They Made Me Read This

1 Dec


My university chum (and future teacher) Miss Randell has been thinking about what she would make high-schoolers read if the curriculum were up to her, and has decided that she would limit the Shakespeare:

Why should students be forced to read Shakespeare every year of high school? I mean, it has to be translated for them (“OK y’all, so this is why Sampson biting his thumb was so badass…“) and as anyone who’s ever paraphrased Willy S will know, changing the language pretty much ruins the play.

You know what ruins anything? Being forced to listen to the entire class taking turns reading every line out loud. This is the required reading from high-school that stuck with me:

Grade 6: Hatchet – Awesome. Only downside? That it made us all secretly wish we were lucky enough to be in plane crash in which the pilot is tragically killed. Also, I drew a sweet hatchet on my book report cover.

Grade 7: Nada – I was busy hating everyone and wishing I had cooler jeans.

Grade 8: I think we just read short stories arranged around themes like “family” and “courage.” Then we’d talk about these themes in “literature circles,” my worst memory of high-school English. We pushed our desks into clumps and asked pre-set questions like, “Do you think a family has to have two parents to be a real family?”

Grade 9: Of Mice and Men – I always got George and Lennie mixed up, because Lennie is a smart, skinny name and George is a big, dumb name. The Pearl – I just kept hoping, over and over again, that maybe everything would turn out ok in the end. I’m not sure if we were really supposed to read two Steinbecks in a row, but I had a just-about-retired teacher that year and he probably thought, to hell with it, The Pearl is really short.  

Grade 10: The Chrysalids – Humans evolve, with extra digits and telepathy. I liked it. Flowers for Algernon – Miss Randell’s right to add some funnier picks to her reading list. It’s a good story, but, at risk of being spoilery, a real downer. Macbeth – Ditto.

A-levels: (I moved to a Brit school in Warsaw). Great Expectations – I wrote essays about Miss Havisham and thought I was a genius. Macbeth again – I dusted off my old “witch voice” routine to use during all class discussions. Genius. Lots of William Blake – My friend Vic and I used cell phones to compose music for The Lamb. Genius. 

More A-levels: (Moved to Worcester here in the UK). Wuthering Heights – I didn’t enjoy it, and having to read it five or six times didn’t help much. I just didn’t buy the whole dying of a broken heart thing. Antony and Cleopatra – We got to go to Stratford-upon-Avon. Before I moved, my Warsaw class was about to do A Clockwork Orange, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Death of a Salesman. I remember because I kept the books.

If it were up to me, I would add some juicier Young Adult Fiction to junior high, to ease the transition between poems about family and tomes about Society. A little Lois Lowry, perhaps? Some Mixed Up Files or Selected Works of T.S. Spivet? And why not let them go to town on The Catcher in the Rye? Hell, they might even think it’s grand, or swell, and not goddamn phony at all.

Teachers out there (or other people who think those darn kids need some good literature!) – what’s on your dream syllabus? Think about it – some of these kids may never open a book again.

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16 Responses to “They Made Me Read This”

  1. Ade Teal December 2, 2009 at 2:19 pm #

    A wonderful book is ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe’, by Penelope Lively. It’s a great, old-fashioned, well-written ghost story, which I have very fond memories of reading at school. It is terrific as a springboard for creative writing, or at least that’s how I remember it, because it inspired me to write my own short horror story at the time. I loaned it to my 13-year-old cousin a while ago, and she loved it too, which is gratifying.

    • Lija December 2, 2009 at 7:29 pm #

      Thanks for the recommendation. After finishing The Little Stranger last week and reading a lot of Wilkie Collins reviews on other blogs, I’ve been in the mood for some good old-fashioned ghosty stuff.

  2. savidgereads December 2, 2009 at 4:51 pm #

    Goodness me what would I choose? I would have to say that its a decision I am glad that I dont have to make as every book/play I read at school (A Room With A View, Romeo & Juliet, Animal Farm, Romeo & Juliet again etc) put me off the book and sometimes the author – I don’t like Willy S end of, sorry – and so I wouldn’t wish that possible hatred on any book.

    Hang about, there was one book I liked at school and that was ‘The Children of the Dust’ all about nuclear war which scared the pants off me and also in my teen angst made me a bit excited, hormones are weird things.

    • Lija December 2, 2009 at 7:40 pm #

      I still have a taste for apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction. Have you heard of the City of Ember YA books, by Jeanne DuPrau? I’m a fan, but haven’t seen them in bookstores over here.

      I don’t know if having to read something ever turned me off it completely, but I have found that if I read something again now (that I originally read in school or university), I enjoy it much more.

      To keep kids from hating books, I might choose shorter reads – not to dumb down the material, but just to keep them from getting sick of it. Even a medium-sized book takes forever for 30 fourteen-year-olds to get through.

  3. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) December 2, 2009 at 5:53 pm #

    I do think it would be nice to read less Shakespeare and war poetry at school – it puts a lot of people off reading.

    I haven’t heard of Hatchet before, but am intrigued now. I’ve just mooched a copy from bookmooch so I’ll find out soon!

    I am reading Flowers for Algernon at the moment and am loving it. I can see why it would be perfect for reading in school – I wish that I had done so.

    Great list!

  4. Lija December 2, 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    Hatchet’s a pretty simple wilderness survival story, but so satisfying. I used to be obsessed with the whole “kids on their own” theme (usually with runaway stories).

    I wish I’d known about this Bookmooch thing before moving this year! You’d be scandalized by what I sold to the used bookstore for pennies. Would definitely rather have the points.

  5. missrandell December 3, 2009 at 1:46 pm #

    I loved this post. I may have to teef the idea for my blog; “The Shit I HAD To Read.” Don’t worry, you’ll get the credit.

    • Lija December 8, 2009 at 1:25 pm #

      Teef away, my friend!

  6. Bill December 4, 2009 at 9:27 pm #

    Actually I think that many of the books you were forced to read in school were good choices. Now on the question of whether required reading in school can put kids off literature for good I suppose it’s happened, but I think the opposite is more often true–that at least one book or one English teacher in our school careers has turned us on to literature. In my case it was Miss Breckenridge and 2 books left an impression on me from that year were Black Like Me and The Mayor of Casterbridge which I read for book reports.

    The Hatchet series are great books for preteens. Holes is a popular and entertaining one for kids but has suffered from overexposure. I’ve always used any excuse to create a Medieval theme in Junior High classes, and love good historical fiction, but unfortunately have never found a really good (and school board censor friendly) book to recommend for that age group. Avi’s Crispin was as close as I came, but not enough action for today’s playstation generation. Maybe you can recommend one.
    In early high school, of those you listed, Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men are great–short, fairly easy reads but with lots of potential for thought and discussion. Chrysalids is still good.
    In the upper years, I like Lord of the Flies, the William Golding classic, as a great sociological, philosophical, political primer. And Death of a Salesman or the Glass Menagerie for well written drama.
    I agree that maintaining the old British tradition of Shakespeare every year may do him more harm than good. If I were to pick only one though, it would be Hamlet, not Macbeth. It’s more psychologically interesting.

  7. Lija December 8, 2009 at 1:31 pm #

    Thanks for commenting, Dad! (um, I mean, Bill)

    I really like Karen Cushman for YA medieval historical fiction (The Midwife’s Apprentice, Catherine Called Birdy). It’s funny stuff, and it’s how I learned swears like “God’s Thumbs!”

    Which of those books you mentioned do kids seem to get into the most? Lord of the Flies?

  8. Hiedi December 17, 2009 at 4:40 am #

    I am an English teacher in Goodsoil, SK, and I recently read Ender’s Game by Card with my grade 10s. They LOVED it, and although it was all science-fictiony, I really enjoyed some of the underlying meanings and teachable moments it inspired. It really interested all of the boys, which was a plus as well. AND — it’s on the curriculum!!

    • Lija December 18, 2009 at 1:52 pm #

      Thanks for your comment and recommendation, Hiedi.
      Have you done any old classics with the grade 10s this year? How did they handle them?

  9. Linda Harman January 3, 2010 at 9:16 pm #

    Hi Lija

    I taught with your dad in Meadow Lake. I have two novel studies that I love (even in grade 7). The first has a female protagonist, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. A historic novel with a great chance to discuss the class system, and how characters develop throughout a novel. The second book is a futuristic story called The Giver by Lois Lowry with a male protagonist, Jonah. A fabulous read and the kids appreciate that they can discuss some topics such as a utopian society, euthanasia, etc. Popular novels in our library are the City of Ember, sports books by Carl Deuker, and loads of fantasy. Have you tried any by Tamora Pierce such as the Protector of the Small or novels by Anthony Horowitz? Kids love series, there is some comfort in knowing the next book you will read – especially for reluctant readers.

  10. Lija January 5, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    Thanks for commenting, Linda. I’ve always loved Charlotte Doyle and The Giver – they probably both got re-readings in the double-digits from me back in the day (ah, who are we kidding, I re-read The Giver last year).

    Will have to look into Tamora Pierce and Anthony Horowitz.

    I totally agree about series being good for getting kids to read. But then you also have to pry people away from their reading comfort zone ever so often!

  11. Sonja January 8, 2010 at 7:12 pm #

    When I was around twelve or thirteen I read (and re-read) a fantasy series by Tamora Pierce called The Immortals. It involved lots of magic and a heroine who can talk to animals, so of course I absolutely loved it.

  12. Lauren K. January 13, 2010 at 3:59 am #

    Sonja–do you not OWN said fantasy series? The third one was the best.

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