What should students be reading?

readingSo I have been thinking a lot lately about what we all read in high school. The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, Huckleberry Fin, Tom Sawyer, Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Tale of Two Cities, The Great Gatsby, and the list goes on. When I think about these books I don’t think, “Wow, I am so glad that we had all of these stories written by a bunch of old dudes shoved down our throats and were expected to see why they are such great pieces of literature!” I think, “yep. We read it, my mom read it, my grandma probably read it and I learned not to have sexual relations with a man of God and get pregnant or I will be shunned and hated by my fellow townsmen, I learned to fall in love with a boy I have known for 24 hours (especially when our families are mortal enemies), I learned not to be a witch or I will be killed by my fellow townsmen, not to go galavanting around with some old dude, not to irritate the gods after being in the Trojan Warm, not to be greedy and kill to be king, I learned not to let revenge make me go crazy, and most importantly, I learned how to not get beheaded by a bunch of angry French citizens. I know all of this sounds like super information, but believe me, I have yet to use these wonderful lessons. (On a side note, I did really like A Tale of Two Cities.)

But when I think about how teachers are assigning the same readings year after year after year, I get a little concerned. Why are we still reading these books and plays when they really aren’t relevant anymore and students dread reading them. Classic novels and Shakespearian plays don’t strike everyone’s fancy. Some people like it and some people don’t and when we force students to read what they aren’t interested in, then they will detest reading. Why are we having students read books with these values when we could be assigning things that will really get them thinking about the world we live in today. A lot of the books that my Young Adult Literature Class is reading is a great example of that. I found a book about body image and eating disorders called Winter Girls. One student read the Crank series which is about a young woman’s struggles with meth. The class read a great book called Speak about a young girl coming to terms with the fact that she has been sexually assaulted. Books like these are actually relevant to the world that our students will be living in and we should really be taking that into consideration when we assign readings to our students.

As English teachers we should be well aware of that when we are thinking about how we are going to get our future students excited about reading. If you find what a student is interested in, then they will want to read. My brother is a perfect example of this. He hated English class, but when he checked the Hunger Games out from the library, he couldn’t put it down. He was excited to read them. He locked himself in his room for hours reading. When my brother was in elementary school, he loved reading as much as I did. We would take turns recommending books to one another and check them out at the library. I remember the first book that got him excited about reading was called Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes. Samuel was in fourth or fifth grade when he read it and talked about it all the time. It was great to see that my brother wanted to read as much as I did. But the older he got and the more he was forced to read things he didn’t care about, the less he read. In the past four years he has been in high school, the Hunger Games seriesis probably the only few books that he has actually finished.

I am rambling again, but honestly, I think these are important things for us to think about.

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9 thoughts on “What should students be reading?

  1. I agree with you, why are English teachers making students read the same stories every year? Why can’t teachers have the students read something that they can truly relate to, something that is going on in today’s society, and something they would be interested in.

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  2. I enjoyed your narrative voice in the rant :p

    I also liked the sharin of your brother’s experience. Not too far off from my dad’s experience. He wrote in notebooks twenty-four seven and read the whole bible a number of times as a kid… but when he dropped out of high school, due to things like this issue, he stopped reading and writing altogether. (I’m not sure he’s read a sentence since his teenage years haha. Just joking.)

    Like when people say art keeps students in school because it allows them to express themselves in ways they otherwise couldn’t, language arts could – and should – let them explore themselves in ways they otherwise couldn’t. And I don’t know about you, but reading about about people from a dead society talking pedantically doesn’t help me explore myself. Reading what I love does.

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  3. You said a lot of the same things I did. I just couldn’t find things to relate to in the classic books we read in school. I love to read and thankfully never lost that love but even I found a couple books that I would just skim or skip because it was just to boring or hard to understand. I loved the Crank books and I can’t believe that there are so many books available for Young Adults and they are pushed aside for these books

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  4. You know, I have been thinking the same thing. Why do teachers keep making students read the same books year after year? Is it a requirement that we are unaware of? I feel that there needs to be a change in material soon or there will be no one interested in literature. This makes me sad because literature is important to our learning these days.

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  5. Preach it, sister!! What I see happening with my students is that they get out into schools and they’re given a set of books and told, “This is what 11th-graders read.” And they don’t feel like they can advocate for change or take the required curriculum and teach it creatively, so they do what I did when I first started teaching–which is teach in exactly the same ways I had been taught. It’s our knee-jerk reaction. My hope is to harm all of you with some fiery passions and beliefs, the full use of your common sense (because we often leave it at the door of our classrooms for reasons I don’t fully understand), and the research to back up those fiery beliefs and common sense! As you say, we have to find a way to reach all readers and make sure all of their needs are being met. The story of your brother is all too common. I have never met an elementary-aged child who doesn’t love reading. If they have a disability that makes it hard for them to read, they love books, story, being read to. That begins to change in middle school and it has completely changed by high school.

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