Sunday Salon: School Books

SundaySalonI imagine many of you have seen this recent New York Times article that explains how teachers are reducing, or even eliminating, the amount of time spent on whole-class novels in favor of having students choose their own books.

Edited to add: Via Twitter, I just came across this great 1991 essay on the canon. It says a lot of what I’d say, but much more intelligently.

This is not a new story, really. During my brief teaching career, more than a decade ago, I taught a class called Independent Reading. A major component of that class was having students choose their own reading material. (Shared readings and writing were the other elements of the class.) Many of the students in the class were reluctant readers and wouldn’t read anything at all unless they were made to—and even then they’d try to fake it.

GreatExpectationsUnlike my students, I was enough of a geek to love most of the books I read in school, even The Scarlet Letter, which seems almost universally reviled. I’m thankful to this day that my 9th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Walter, has us read Great Expectations. My previous teachers hadn’t assigned what I saw as “grown-up” books. For required book reports, I usually read teen books, which were fun, but not particularly challenging. I thought that was what I was supposed to read. I was a teenager; I should read teen books. I read lots of them, many more than were assigned, but they were all I read. Once I read Dickens, the scales fell from my eyes. If I could read Dickens, I could read anything. (Little did I know that Dickens is cake compared to Joyce.)

So I see value in assigning the classics. I needed that push. And I can’t imagine trying to teach basic literary techniques without having some shared texts. Also, some works of literature are part of our culture. People over the years have agreed that these books are particularly significant—even if they aren’t the only books worth reading. Isn’t there value in keeping those books in the classroom? How many students will pick up Shakespeare or Chaucer or Dickens or Faulkner on their own? Is it even important that everyone read these works?

WaitingtoExhaleOn the other hand, most of the students in my Independent Reading class weren’t interested in classic novels. But some of them would wax eloquent about the YA novel A Day No Pigs Would Die. Just as I needed a push to read Dickens, they needed a push to read Robert Newton Peck or Michael Crichton or Terry Macmillan—all popular choices among my students.

I’m not convinced that abandoning the whole-class novel is the way to go, but I see value in offering more freedom. Not every book is a good match for every reader, and if the only books students read in school are bad matches, they might walk away thinking reading is a waste of time. If they’re given permission to read whatever they like in school, maybe they’ll actually find something they like. But I would hope that teachers who do abandon the whole-class novel aren’t assuming that all students will find the classics to be dull. I hope that students will still be encouraged to read old books—and new books and genre fiction and nonfiction. Mostly I hope they’ll be encouraged to read widely and to think about what they read.

What do you think? What were your reading experiences like in school? Did you like the assigned readings? Do you think they still have a place in the classroom?


Notes from My Reading Life

Books Completed

Currently Reading

  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood on audio. Read the book years ago, and I’m on the last disc. Not my favorite Atwood, but inferior Atwood is still superior fiction.
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.I’ve nearly finished this fun, loopy narrative.
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I’ve read the last long footnote!
  • The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Lessons in writing poetry. Starting the section on rhyme.

On Deck

  • The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds. A Booker longlister about the poet John Clare.
  • Ice Land by Betsy Tobin. A mix of history and myth, set in 11th-century Iceland.
  • Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl on audio. A foodie memoir from the library
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Jon Berendt on audio, also from the library.

New Acquisitions

  • None

Books to Remember

  • The Spare Room by Helen Garner. This book was all over the place last year, but the review at Vulpes Libris convinced me that it’s not just soppy sentiment.
  • Voice Overby Celine Curiol. The various opinions expressed at Savidge Reads, Paperback Reader, Farm Lane Books, and Reading Matters have got me intrigued.
  • Puppet Master by Joanne Owen. Melanie at The Indextrious Reader reviewed this one. Who can resist a book about creepy marionettes? 
  •  Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman. I’ve looked at the audio version at the library a few times, and Eva’s review at A Striped Armchair led to me think I should bring it home with me next time.
  • Knife of Never Letting Goby Patrick Ness. Intriguing dystopian fiction reviewed at Vulpes Libris.
  • Dance Night by Dawn Powell. Depression-era fiction reviewed by Danielle at A Work in Progress and Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles.
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24 Responses to Sunday Salon: School Books

  1. JoAnn says:

    Great post! One of my 16 year old twins had the same experience with Great Expectations as you did. She loved it and it opened her eyes to many new possibilities! For the most part though, her sister has not enjoyed the texts chosen for class. For summer reading, they were given a three page list of books and told to choose two. This worked well, and Twin B finally managed to find a book she liked (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time).

    I loved most of the books assigned in school, and even chose to take the ‘Novels’ elective senior year. It ended up being my favorite class ever. I do think whole texts still have a place in high school English classes.

  2. Steph says:

    First, I didn’t read The Scarlet Letter until I was 24 or so, but I really enjoyed it. I did find the prose a bit hard going at times, but I wound up really enjoying. But who knows if 16-year old Steph would have liked it? ;)

    At my highschool, we tended to have a mix of books each year – most of them were assigned, but there was always an “independent reading” section. I’m glad I was encouraged (or you know, told) to read certain classic books, because I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, but I guess I don’t see any harm in letting students have more choice in their reading material. We always had to clear our choice with our teacher for independent reading, and she always seemed to have an idea of what level we should/could be reading at and encouraged us to pick something at the appropriate level. I think having a list of books that students can pick from isn’t a bad idea, because as you say, many students aren’t readers and wouldn’t even know where to begin. Being able to remind/suggest to some that maybe they should give Dickens a try (or as my 11th grade teacher did with me, Byatt) is something I’d hate to see disappear (even though I fully confess that I’ve never read Great Expectations, and managed to wheedle my way into the Sense & Sensibility group in Grade 12 English, rather than the Great Expectations group!).

  3. Frances says:

    It needs to be a mix of both assigned material and choice. As far as students connecting with classics, a lot of it has to do with how the material is presented. Adolescents and adults obviously have differing degrees of life experience and different areas of interest. I tanked teaching Hamlet in a scripted conventional form, but rocked the house teaching it based upon the single question of “Is Hamlet insane or is he having a sane reaction to an insane world?” Some teachers refuse to “cave” to student preferences but I have always found this ridiculous. It is up to a good teacher to meet the student where he or she is and not the other way round.

  4. Kristen M. says:

    Great topic. I definitely see value in both ways of assigning reading. I will say though that when I got that big list for summer reading, I always chose books whose titles I already recognized. Of course, I was in high school pre-internet so maybe now I would look up synopses and choose something different. But I think that when presenting “student choice” options, it would be nice to have the teacher actually speak about some or all of the books. If it’s the teacher’s enthusiasm and presentation that helps students with assigned reading, I think that the same could be said for free choice books.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Great topic for thought and discussion. I think most kids (me, when I was one included) need a push to challenge themselves with the books they are reading. My son is a Sophmore and has Honors English. I’m gratified to see the list of books (Illiad, Cantebury Tales, Aenid, etc) that he has to read. I know for sure he wouldn’t choose to read any of these but I also know he will get alot out of reading them. I think it is also good to have student choice options too. If given a choice my son will usually gravitate towards magazines (mostly sports-related) but I figure reading something is better than reading nothing!

  6. Gavin says:

    Interesting topic and very timely. At our school, in the elementary classrooms, we have a time during the day when an adult reads aloud to the class and also a time when students read on their own. The most challenging thing for all of the teaching staff, at any level, is finding a book the reluctant reader will enjoy.

    The middle school has something called “Book Discussion” with an assigned novel, could be a classic, could be a contempory novel, could be sci-fi. During the discussion everyone has a chance to express their likes and dislikes, what is difficult and what they enjoy. The older students facilitate the discussion, the adult is there to give feedback.

    I feel very lucky to be working in this reading-centered environment!

  7. JaneGS says:

    I’m pretty old-fashioned when it comes to reading lists. I think all students should be given the opportunity (aka required) to read Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Fitzgerald, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Part of a society is having shared cultural values, and I hate to think that such a rich part of our western heritage is being lost because kids whine about reading the classics.

  8. Teresa says:

    Joanne: It seems that for every kid who gets totally into the classics, there will be several who get turned off. I think giving opportunities to choose books like The Curious Incident probably helps keep them from getting turned off of reading altogether!

    Steph: I know what you mean about the 16-year-old self vs. the early-20s self. I hated Heart of Darkness at age 17 but liked it quite a bit when I had to reread it at 21. That is so great that your teacher pointed you toward Byatt! I don’t remember any of my teachers encouraging us to read contemporary fiction.

    Frances: Yes, if teachers meet students where they are—whether it comes to interest or reading level or whatever—they might find it easier to get them interested. And I suspect many kids lose interest in whole-class novels because so much time is spent trying to wring every bit of significance out of them, instead of just focusing on one element. When I taught Beowulf (which bored me as a student) I spent a lot more time on the battles than on the speeches because I knew that students would get into that. You have to find some kind of gateway.

    Kristen: I got very little one-on-one guidance from teachers about what to read, so, like you, when I got reading lists, I usually went with something that sounded familiar. And there were novels that I loved as a reader but found deadly dull to discuss in class because it was never presented as something fun.

    Kathleen: If a teacher had put Dickens in my hand, I probably would have done fine with it on my own, but I definitely needed guidance with stuff like Canterbury Tales and the Aeneid. That’s probably a good argument for teaching some of these works in the classroom.

    Gavin: In my day job (education magazine editor), I’ve read a lot of articles about how difficult it is to get reluctant readers interested. It seems like some of them just dig in their heels, convinced they don’t like reading, when the problem might just be that they haven’t found the right book. I love the idea of having students discuss their likes and dislikes, not just focusing on literary technique, which was what we did when I was in school. That’s important, but it’s not the only thing.

    JaneGS: My heart is in agreement with you about the classics. I want everyone to read them! But I did have students for whom those books would have been a legitimate struggle and, as they were ready to graduate (not going to college), I didn’t have time to catch them up. But then I worry about a literary caste system whereby college-bound students get exposed to the classics and non-college-bound students don’t. As a teacher, my compromise for the non-college-bound was to do lots of excerpts with heavy guidance and some Shakespeare “translated” into modern English (modern English on one page and Shakespearean on the facing page). That seemed to help.

  9. I read The Scarlet Letter as an optional extra book for an honors assignment and loved it. I mean, all the books in that era are a sort of soap opera that I think is very funny.

    I had a mix of required and chosen books in school. I liked choosing my own, but I also appreciated having to read some books I otherwise would have avoided like The Great Gatsby or others.

  10. Dani in NC says:

    I like a mix of whole-class novels and student choice, but I don’t think that the class novels always have to be the standard classics. After all, there was a time when Dickens was just popular literature before it was put on a pedestal. Maybe one of these modern novels will be considered a musty classic 100 years from now :-).

    My only reservation about not requiring classics is the experience that my best friend had. She was able to pick straight vocational courses in high school (typing, shorthand, etc.) so she never read any Shakespeare. To this day, she still feels a bit lost when a comedy or drama makes a reference to “Romeo and Juliet” or “Hamlet”. There are some books that everyone is expected to know, and modern entertainment is a bit richer when you do know them.

  11. Matthew says:

    I’m so excited that you’re reading The Master and Margarita, which is on the reading list for my course this semester. I have decided to incorporate this timeless, but often unheard-of, Russian classics into my Intro to Lit. Theory course as reading for modernism. I have introduced the book to students in Survey of Russian Lit. since pretty much any Russian you ask would have read the book, along with Bulgakov’s other works. The loopy and story-within-a-story narrative is ingenious! Each reading affords new nuances and meaning in this rich and dense book. Apropos of the post, I think The Master and Margarita should be taught more widely because in terms of stylistic and historical values the book has so much to offer.

    To rewind back to my high school days, I have read generic classics like The Grape of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, The Fountainhead, Tale of Two Cities, Crime and Punishment. I always thought certain books are too complicated and deep for flighty high school kids. For the most part I enjoyed my school reading.

  12. litlove says:

    The few classic authors I still don’t get on with (Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy) were set texts at school, BUT I still think school should teach classics. What I do think is that those teachers need an awful lot more training than they get in order to really work a class on literature. It’s an art form teaching books, and no wonder children emerge bored and hostile from the kind of lessons where you read painfully round the class and try to extract meaning that no one really understands or wants to get to grips with. I also think that classics should be tailored better to the age of the children. There are fun, accessible books that would do better for teenagers and lead them on to other things – ghost stories by Maupassant or Edith Wharton, for instance, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, parts of the Odyssey or the Iliad (in an accessible translation), Henry James’ Washington Square or The Aspern Papers, Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Eyre. It really pays to develop children’s appreciation slowly.

  13. Nymeth says:

    I needed that push too, and so many other students do. I think assigning classics can help students get over their intimidation and find out that they’re actually enjoyable and rewarding books. And like you said, there’s the fact that they’re part of our culture and help explain references that have become very common. On the other hand, freedom to pick their own books can help students develop a love of reading too. So I agree with Frances: it’s probably good to offer a mix of both.

  14. Teresa says:

    Kim: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I read The Scarlet Letter I was also a serious soap-opera addict. I read the Hawthorne (and Hardy, when I got to him) as soap operas—artfully done soaps, but soaps all the same.

    Dani in NC: I like the idea of mixing it up and adding some modern books. I saw a post a while back from someone who was specifically looking for classic and modern pairings to use in class, which I thought was a great idea. And, yes, there’s value in getting at least enough exposure to pick up on cultural references—and that doesn’t even require reading the whole thing.

    Matthew: I just finished The Master and Margarita last night, and it is wonderful. It’s great just on the story level, but I can tell there’s a lot more there for those who are inclined to dig for it. I imagine there are lots of students who would enjoy this—even teachers who can’t fit the whole book into their schedules could probably find a few choice excerpts to share and study.

    Litlove: Yes, so much of it comes down to how the books are taught. If it’s just treated as something to wring meaning from and not enjoy, then it’s no wonder kids are unimpressed. And there are so many great, accessible authors to choose from that don’t ever get taught—Wilkie Collins springs to mind, or any of the Gothic and Victorian sensation novels.

    Nymeth: It makes me sad when I see educators abandoning the classics altogether because I know some students need that push. Offering a mix seems to be the consensus. And making sure students can see the fun in whatever they’re reading.

  15. Jeane says:

    There are so many classics I never would have appreciated (or even comprehended) had they not been required reading in a class. And I agree with what Dani said- being exposed to classical literature gives greater appreciation of so many things that still reference it in today’s culture. That said, I know some kids will always hate being forced to read books they struggle to understand or just don’t like, so it’s good that they get some free choice, too. (I always spent any free moment of class time reading my own picks!)

  16. Teresa says:

    Jeane: That’s the good thing about class reading. Done well, it can help us see what we wouldn’t have seen on our own.

  17. Jenny says:

    I saw this article and was not impressed by the ideas the teacher had about what the students were allowed to choose. I agree with a mix of set texts and choice, but limited choice — no Captain Underpants in an honors class! Give me a break! However, I do think that students in lower-level classes, who might choose not to read at all on their own, might benefit from a very wide swath of choices that could include some very accessible classics but could also include graphic novels, YA series, etc. Anything to addict them and catch their attention. The journey to become a lifelong learner starts early.

  18. Teresa says:

    Jenny: I wasn’t so bothered by the fact that students were reading Captain Underpants during free choice time, although I’d hope she was pushing them to get beyond that, especially if was an honors class, which wasn’t 100% clear. (The gifted status of her students got a little confused throughout the article–I get the impression, based on what was said about test scores, that her colleagues who didn’t like her approach were defining gifted very loosely.) I was more bothered that she seemed so ready to give up on Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird because students didn’t like them. Students didn’t like To Kill a Mockingbird? The classic everyone likes? Maybe it’s not the book that’s the problem…

  19. Dorothy W. says:

    In some high school English classes we were allowed to read what we wanted, and I thought it was kind of dumb because people chose dumb things generally, and the teacher thought I was so smart for choosing a biography of Queen Elizabeth. It was great fun when I finally had teachers who chose good books for me. But many students are not that way, I realize, and some would benefit from having more choice. Or perhaps it would be better to have teachers who choose better books, ones that are better tailored to what the students need.

  20. Teresa says:

    Dorothy: You’ve identified my one of my biggest problems with nothing but free choice. I grew up in a rural area, and, I’m sorry to stay, standards were low. In middle school, I remember teachers being impressed that I read thick historical romances (Sunfires, they were called). They were long and impressive looking, but there was nothing challenging about them. I would have loved something like I Capture the Castle back then, but no one thought I needed a push.

  21. rebeccareid says:

    I too loved The Scarlet Letter when I read it in high school. And Great Expectations? I’m still intimidated. How great that your teacher assigned it.

    I think you make wonderful points. Books touch people in different ways, and I’d hate to see classics eliminated from curriculum because teachers think kids can’t relate: some can.

  22. Teresa says:

    Rebecca: Knowing your reading, I’m pretty sure you can handle Great Expectations :-) And, truth be told, I believe the main reason it was assigned reading is that an abridged (but reasonably complete) version was in our textbook so there was no need to buy a classroom set. I loved it so much that I got my own copy and read the full version.

  23. Ann says:

    What i don’t understand is why it has to be either/or. Why can’t it be both?

    I always allowed the children time for their own chosen reading as well as working with them on assigned books. I also gave them time to discuss their own selections with other children so that everyone’s reading experience was enriched.

    Isn’t there room for both?

  24. Teresa says:

    Ann: I agree. There should be room for both, and I can’t see why there isn’t. It seems like some teachers (like the one in the article) are solving the problem of too many assigned books with no assigned books. How about fewer assigned books? It seems like that would be a good intermediate step.

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