The Boston Globe reports that the dead white-male dominated canon of literature is gradually caving to allow for books by multicultural authors, women, and (gasp) living authors. What does that mean for schools? According to Carol Jago, high school English teacher at Santa Monica High School and author of With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students, “it’s a waste of instructional time.” Jago compares the search for “new classics” to “walking down a blind alley to look for books that the kids will think is fun.” She worries that we will not sufficiently prepare students for the rigors of college-level reading if we remove the classics.
On the other hand, other teachers note a frequent disconnect between today’s student and the classics. According to Will Cook, “the English chairman at Framingham High, where many students hail from Brazil … working-class immigrants may find it difficult to relate to world-weary Holden Caulfield, the prep school protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye.”
I feel somewhere in the middle on this. I think the classics need to have a solid place in our curriculum, but I like teaching new books, too. However, you can’t do it all, so you have to make choices in the best interests of your students. Students at my school have the following required reading for summer:
9th grade College Prep
- Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
- The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
9th grade Honors
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
10th grade College Prep
- A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
- A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
10th grade Honors
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Read the rest of the list here: Summer Reading Brochure 2005 (pdf).
I was rather insistent on Huck Finn being placed on the list and I was also responsible for placing The Color Purple on the 10th grade list and moving I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings down to recommended reading for 9th grade. Other than that, I made no changes to the list in either 9th or 10th grade.
During the course of the year, my 10th grade students will read such perennial classics as:
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- The Crucible by Arthur Miller
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin
- Huck Finn (for those not reading it for summer reading)
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
And my 9th graders’ reading will include:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
- The Odyssey by Homer
Modern novels I think it would be worthwhile for students to read include:
- The Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I could probably add more if Dylan were not demanding that I wrap this up. Basically, I feel that students need some of the classics in order to be prepared for college, but we need to teach them in such a way as to influence them to choose good modern books to read. I don’t think a recommended reading list would hurt. When I was a junior in high school and about to move to Georgia, I asked my English teacher for a list of recommendations. She was clearly stunned by my request and said she’d put one together. Instead, she gave me a box of old books. I was very touched by the gesture, but after having been a teacher for several years, I understand it was a much more fair exchange than I thought then. Also, after teaching at my school for a year, I have discovered that I wasn’t that weird. Plenty of kids enjoy book recommendations.
One thought on “Required Reading”
Yikes! I would struggle so much if I had to narrow down a reading list like that. There are just too many books that I'd want to share, that I'd want them to have HAD to experience.
And, on the same thought, there are too many 'classics' to be taught at the high school level. I was required to read classics in high school, but I still find myself trying to catch up and I'm pushing 30 faster than fast. It can be a bit daunting, thinking you've missed out and therefore must read them before you can classify yourself as truly 'read' and subsequently move on to the books of the living.
On the other hand, I don't think it matters what the book is classified as. The solid foundation is going to be laid with a classic or a modern as long as it is taught right. If a student is of that nature, it's going to be so refreshing to read a modern book – to know that there are still 'classic' works of literature being produced. When I was that age, I thought all this great stuff and how does anything ever compare again? It doesn't really make you look forward to a reading future, if you think "I can read all the classics and then what?"
Eh. Forgive me, this is not making sense.
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