keep your American language, culture and identity alive in a different country?
That's a good question. I live in a part of Germany where very little English is spoken, so I have to resort to other means. For one thing, I watch a lot of English TV channels like CNN and BBC and read English novels. The most important means for me has been my writing, a discipline that demands that I dig deep into my English roots to find the best ways of expressing my thoughts.
HRB: Are you working on any stories right now?
Yes, again a school reader, this one about a bully, a theme I find myself coming back to rather often. It's not surprising: In my middle school days I personally experienced what it is like to be victimized by a bully.
HRB: Thank you for the interview!