Thursday, January 2, 2014

School-Assigned Reading

Thursday, January 2, 2014
Up until maybe eleventh grade, I was That Kid. We'd get assigned a book to read in school and while others would be groaning, I'd say something along the lines of, "Oh I've always wanted to read that!" And then after the assignment had been completed and many of my peers were grumbling about how bad that book had been, I'd be the one saying, "That was awesome!"

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (World's Classics)I mean, I didn't love every single book (a few notable exceptions include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, because I despise the title character, and Call of the Wild, just because I found it boring.), but I really liked the majority of what we read.

A lot of this was because I was already a reader. My parents had been reading to me since I was born, and I had grown up loving books. My other friends who were readers often felt the same way that I did about school-assigned reading (with one exception being Spirit Bear in 8th grade- I liked it, my best friend most certainly did not). But the people who hadn't been taught to love reading, or the people who struggled with reading? They just viewed each assignment with resentment.

I've been fortunate to have some amazing English teachers who have taken their curriculum and turned it into something that inspires creativity, critical thinking, and enjoyment from their students. My 10th grade English teacher is the reason nearly every student he had absolutely adores The Great Gatsby. When you have a great teacher, the lessons are truly worthwhile. Not every teacher is that phenomenal, though, and I'm not sure there's a way to fix that. But the curriculum? That can be fixed.

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)Beauty QueensSpeak

Solution #1: Cut the Classics.

I'm not bashing the classics (give me Jane Austen and J.D. Salinger any day), but they're not a great fit for everybody. If a student isn't a reader, odds are they aren't going to connect with the heavier writing of 19th century England. My suggestion then is to incorporate more contemporary books (*cough cough* YA books). I don't mean to forgo the classics- definitely not- but including books like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, or Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson would be incredibly beneficial. Not only would they pique students' interest in reading (how many book lovers did The Hunger Games create?), but they're full of discussion topics that are just as thought-provoking and meaningful as those found in the classics.

Better yet? They're applicable to the students' lives.

Solution #2: Stop it with the testing.

“...we're in English class, which for most of us is an excruciating exercise in staying awake through the great classics of literature. These works-- groundbreaking, incendiary, timeless-- have been pureed by the curriculum monsters into a digestible pabulum of themes and factoids we can spew back on a test. Scoring well on tests is the sort of happy thing that gets the school district the greenbacks they crave. Understanding and appreciating the material are secondary.”
That quote, from Libba Bray's Going Bovine, perfectly describes my frustration over standardized testing. The stuff you can find on Sparknotes does not an interesting read make. The real value of school-assigned reading is the discussions that come out of it, where students take the "themes and factoids" and use their brains to shape them into arguments, opinions, and ideas.

I've been lucky enough to have teachers who don't care so much about the testing as they do about understanding the material. Of course they have to give quizzes and tests (they're required and they are kind of proof that the students completed the assignment), but they put a healthy weighting on the grades. Consequently the emphasis isn't on grades and numbers but on reading- enjoying and understanding it.

Solution #3: Let them pick their own books.


I don't know if this is just my personal experience, but up until high school, my English classes used to visit our school library monthly. I always looked forward to this (even though I visited the school library frequently anyway) because we got to pick whatever book we wanted! And there were so many books! Then high school hit and the only time we go to the library is to use the computers for research projects. Why can't the library be a place to explore your reading tastes as well as a place to do homework? Shouldn't schools encourage a love of libraries and the freedom to read for fun?


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Potentially, our schools could create people who genuinely love to read, and isn't that more important than standardized scores? I mean, readers are supposed to have better vocabularies, writing skills, and critical thinking skills (not to mention all of the emotional benefits of a good book), and isn't this what our schools want?

What was your favorite school-assigned book?

12 comments:

  1. I love this post. I completely agree. I feel like with schools pushing us to learn to read to fit a test, they end up creating more non-readers, or people that are put off by reading and books, than readers.

    My favorite school-assigned book thus far would either be To Kill a Mockingbird or The Lightning Thief. :)

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    1. I love both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lightning Thief! Have you read the other Percy Jackson books, as well?

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  2. IF ONLY!!!! When I taught English in middle school, I was all about choice and ditching the "classics" -- as long as I hit my standards, I just wanted them to read. But high school English...there are so many rules and requirements! I'm happy I teach journalism versus HS English because I'd be that rebel and probably get myself in trouble because of it.

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    1. It sounds like you were an AWESOME middle school English teacher!

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  3. I liked some of the books I had to read in high school (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Twelve Angry Men), but I didn't love how they were taught in my English classes. A lot of the time, all we did in class was answer a bunch of questions that mostly tested your reading comprehension. Really boring. But I absolutely loved the children's lit and YA lit classes I took in grad school. Not only did I get to read all these amazing books, we had a lot of great discussions in class. It was way more free-form and informal. Kind of felt like I was in a book club and getting graded for it!

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    1. Discussions are my favorite part of English classes, too. They really make you think and challenge you, but they're really fun, too!

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  4. I don't think I actually liked or appreciated any of the books that I was assigned in grade school. It wasn't until after when I read them on my own did I like them. In high school I didn't like The Great Gatsby, I couldn't understand why people thought he was so great, but after when I read it on my own and not with a lesson did I actually appreciate it and enjoy it. I feel like a lot of books are assigned because they've always have been, some of them I understand, but if the student's aren't connecting with the material and then it doesn't matter. I think that the lesson is lost, so I think some YA should be introduce in school, and I know some progressive schools already do, so hopefully it'll catch on.

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    1. We can only hope it will catch on! I love classics and they're definitely worthwhile, but that doesn't mean that YA books aren't, as well. There needs to be a balance.

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  8. I really love this article. by read this article i though about my high school life was how interesting. I have read many interesting book in my high life. high school English are so many rules and requirements. I'm happy I teach journalism versus HS English. shared such a great information. Your post is very helpful. punctuation fixer

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