A lot of you may not know this about me, but I am a certified English teacher in the state of NY. Growing up, I was always a reader and writer, so when it came time to choose a profession to pursue, teaching English made sense to me. Throughout my college career, I remember taking classes that motivated me to introduce students to compelling books, graphic novels, and hilarious short stories. But when I found myself working in a public school, I realized those ideas would have to be put on the back burner.
I remember on my first day of teaching, I was ushered into a walk-in closet that belonged to the English department. Filling the walls were pastel hardcover copies of “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Diary of a Young Girl,” and whatnot. I was told I was allowed to teach any of the books I found in the room as long as another teacher had not already reserved that book selection (which was done so by sticking a light yellow post-it on the books). I found myself staring at a sea of yellow post-its and at a loss for what I would teach. None of the books particularly inspired me. Although I read a good few of them during my public ed years, I was hard-pressed to remember much about them. They didn’t speak to me as a teenager and I was even more doubtful they would speak to my students.
Throughout my time teaching, I was able to find books I felt could connect to the students and I tried my hardest to make these books appeal to them, but I couldn’t help but wonder—why do we only get to teach these books? In 2011, over 290,000 new titles and new editions were published in the US, and that doesn’t even include books that were self-published. (In 2012, approximately 391,000 new titles were self-published.) So with that in mind, am I to believe that out of the half million books that were published this year, not one of them was worthy enough to be taught in our public schools?
True, every few years a real standout gets added to the curriculum. Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” (published in 2003) made its way onto many high school reading lists. But in the 11 years since, few books have made such strides.
[Please note: I know educators who petitioned their English directors to allow them to teach books they found worthy of the classroom, and with approval were able to teach that story. I also know many teachers that allowed their students to pick out their own novels to read, as long as it involved a specific theme. (Lessons were more about understanding themes rather than plot points.) However, there is no denying that “the classics” still dominate our classrooms.]
I hope I haven’t made you believe I’m a complete hater of “the classics.” I do believe there is a benefit in having our students read the same set of books because among many reasons, it creates a society of people who understand the same cultural references. Clearly I enjoy that (just check out the mission statement of the book club!) I remember years ago when I was watching “The Daily Show,” John Stewart pulled out a conch and started screaming “I have the conch! I’m talking now!” I laughed at the joke because I understood he was referencing the conch from Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” and I loved knowing that there was a world of readers out there who understood the reference and were laughing with me. But even with that in mind, I think it’s important to expose our students to a wider range of literature because we want to make them readers for life.
So many students are completely turned off to reading at such a young age because they don’t connect with the books. Perhaps if teachers had more of a right to choose what they thought would connect with students, we’d have a better shot at motivating our students to becoming avid readers. And then, when those students felt inspired to, they would read “the classics” on their own.
– Nina Sclafani