Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Required Reading

Today in our local paper there was a column wherein the columnist bemoaned the lack of culture forced upon the poor high school students of today as compared to his day. He knows this because he asked his interns if they had read certain books that he recalled having to read in school and they were not familiar with them.

He included Lolita and Lady Chatterly's Lover on this list and I'm not sure that either of them are really considered appropriate required reading for high school, but I digress.

My 14-year-old daughter read the column and scoffed. "What? He doesn't think it's just as good to read books that are more recent? Books have been written in the past 20 years." (or something to that effect)

Keep in mind my daughter reads Shakespeare for fun and is currently reading Oliver Twist, so it's not like she has objections to the classics.

But she has a point. Is it really necessary for teenagers to read the classics in high school? And how many? The list in the paper probably included 25 books, which seemed like it would be more than a full load for four years of high school. If those were all required there would be no chance to explore new literature.

And while it's important to have a grasp on classic literature, it's also important to live in the time and age we inhabit.

Perhaps before someone complains that teens aren't reading Lolita (!?) we should ask that person if they've read any current books for teens. Maybe they're the one more out of step!


  1. Personally I think it's ridiculous that we would force kids to read 'classics'. Some have merit, of course. And the biggest problem is that it's expensive to purchase class sets of books, so teachers tend to re-use them for years and years to get their money's worth out of them, especially since they purchase them in library binding to last.

    If it were convenient and cheaper, I'm sure more teachers would teach newer material to an entire class rather than moldy old classics. I wish...

  2. My grandchildren are or have been high school, other than the youngest two. Their required reading has bounced from old reads to new reads and some in-between. Actually what I found was among their teachers they try to gear the reading required to books that will interest a particular student. One of my grandsons is in pre-law and his reading list includes mostly ones concerned with lawyers and trials. The other is an athlete and his have been many about sports and sports figures. I think this is the way to go.

  3. I love the idea of tailoring a reading list to a student's interests. I don't suppose that's always practical however.

    And it is true that teacher's can't buy hundreds of new books every year. At least the budgets around here certainly wouldn't allow for it.

    I also think people need to get over the idea that in order to be a productive member of society you need to have read (insert title here). You have to read, yes. But not necessarily a specific book. Because no one is going to agree on what that "specific" book should be.

  4. I hate this. The one librarian at our local library said something similar that if he had his own way he'd trash almost all the recent 'junk'(his words, not mine) and have the classics in the YA section.

    I'm like, what?

    Yes, we should have the classics but to say students should only be exposed to these books and them only certain ones that are determined by the people in charge of the library/school/etc I think is wrong.

    In Ca we have AR program: Accelerated Reading, in which students read certain books and take a little quiz on them to earn points. What I hate about this program is it's only certain books that a committee choses and the points aren't really fair. Some picture books will have like 4 points while a thick MG book might have 2. Students catch on and will read tons of picture books in order to get the most points. More points equals more awards. Also the selection, I felt at my son's former school, wasn't that great.

    To be honest, the classics I was 'forced' to read in high school are the ones I hated. Even to this day I can't stomach Tolkein books.

    But that's just me.

    As an educator, I feel and have seen with my own son, that having him be able to choice what he wants to read will help him want to read. He was a relucant reader and thanks to some publishers I met at ALA back in 08 who were so sweet and made his own bag of galleys, well, now he LOVES to read.

  5. I'm 100% behind your daughter. There are so many fabulous (more current) examples of good literature to choose from. I think reading books that speak in a more modern tone will resonate with more of the children forced to read them. Not that they can't throw in a musty old title along the way so the children can see the timelessness of certain social issues.

    That said, I somehow missed the required reading when I was in high school. I'm not sure why, but I never had to read a book, exam it and report on it in my high school career. Weird, huh? Yet, today I'm a voracious reader and a children's writer.

    Great post!

  6. Kim and Kai, I think that both of your comments show that not being forced to read led to being a more voracious reader. That is something educators should keep in mind!

  7. Like music, history, archeology, etc- familiarizing oneself with good works of the past is vital to a well rounded mind. I am currently reading Moby Dick and understand why it is listed as a classic. Our culture is becoming one of a soundbite mentality. And one that feels only things created within the last two weeks - never mind 20 years - is all that is worthwhile.

    Yes- kids should read a mix of classics, both old and newer as well as whatever turns them on.

  8. Classics should not be ignored, it's true. They have a very valuable place in any well-rounded education.

    That education, of course, does not end with high school. Or even college.

    I'm sure, Michael, that you are getting a lot more out of Moby Dick now, then if you had read it as required reading for a school assignment.

    Confession time: Moby Dick was the only required summer reading book that I simply did not finish. But I'm sure if I were to pick it up now, I'd have a different feeling about it.

  9. I do believe there's a purpose for classics. I also believe they are important. But I don't think it's right to force children to only read certain books. I can't even tell you how many teens told me this only made them hate to read. I think there should be a balance.

  10. Part of the problem with 'classics' is that so many of them WEREN'T written for a YA audience. Some were, ostensibly, but YA is a fairly new breed of literature. So those classics are above the reading comprehension of some teens. Likewise, YA is SUCH a rich category of lit now that it seems a shame not to be exploring contemporary YA lit. Not only because they're contemporary but because they are targeted to the age of the reader.

    That's my librarian/teacher/grad school/English major opinion.

  11. To be honest, I didn't really read classics until college. I read a couple in HS but not tons. And in college, I still needed those Cliff notes to finger out what the heck some of them were saying!

  12. I was in an AP English class in high school and we read Catch 22, Hamlet, Animal Farm, 1984, Cat's Cradle, etc. Mr. Kraus was my favorite teacher of all time and the experience of was of great value.

  13. Dating back to the caveman days, I don't recall being required to read the classics in high school. We did read and give book reports, but I believe we had our choice of books.

    As a former teacher (2nd - 5th) grade, we usually read Newbery books in class together and the students read their choice for individual reports.

    Personally, I think they should be able to read on subjects that interest them. I was not a reader as a kid. Don't know why. Now I love to read, but not the classics. Just me. :)

  14. See in my HS I was tracked so I didn't take any AP classes. They didn't encourage me to take them and my counselor even told me they would probably be 'too hard' for me.

    I ended up going to a JC where I started really reading the classics.

    As a bilingual teacher I did like Bev and read aloud from Newbery Award books. I'm doing the same with my fourth grade son who I homeschool. But I also let him read graphic novels too. Something I know some teachers totally don't consider reading material. To me, if he makes a child want to read, then it should be offered to them.