sprite writes
broodings from the burrow

February 27, 2007

what would be in your curriculum?
posted by soe 11:30 pm

Last month Shannon Hale, who wrote the Newbery award-winning The Princess Academy took some time between feeding her newborn and being sick with a stomach bug to contemplate the issue of high school English class curricula.

I thought it tied in nicely with a conversation I had with one of my aunts back at Christmas. My cousin is a 16-year-old boy, and he has not found a lot that he’s interested in reading. He isn’t helped, I don’t think, by a mother who also did not enjoy a lot of what she read in high school and is disinclined to try to figure out what a teacher is attempting to get a student to learn by reading a certain text.

I think we would all acknowledge that most high school English classes leave something to be desired. Think back to when you were in high school. (I’ll wait while the black and white newsreels rewind and the scratchy violin and organ music play…)

What do you remember reading? What did you think of the books at the time? And looking back now?

I definitely remember reading some great things — books I enjoyed at the time, as well as books that I understood the importance of in retrospect. But I also recall some books that were just painful and a few that I didn’t bother to read at all. (Moby Dick springs to mind.)

But I know we can do better.

What would you take off the list of books you read back in high school? Books that even now, in retrospect, taught you nothing? Books that made you understand why people stop reading? Or, worse, books that actually made you stop reading?

What would you add? Are they all books that you enjoy or are some lesson books?

In other words, what books should teens read before they graduate from high school? Without which books, would their lives be lacking?

For instance, although it horrified me to no end to read it and I would have a hard time rereading it, I could see leaving Native Son on such a list. It is evocative of a time and a place; it demonstrates how people can be trapped in untenable situations, and how those situations can spiral out of control; it gives a lot of material for class discussion — both on the book itself and how much (or little) society and race/economic relations have changed in the last half century.

Old Man and the Sea, though, is getting booted right off my list. I’d leave on some Hemingway short stories because I think his style is a useful one to understand, particularly when contrasted with someone, like Faulkner, who delights in how few periods he can use. A teacher could also substitute one of Hemingway’s other books; I think his depiction of youthful ennui in Europe in the 1920s could be something teens relate to. I think somewhere along the line Old Man and the Sea was deemed safe because it didn’t seem to promote youthful drinking or promiscuity, but in the process you lose what has made people read Hemingway year after year.

Something like The Lightning Thief could be added in order to introduce a series of lessons on mythology. Admittedly, The Lightning Thief is aimed more at the middle-school set than older teens. But I think the book is an excellent example of actual literature aimed at teenagers rather than whatever passes as today’s version of Sweet Valley High, and, as such, it deserves consideration.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees would be another excellent addition to the high school classroom. The main character is young and she ends up having to make some hard and, some might argue, morally ambiguous choices. Or read The Prodigal Summer and tie it to discussions of farming or the environmental movement or biology.

Also, believe it or not, William Shakespeare did actually write a few comedies. In fact, if you divide his work up into tragedies, histories, and comedies, most of what he wrote were comedies. Yet far too many students graduate without having read any. I’m woefully behind on my classic comedic reading, but I think A Midsummer’s Night Dream is a worthwhile addition to the curriculum. (And, no, I’m not suggesting we boot Macbeth or Hamlet off the list, although I’d probably not fuss as much about Julius Caesar.)

There are lots of great books out there. Those of us who are readers know this. Some great books are destined to be classics; others will flame brightly for a set period of time and then sputter into near-oblivion. It is worth it for teachers to remember that there are many well-written books penned after 1970 (I was going to make it 1950, but then I remembered that many teachers do assign Catcher in the Rye, which I adored as a rebellious, mouthy teen, but which may seem dated to today’s youth).

I give teachers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to reading lists. They have to tread a fine balance between books that are edgy enough to pass along certain concepts but that aren’t so over-the-top that they’re inappropriate for the audience. And they have to factor in what school boards (and parents) think ought to be taught in the classroom, be it for testing purposes or moral reasons. Sometimes in walking those tightropes, I think teachers forget or neglect the reason they became English majors/teachers — a love of the written word and the thrill of finding something that’s so well-written and engaging that it keeps you up late at night reading it and demands you share it with others just so you have someone to discuss it with.

So, what about you? What would you have teens reading if you ran the world … or, at least, the English curricula committee?

Category: books. There is/are 4 Comments.

I would substitute Much Ado About Nothing for Midsummer. But only because it’s my personal favorite.

It also seems to be that a lot of the standards could be swapped out for something more interesting from the same time period/author (ANY Dickens besides Great Expectations would be a welcome change). I think shifting the goal from exposing kids to the “classics” to instilling a love of reading in general and exposing them to a variety of writing styles would probably go a long way towards revamping the curriculum.

Since there are only a few years to get it all in, I would probably make an insanely long reading list, highlight the ones we were going to read in their entirety and then talk about the major plot points and read excerpts from the others.

I have thought WAY too much about this comment! haha

Comment by emily 02.28.07 @ 10:55 am

English classes are overloaded. Before tackling what the reading list should be, the first question is “what do we expect a student to have learned by completing this course?”

At the atomic level, you have things like spelling, grammar, and vocabulary.

At the rote level you have comprehension and retention.

More complex, you have more abstraction: mood, tone, style, genre, intended audience, historical context.

Is the goal achieved by simply exploring literature, or do we need to also include journalism, technical writing, and other facets of writing? There are lessons to be learned from other media besides novels: comic books, plays, film, television, and video games all have an aspect of writing that could potentially teach some of the important lessons without being as dull as Hemmingway.

I need more time to think on this question.

Comment by Grey Kitten 02.28.07 @ 2:02 pm

Oy! I need more free time to think about this! Great question!

Comment by Jenn 03.01.07 @ 9:53 am

Moby Dick was horrible, but most other novels I liked, though I must say that I didn’t appreciate them until I got older. Same with poetry.

I’m a big fan of the *good* YA novels — authors who write literary novels but for teens. I think these books would be an excellent starting point for some teens who can’t relate to the more adult novels yet. Sarah Dessen and Joan Bauer are two favorites. There’s a book, From Hinton to Hamlet, that tackles this issue well.

Comment by Debby 03.06.07 @ 8:21 am