As we head into another school year and I'm being made painfully aware of how little my life as a human is actually valued by my administration and by society in general, I keep wondering why I chose this as my profession (it's not for the summers off, or the five day work week, or the supposedly *easy* job I have) and I keep coming back to one main thing. Books are what helped me find my voice as a teen (even if that voice didn't fully manifest until about 4 years ago) and helped me cope and helped me escape. I know and understand the power of books and the written word and I want to share that magic with kids.
I was lucky enough that I had some FANTASTIC mentors growing up and I want to replicate that. Most people come at teaching from a love of their content area and wanting to discuss books or math (eeeeeewwww) or science all day. I came at teaching from wanting to mentor teens, help them find their voices and let them know that, contrary to what a lot of adults tell them, THEIR OPINIONS AND THOUGHTS ARE VALID. And then I chose literature as my vehicle for this endeavor.
Teaching is mentally and emotionally exhausting. I have 150ish teens a day who are all going through some level of shit and needing *someone* in their life to actually give a damn. That's what teaching is and that is precisely the thing they don't tell you before you become a teacher and all those classes you take in college on like best practices, THEY DON'T HELP YOU AT ALL. For real though, this is what teaching is and why it's so exhausting. I have to be "on" from the moment I step into that building until I leave. My teacher radar is going a mile a minute wondering who's having trouble at home, who did or didn't eat breakfast, who's stuck paying the bills, etc. etc.
But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the actual books that we teach, why those books are in the curriculum and THE BOOKS WE SHOULD BE TEACHING.
So, first up, what books do high schoolers across 'Merica read? There has been a shift towards improving the curriculum, but it's still a long way from being where it should. In my school, here's a rough break down:
9th Grade: Night, Hiroshima, The Book Thief, Salt to the Sea*, To Kill a Mockingbird, Long Way Down*, Romeo & Juliet
* denotes titles that I've added into the curriculum in the last 2 years
10th Grade: Of Mice & Men, Animal Farm, The Kite Runner, Hamlet, Trevor Noah's Born A Crime*
* just added last year! (the kids LOVED it) , also, the YA version
11th Grade: 1984, The Crucible, The Great Gatesby, Lord of the Flies,Catcher in the Rye
12th AP: The Poisonwood Bible, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Arthurian Legends (Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart), Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Good Earth, Brave New World
To note: this is not 100% comprehensive and mostly covers the titles that come up year after year, there are moments where other novels work their way in and some are only in advanced classes and some are only academic. Long story short, there are variables. But I have taught all of these books (minus the AP ones) at some point during my 12 year teaching stint at my high school. I have also left of any films or poetry.
If you haven't already noticed, these books are VERY WHITE and VERY MALE and VERY ADULT and VERY OLD. "BuT tHeY'rE cLaSsiCs KaTjA!!" you yell across the the interwebze. "StuDEnts nEED to REaD tHe cLaSsiCs oR tHEy WiLl nOt bE suCCesFuL!!"
That is the dumbest thing I've heard and trust me, as a teacher, I've heard A LOT OF DUMB THINGS (as all teachers do, from both staff, admin, parents, & students). But seriously, unless you're pursuing a career in journalism, as an English teacher, or as an author, NO ONE CARES WHAT YOU READ IN HIGH SCHOOL and even then, if you are doing the jobs I listed, surprise! you still don't need to have read any of those books. About to get hired by a huge law firm or company? They don't put an essay on their application saying: Explain how Boo Radley was the real hero in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Furthermore, teens are amazing, don't get me wrong, but teaching any of these books is super hard because you basically end up having to tell them point blank what they're supposed to glean from the pages themselves because they don't connect with or understand the characters, because, THEY ARE NOT WRITTEN FOR TEENS. To Kill a Mockingbird has problems (which we are tabling for this discussion) but for now, lets just look at it from a narrative perspective. It's an adult Scout, narrating her time as a kid and she's super reflective because, as an adult, she has the world knowledge to better examine and understand the things she experienced as a child and to finally process them.
I read TKAM in seventh grade and when I got my teaching job and saw it was on the curriculum I groaned. I HATED TKAM in high school. I didn't understand it. My teacher obviously did a poor job with it (I remember a lot of filler assignments and reading check type questions). But I reread it because I was like I HAVE TO FIND A WAY TO TEACH IT. And, this time around, I was like OMG. I get it. This is fantastic, because I too, at the ripe age of 28 now understood the innocence of childhood and how looking back, I have a different perspective of what I experienced and went through as a child.
Teens are intelligent and complex, but this book doesn't hit with the majority of them because they are not to the point of reflective wisdom at the age of 13. So, they read it and they don't understand it past the super strong hints I give or, sometimes, outright explanations. Which again, you're like BUT ISN'T THAT TEACHING?
No. No it is not. Now, this is just a personal thing, but this is what teaching used to be and a lot of people (parents, admin, teachers...) hold onto this model. A teacher should lecture, tell you what the answer is and the student should then regurgitate those answers on a test. Not gonna lie, I started here. But then I realized how dull and dumb that was. I want my kids to think, form opinions and be independent. I'm more of a guide and ask them a lot of questions kind of teacher. So if a student can't grasp the main point of a novel without it being explicitly told to them, then maybe it's not the right novel to be teaching. Not to mention a book like TKAM is hard to read because of it's style--and that first chapter is super boring. Four pages on Finch family history? WTF is that?
And look at the rest of that list, they are all books written for and marketed to adults. Teen literature has been a thing for several decades, but we're still shoving adult literature down their throats and demanding they like it and appreciate it. So, I beg of you, if you are a fellow teacher and reading this blog, STOP.
First off, why? Why are you teaching books they don't want to read and that they don't connect to? If you can't answer or if your answer is because it's what's on the curriculum, you need to sit down with yourself and then your department, and then the administrators and have a long conversation about best practices, the actual needs of the students, and why your curriculum is so incredibly WHITE AND OLD.
Second, are you teaching these because it's what's always been done and *GASP* you'd have to create new material for a new YA book because you can't go onto google or teachers pay teachers and just download worksheets and essays and assignments? (hey, no shame, I've used google and teachers pay teachers in the past, although now it's more of a launching off point than a THIS IS MY ASSIGNMENT THAT I DIDN'T CREATE kind of thing). Making new assignments takes time, I get it. But, we also both know it's the right thing to do. My tip is to do it gradually. I've been introducing one newer YA book a year and making new materials for it so I don't feel overwhelmed. Because again, the emotional and mental toll of being a teacher is HUGE and this works as a balance for me. But I can create new and then tweak in the following years and adjust as needed.
Look, there are so many YA books out there that teens would love to read, books that they will relate to and enjoy and be able to take away a deeper meaning from that is not explicitly told them. Books they are eager to discuss. Let me tell you that for my YA books, my students have set up group texts so they can read together. They don't do that for the classics and that my friends, is TEACHER SUCCESS.
See that lovely bird in the GIF? That's me and those blocks are your arguments as I destroy them.
Argument One: YA BOOKS AREN'T WRITTEN AS WELL AS THE CLASSICS.
Okay, I'm rolling my eyes at you. Sorry. Have you read YA? The majority of them are BRILLIANT. And if you've read any of those classic books listed above, um, most of them are mediocre at best. There is nothing mind blowing about their craft. Not to mention, language changes and evolves, so if I have to spend all my time explaining what words and phrases in TKAM mean, trust me, the kids are not having a smooth reading experiences (also, they aren't looking those words up, they're skipping over them). You can adequately teach figurative language and literary devices WITH ANY BOOK.
Argument Two: THEY CUSS! THEY DRINK! THEY HAVE SEX! KIDS CAN'T DEAL WITH THOSE THINGS IN A BOOK! KIDS ARE FRAGILE BUTTERFLIES THAT MUST BE PROTECTED!
**CW for next paragraph of mentions of violence/abuses/rape**
The only point I might grant you is that yes, kids are fragile butterflies that need protected, but they need, like, given butterfly armor so they can go soar off into the garden of life and be amazing, not be coddled and protected from it. But have you met a teen? Have you walked down a hall way at school and listened to their conversations, (or just sat in class and listen to them try and have a conversation where they think the teacher can't hear them...THE THINGS I HEAR). They hear cuss words. They use cuss words. Yes, even your precious Little Jimmy. And kids hear about and do all sorts of bad things. They also hear about and do all sorts of good things! And, guess what, all those adult books, they have got some dark shit going on? 1984 has Winston dreaming about violently raping Julia, then they have sex, Catcher in the Rye...omg, do we really want to talk about that mess? his violent hatred of women, prostitution, etc. etc. The racism in TKAM (and like pretty much all the other classics). The Outsiders (a book taught in 8th grade in my district) is about gang violence, child abuse, murder, drug use, suicide. And don't even get me started about Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare, but none of his plays are actually school appropriate. So basically, your argument is VOID.
In the end, as teachers, we have a responsibility to prepare our students for the world. To help them learn and unlock their minds, their voice, and to help them gain confidence. I firmly believe books and reading are a great vessel for this process. If we force kids to read books that are not meant for them, is it their fault that they shy away from reading? Nope, it's ours. And I get it, it's a logistical nightmare to even imagine 150 students choosing their own independent novel to read--how do you manage assignments within the traditional classroom? (I have thoughts on this, but that's another blog post. This one has already become a beast of it's own) There are ways to manage it, ways to offer up more choice. But to start, what if you just replaced one of those classic novels with a YA novel?
Kids can read adult books, I am in no way saying they can't or shouldn't, my entire argument is that we should be taking advantage of the brilliant expanse of YA literature that is available. There are so many choices. Here is a list of books you can work to add into your classroom (or you know, just go look at that picture at the top of my blog. I would teach any single one of those books in my classroom without hesitation):
Salt to the Sea (already added!) A River of Royal Blood
Long Way Down (already added!) To All the Boys I've Ever Loved
A Blade So Black Ghost Squad
Scavenge the Stars The Wolf of Cape Fen
Pet The Library of Lost Things
Ghost Wood Song Eliza & Her Monsters
Cattywampus The Ship Beyond Time
Felix Ever After The Fever King
The Fell of Dark The Mermaid, The Witch, & The Sea
The Hate U Give Clap When You Land
On the Come Up This Adventure Ends
All American Boys Out of the Easy
She's the Worst Fountains of Silence
The Poet X A Treason of Thorns
Timekeeper The Sound of Stars
Dread Nation The Gauntlet
Ace of Shades Blanca & Roja
This Savage Song Aru Shah & the End of Time
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky
Okay, okay, I get it, it's a lot of fantasy. I need to read more contemporary...But you get the picture. LOOK AT ALL THESE OPTIONS. And these are books that somehow spoke to me and that I would be both excited to teach (a very important factor) and that I can immediately make a list of students I know would relate to and appreciate these novels.
What I can tell you is that Long Way Down and Salt to the Sea are favorites--the kids eat them up. I remember getting an email from a student who finished reading Salt to the Sea two weeks early while in detention and was like, I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS AND WOULD LIKE TO DISCUSS. Like, obviously I'm making a decent choice if this non-reader finished the book early and felt compelled enough to email me with a need to discuss the ending. (I mean they could have also been super bored...but I like my version better).
In the end, it comes down to teachers pushing for better and more diverse stories to be taught. Then the school board needs to back them up. The school needs to buy those books and you should be updating your classroom books every five years or so. My ultimate dream is to make assigned literature as "disposable" teaching supplies, like those workbooks you would get and write in that was yours to keep forevermore? Same idea, could you imagine, if every kid got to keep the books they read? And they were free to annotate them? That, my friends, is the dream.
So, go forth, assess the books you're teaching and then fight to get books into the hands of teens that they will connect with, that they want to read. Leave a comment below with other great books you think teens might love to read for school.