Tuesday, August 04, 2009

High School Required Reading

My friend, a high school English teacher of much acclaim in Missouri, and I were talking about required High School reading and how in far too many cases "the classics" that kids in high school are forced to read and analyze and discuss are actually killing any love of reading some of these kids have. The Scarlet Letter, anyone? How many of you can name five books you read in high school that you can actually remember (and not because you watched the movie?) To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies...um.... All Quiet on the Western Front. I know we read Gatsby - that's it. That's what I remember from my many many English classes. I had an incredible Mythology class and Theater class and I remember lots of the things we read in those classes - Hamlet, Homer, Candide.

In terms of coming of age - is The Cather in The Rye even relevant anymore? Isn't that book all about context? And in high school, shouldn't the reading be relevant? Isn't part of why we all love to read is because we see ourselves in some of those characters? My friend the acclaimed english teacher, has lots of free reading, but he still has to teach some of the classics - Even Mark Twain, he says, makes most of the kids start to glaze over. Hemingway? Forget it. For Whom The Bell Tolls? Well, needless to say it's not tolling for high school kids, not anymore.

I ran across this list trying to find a list of high school reading - and I thought it was a solid list - though I agree we need more feminine voices.

What do you think? What do you remember reading? Should high school reading be about the classics? Or should it be about getting kids interested in reading? In finding the voices that speak to them?


Alli said...

Get the kids interested in reading then introduce the classics, I say. I think there are some fabulous classics that still should be read, but let's shake it up a bit. Why bore the kids when there are so many modern day authors out there with amazing writing and characters and plots that would get kids running to the library. Great post, BTW!

Eileen said...

Ha! I thought I hated Steinbeck after what I'd been forced to read in school. Then I discovered East of Eden and was totally hooked.

That list looks fascinating. There are books on there that I've read relatively recently. Maybe I should go back to high school. I know I didn't appreciate it at the time. :-)

Maureen McGowan said...

I've been thinking about this one since we had our drunken rant about it, Molly... And I still agree with you and my drunken self, mostly.

I do think that perhaps our collective culture is richer because of "the classics" if only because so many people have read the same books and therefore "get" the same references.

But mix it up a little with some fun reads! And update the list and add more female voices, too!

I think high school English teachers and/or curriculum setters have a lot to answer for re turning kids off reading. All in the name of snobbery. Shameful when you think about it.

Books I remember... Who Has Seen the Wind, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby, and Tale of Two Cities (although at the time, I hated it, I appreciate Dickens more, now.)

I loved English in school -- in hindsight, more because of the writing than the reading -- but few books, especially in high school, stuck with me. Most were simply a lot of work, something I HAD to do, rather than something I enjoyed.

One book most kids in Canada read in my day, that I didn't pick up until after university, but love, love, love is Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I think readers have been trying to plug in thier "favorites" admist the required reading for a long time. I'm not sure who makes up the lists of required reading, but I am guessing that these books stay on the list more because of acceptable levels of swearing and sex. Think about the Basketball Diaries - no way is that book going to be required reading because of the amount of sex and swearing. And considering that the kids reading these books have been having sex and swearing since the fifth grade - it's just one more example of adults seeming out of touch. Why isn't Ordinary People on a list somewhere? And as far as female voices - Isabelle Allende?

Molly O'Keefe said...

Maureen - I honestly don't even remember a drunken rant!!! How drunk was I????

Simone said...

High school reading, agh. Especially in Canada. Margaret Laurence made me want to poke my eyes out. Robertson Davies, sorry Maureen but WTF is a 17 year old getting out of that? I hate CanLit required reading.

At least American classics are cool. I would have loved to read Twain. I can't remember if I read To Kill a Mockingbird for school or not, but I read it and it blew me away as a teenager.

Catcher in the Rye - I can't be objective. One of my fave books ever, at 16 and now. But I know a lot of folks don't like it much.

They need to keep teaching Shakespeare, no matter how teens hate it. Shakespeare makes your brain better.

Maureen McGowan said...

You know... I'm not sure I'd have liked Fifth Business at 17, either.

But at 24, when I read it, I loved it, and then gobbled up every Robertson Davies book I could find. Then John Irving, whom Davies mentored. (You can really see Davies' influence in Irving's books IMO.)

And Margaret Laurence. I didn't like her in high school either. I don't remember which one of her books it was... but the protagonist lost her virginity in her 40's. How's a teenaged girl supposed to relate to that? I think I re-read some of her books in my late 20's and "got" them better, then. Or was at least better able to empathize with a character who was nothing like me.

I really don't believe in writing down to teenaged readers, but I do think teenagers will better relate to stories told a certain way, with similarly aged characters. Once I was a fully-formed adult, I found it easier to enjoy reading, say, Fifth Business, which if memory serves, was in an old man's POV, than I did as a teen.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I agree about Shakespeare - Shakespeare in the right hands is still so relevant - gang warfare, drugs, sex and insanity. But if it's not in the right hands -- ugh.

Simone said...

Yes, the book about the lady in her 40s losing her virginity! That one! And there's an awful scene with a douche to prevent pregnancy. I still remember that. And Stone Angel is from the pov of an elderly lady.

Catcher in the Rye - he's 16, he hates school, he gets kicked out, all the adults in his life say he's an underachiever, he can't get girls, and he's learning that life as an adult is nothing like it's cracked up to be when you're a kid. To me that's still relevant. Maybe a modern teen would disagree.

When they let us choose our own book for a project in grade 12, I picked Dracula :)

Can you imagine if they started teaching the Hunger Games in high school? English would be everyone's favorite class!

Karen W. said...

I remember reading JANE EYRE & WUTHERING HEIGHTS, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, IN COLD BLOOD, LORD OF THE FLIES, FARENHEIT 451, FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, THE BAD SEED, and some other really good stuff in high school. Of course, we also did some on Shakespeare.

I had the same English teacher for most of my high school years, and for the most part, I really liked the books she picked and some are still among my all-time favorites.

Sinead M said...

I love to read, always had and generally found the classics by myself. The only books I remember reading in highschool were Shakespeare, which,Molly is right, in the right hands, so relevant and perfect.
And DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, really stood out.

But that was it. The rest not so much and given how many wonderful Canadian books don't get explored, it's a real shame.

Kimber Chin said...

I think it really depends on the teacher. Any of those books can be interpreted for teenagers. I had some great English teachers. They made Steinbeck, Shakespeare so relevant that I gobbled up all their works (seriously ALL). Loved Catcher In The Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, 1984.

Interestingly enough, I went to school in Canada and don't recall ever reading a book by a Canadian author. I think the forcefeeding of CanLit didn't make it up north.

No, that's not true. There was a rather gory novel about Inuit people. I can't remember what it was called. I don't think that was official required reading though.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Karen - that's an awesome list! Cold Blood? I still haven't read that. And Sinead - you guys did Sons and Lovers? I didn't find that until college and for the record we didn't read Catcher in The Rye because it was banned! Yes. That's right. Banned.
Kimber - I think your right it almost always comes down to having a great teacher but in the end, lets give the kids a fighting chance if they don't have a great teacher.

Maureen McGowan said...

I just remembered I read Sons and Lovers in high school, too. Might've been grade 13, which doesn't exist in Ontario anymore, so I was 18.

I remember thinking how misogynistic it was. Still think so. But it's another one that left a lasting impression.

I think what others have said is so true, so much depends on having the right teachers for English literature. But I still think adding some more recent books and allowing reluctant readers to read popular fiction, too, would be a good idea.

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