High school reading 2.0

reading on a tabletI’ve been sitting on this fabulous post from Book Riot for a few days because I wasn’t sure I was smart enough to respond to it. The several contributors, all Book Riot regulars, pose an intriguing question: what contemporary books would you add to the high school reading curriculum to round out the classics-laden choices being taught already?

As a book-lover—and a teacher—I have struggled at times with the question of what the high school English curriculum should do. I was horrified when my then-16-year-old brother told me his class had foregone the original Shakespeare in favour of a graphic novel adaptation. As a supplement, sure, graphic novel away. But instead of?

I supposed—and perhaps this assumption is more open to debate than I once thought it was—that the goal of high school English was to expose students who might not study literature later to the key works of the literary canon. It was like history to me. You can’t say ‘well, we will study the history of the United States as a subject, but leave out slavery because we’d rather do something else.’ You have to study the key events, whatever they might be. And, for a student who may not study literature later, I felt that you had to cover the high points, boring or not. They could read Harry Potter for fun, couldn’t they? Nobody was stopping them from reading other books on their own time…

But lately, I have been changing my mind a little, and this Book Riot post came at the perfect time. I have been encountering more and more people like the Beloved, who claims he actually liked to read for fun—until school ruined it for him. And the way they ruined it was not so much that they made him read boring, dated stuff. It’s that they didn’t give any value to the things he did care to read about. If they had done more biography, more non-fiction—well-written, literary non-fiction if they must, but still—more stories about sports and adventure—well, maybe high school English wouldn’t have been the last literature he ever read. Maybe they could have covered the classics in perhaps a less comprehensive format and left time for literature which really did engage the students. Maybe they could have validated for these young adults that there was merit in the stuff that actually spoke to them.

So, with that in mind, what contemporary books would I add to a high school English curriculum? I don’t claim to be as knowledgeable about the breadth of potential choices as the Book Riot folks, but I scanned my Calibre library for 5-star reads and found a few contenders.

[easyazon-link asin=”1400095956″ locale=”us”]The Brief History of the Dead[/easyazon-link] by Kevin Brockmeier: The novel’s intriguing premise is that following a person’s death, they resume their lives in a way-station of a city where they remain as long as there is a person alive who still remembers them. The book is not explicitly a YA novel, but it offers many intriguing discussion points for that demographic, about the connections we make with other people, and the memories we choose to retain of them.

[easyazon-link asin=”1585428558″ locale=”us”]The Winter of Our Disconnect[/easyazon-link] by Susan Maushart: This memoir of the author’s self-imposed six-month technology embargo (complete with teenage conscripts!) is hilarious, finely crafted non-fiction, but also presents research on how our brains process technology, and the social ramifications of its usage, that will be food for thought for the cellphone-addicted youth of today.

[easyazon-link asin=”0765357003″ locale=”us”]Agent to the Stars[/easyazon-link] by John Scalzi: An alien species who happens to be hideously unattractive contacts a Hollywood PR agent for help in ‘coming out’ to Planet Earth. This is a hilarious send-up of the whole Hollywood machine, and offers a gentle way in to exploring notions of beauty, and the whole media spin machine.

[easyazon-link asin=”B00129MC7W” locale=”us”]Nickel And Dimed[/easyazon-link] by Barbara Ehrenreich: This exploration of class and economy in America reads like a novel, and remains relevant even a decade after its publication. Plenty of roads to discussion here, and perhaps a not-so-subtle object lesson for kids in why getting an education is so important.

[easyazon-link asin=”B0033806T6″ locale=”us”]Fire Watch[/easyazon-link] by Connie Willis:  I loved ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog,’ which is set in this same universe of time-travelling historians, but it was perhaps a bit long for study in a high school. The titular novella of this collection offers a taste of it, as well as an introduction to the educational merits of really well-done sci-fi.

4 Comments on High school reading 2.0

  1. The real problem isn’t teaching classics or not teaching classics, but the fact that the curriculum is set by the school board, it is designed for the “average” student, and every student has to study the set curriculum, whethere or not it is of interest to him or her.

    I almost never read non-fiction, and I despise sports. If I was forced to study such books at high school, it would have turned me off. I did, however, enjoy (for example) reading Hamlet, although I totally missed the point of the book at that time. Oh, well.

    In an ideal world students would be put into groups according to their interests, and each group would study different books. We do not, however, live in an ideal world.

  2. I think that studying a book destroy the happiness of reading because students are being forced to remember the plot, main characters of a book for the exams.

  3. Studying stuff in class is one thing, I think you can do horrid, boring stuff there. I developed my hatred of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Steinbeck in jr high and high school lit classes.

    The larger problem I see is reading lists. “You have to read X number of books off this list over the semester or summer.” They’re not usually being tested on those, they’re just supposed to read to keep reading. I keep seeing the same list of “classics” year after year. I don’t care how good the writing is, if the kids don’t care about the story all it’s going to do is teach them that reading is boring.

    I dealt with several parents/teens last fall who were looking for non-US authors. They could read anything as long as it was by a non-US author. I introduced a couple of teenage boys to Matthew Reilly and they loved the books. I heard back from a mother who was shocked that her son, who doesn’t like to read, was giving her daily updates about the book, and he was eager to keep reading to see what happened next.

  4. Greg Schofield // June 24, 2014 at 8:49 pm //

    Idiocy is the problem, not the students but the so-called educated classes.

    The reason for studying the classics is that they are so well written and conceived (I am not talking about style but concepts). It is not for love of literature that they are studied, though that has to be part of the reading nor does it have much to do with higher culture, though having digested some core classics it does allow the student to appreciate and participate in higher culture if they are inclined (by that I do not mean smart dinner table talk).

    The study of classic literature is essential to producing a scientific outlook.

    It is the only subject where virtually everything needed to deal with world-view concepts lies in the single short work itself. Hence reading, understanding and reasoning say “Sense and Sensibility” means absorbing the world view of Jane Austen in a reasoned and conscious way (Jane need not have done this of course).

    Once absorbed a whole number of things happen to the student, for one they are able to manipulate their own thoughts on that subject, pose questions and discover answers to it and most importantly have something to say about it (essential to good writing is having one’s own ideas bursting to be expressed).

    So again I repeat — idiocy, not of the individuals here, but in the silly shallow conceptions that we, as educated people, have allowed to dominate educational thinking. Literature does not have to be pleasant, but it must be studied as it is the only subject that is complete within itself and for most students the only time they discover their own thoughts.

    I hated Austen right up to the moment I finished her and then thought about her work — it was then I realised how brilliant it was … only after the event. So I say this to everyone here and reading this — think deeply as we are seeing scientific culture nose dive under our watch.

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