During the autumn of 2019, shortly after Heather Peerboom had just launched a new reading initiative and podcast for her class at Pearl River Community College, one of her students, who was an immigrant from Central America, approached her about the book the student had chosen to read for her class assignment. The novel, Alexandra Villasante’s “The Grief Keeper,” tells the story of Marisol, a 17-year-old immigrant from El Salvador applying for asylum in the United States with her sister Gabby. The student told Peerbom the book had resonated with her as an immigrant herself.
“She told me that a lot of the time she never got assigned books in school that reflected her personal experiences, but that this was something that she was familiar with on a personal level,” Peerboom says. “She talked about how we live in a time where immigration is often treated like a problem that needs to be fixed, whereas ‘The Grief Keeper’ told the story of an immigrant from their own point of view and presented their experiences as something that needed to be shared.”
“That was exactly what I wanted students to be able to get out of my classes, which is why I feel it’s important to pair contemporary novels with classic ones in the classroom,” she adds.
The assignment in question, Peerboom says, asked students to choose a contemporary novel for themselves and then present it to the rest of the class along with an explanation of why they felt it was a text worthy of study. Letting students have a measure of control over course content, along with explaining their choice of literature, allowed for a wide variety of texts that students loved but never saw discussed before.
“A lot of young people feel frustrated when things they love to read are never taught,” Peerboom says. “This gives them the chance to fill that void. I’ve gotten to have deep discussions about stories like ‘The Wallflower’ and ‘Cabin 10’ that discuss issues of depression and mental illness, which are not uncommon problems for young people to have to deal with, and which these students feel speak to them.”
“They feel passionately about convincing their classmates to read them and, through that, become more passionate about reading in general,” she adds.
Countering the Resistance of Reading
Peerboom, an English instructor at Pearl River Community College in Forrest County, has long worked to find ways to counter what she describes as a resistance to reading among younger people, a behavior that can often begin in their preteen years.
“A lot of times I’ve observed this resistance setting in when some parents use books as a manner of punishment,” Peerboom says. “Some kids I’ve met have mentioned their parents making them read so many books over the summer if they did something wrong, for example. For others, technology is something that competes with reading, with a lot of kids being more interested in video games, their smart phones or social media.”
“Accelerated-reading programs in schools are one way some folks try to foster an early love of reading, but often these programs place requirements that weigh heavily on kids, and many times educators don’t provide students with contemporary literature that is relevant to their own lives,” the teacher adds.
“All of these can lead to a resistance to reading by the time students have become teenagers.”
Peerboom’s efforts to inspire a love of reading in her students contributed to the Mississippi Humanities Council naming her as Humanities Teacher of the Year during the organization’s 2022 Public Humanities Awards ceremony on March 25, 2022. PRCC Provost Dr. Martha Lou Smith and other academic leaders in the humanities at PRCC choose nominees whose efforts in the classroom and service to the college they deem worthy of recognition.
She also discussed her methods and own love of reading during a presentation titled “Health and Social Wellbeing: The Benefits of Book Reading,” which she delivered as part of the William Lewis Honors Institute Forrest County Center Honors Lecture Series in February. In addition to the reasons for and consequences of teenage resistance to reading, Peerboom also discussed the health and life benefits reading provides.
“Reading goes in hand with writing and is a vital skill for most businesses, and that provides employment opportunities that benefit us all as a society,” Peerboom says. “There are plenty of health benefits to reading as well. Reading can help improve your memory, with some research even suggesting that regular reading of more complex literature might help to stave off Alzheimer’s disease.”
Keeping numerous characters, plots and details in one’s mind over long periods of time can also help improve memory retention, Peerboom points out, adding that reading can also reduce stress and improve quality of sleep in some.
“As a longtime book -lover and as a teacher of literature who has often heard young people say they think reading is a chore, this was a topic I wanted to focus on, but I also think it’s something that a lot of people other than students can relate to,” she says. “Resistance to reading is something anyone can overcome in themselves if they work toward it.”
One way teachers can help to work through this resistance, Peerboom says, is by incorporating more contemporary literature in the classroom. Modern books include the use of new technologies, such as text conversations and social media, and also address contemporary issues and problems young people are likely to face.
Seeing their own lives more heavily represented, Peerboom claims, makes them more likely to become engaged in reading. Representation is also key, with books by and about women or people of color being more prevalent in contemporary literature than in books published before the 1900s.
“I’m a fan of contemporary literature myself because of the complex themes such books often deal with, such as the struggles of modern women or current racial issues that you can find in books like Angie Thomas’ ‘The Hate U Give,’” Peerboom says. “These kinds of stories highlight real-world issues that can be challenging to face, which helps keep students engaged.” (Editor’s Note: Angie Thomas is on the advisory board of the Mississippi Free Press.)
In her classes, Peerboom makes sure to mix classic and modern literature together as part of her lesson plans to show students how they are relevant to each other. She also always makes sure that her syllabus is representative, mixing writing from different cultures, especially ones from outside the western hemisphere. That, along with breaking down assignments into pieces that are manageable and not overwhelming, helps overcome initial feelings of panic students might feel and helps increase student success, Peerboom says.
Building Her Career
Peerboom was born in Orange County, Calif., and moved around through many high schools as a teenager due to her father’s Navy career. She graduated from Oak Grove High School and began working as a waitress right after graduation. She met her husband, Edward Peerboom, in 1996, and it wasn’t until their son, Patrick, was 4 -years -old and entering preschool that Peerboom decided to pursue a college degree.
“I was a nontraditional student with four kids at home, with Patrick along with three step children, Michael, Sarah and Nicholas,” Peerboom says. “Along with the obvious financial reasons, I decided to go back to school and get a college degree because I wanted to provide a good example to my kids. Parents who finish college are more likely to have children who also finish college, and I wanted to be sure to provide that for Patrick as he began his education.”
Peerboom enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi due to it being within easy driving distance, and received her bachelor’s degree in English in 2007 and a master’s degree in the same subject from USM in 2009. While attending USM, she began working as an assistant grad school teacher at the university. After graduating, Peerboom began teaching at Jones College while also working part time at PRCC before assuming a full-time position there in 2015. Peerboom teaches freshman-level composition, honor’s English and world literature.
In addition to her instructor position at PRCC, Peerboom has served as the leader of the Forrest County campus chapter of the English honor society, Sigma Kappa Delta, since 2016. The organization is a national society that highlights the importance of reading and writing.