A Teen’s Take on High School Literature Classes

Guest Post by Sarah Knowles

In her post How to Build Better Readers: IMHO… Marti Johnson made the case that assigned reading of classics in high school literature courses drives students away from reading for pleasure, and asked Writers’ Rumpus readers, “Have your teenagers enjoyed their required reading? Do you have opinions that conflict with mine?” Our guest blogger, Sarah Knowles, graduated from high school in 2014. In her post, she shares her perspectives on Marti’s questions.

Gatsby_1925_jacket
Exploring themes that resonate with students can make the difference between a slog and a favorite.

I have never had a bad English teacher in all my years spent in school, and luckily, that trend has yet to be broken at college. However, I have encountered several books that I am not fond of. And, that’s okay.

I would argue that it is important to sample the classics, but just as important to let students know that it is okay not to like something they read. It’s okay, and even important, to have your own opinion. Teaching that there is one way to interpret a book, or that you have to like something because “it’s literature” is not the point of English classes.

In my years of reading assigned works, I have learned not only about the authors and their works, but also how I feel about them. Hemingway can have an amazing writing style, but his worldviews really bother me. I love Shakespeare’s themes and styles and characters: the man was an amazing observer of humanity. Ibsen sets up amazing character-driven plots that end in depressing, frustrating tragedy that is incredible to see unfold. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo have one-dimensional characters and a boring style.

Did you disagree with anything I just said? Good. During class I also learned that Hemingway’s direct narrative really speaks to some, that others can’t understand Shakespeare, that Ibsen can be dry and that there are lovers of the sweeping, romantic plots of Dickens and Hugo. Talking about why you disagree often makes for great class discussions.

We have to keep in mind what the purpose of teaching literature is in the first place.

While the stated purpose of literature in schools may be some buzzword-filled administrative mumbling including “expanding horizons”, “well-rounded” and “cultured”, that is not the heart of the matter.

Why do we, as a culture and as a species, have literature?

Literature allows us to share experiences, examine theoretical scenarios, and struggle with difficult questions on a personal level.

So let’s make sure that we are able to connect to, think about, and understand those experiences, questions, and scenarios.

One problem of reading classics in schools arises when the range of reading is too narrow. Too many books dealing with similar themes, or by the same author, narrows the diversity of works covered. The range of opinions heard and experiences examined is reduced, and students may not remain engaged if they don’t connect to that topic or author.

The other problem is that ambitious curriculums gloss over classics like they were math problems, seemingly implying that as long as the students know what happened, the class should move on in order to cover more of these timeless books. The irony, of course, is that the students miss the reason why these book are ones they were given to read. This personal connection, cultural relevance and human experience is what makes us take a second look at not just the pages of the book, but the chapters of our lives and the volumes of history that came before us.

The key to this may be to simply slow down.

I spent a month or two on The Great Gatsby. My English teacher first introduced us to the concept of the American Dream and its lie of attainability. As sophomores starting to think about colleges, and where we might end up in life, and what our society means and stands for, it resonated. I love that book to this day.

In a separate class, we spent nearly two months on Hamlet, going deep into character dynamics. We had several interesting discussions on how women think and feel when fitting into (or trying to fit into) society, along with the role of “insanity” as used to examine a culture. I love that play too.

Tinkers_cover
Expose students to not-yet-classic literature, too. They may thank you for it.

Spontaneous personal connection is also possible, and it is why we should make a point of diversifying the themes of our “required reading.” At the last minute, my AP English teacher had us read Paul Harding’s Tinkers, a quiet little Pulitzer prize-winning book that deals with mortality, family connections, closure, and certain aspects of life that are difficult to put into words. That book resonated with me not only because of its poetic style, but also because at the time, I was dealing with a sudden reminder of a grandparent’s mortality. But I would not have had that resonance if my teacher had not assigned a book that was not on the syllabus.

If the curriculum stopped aiming to stuff the brains of students with what is considered important and instead focused on connecting students to the deeper meaning of the text, they would be able to discover for themselves the real reason why sharing stories is so important to humanity.

Teachers please note: NOT a summer read. Save it for the school year.
Teachers please note: NOT a summer read. Save it for the school year.

Oh, and a note on summer readings: A book about a Vietnam War veteran with PTSD who witnessed the My Lai massacre and whose father committed suicide when he was a kid and who may or may not have killed his wife by boiling her alive is not something anyone wants to read on the beach. (In the Lake of the Woods, an AP English read, if you were wondering.) Summer is a time for relaxing your brain and re-gaining your mental and emotional strength for the academic year ahead, not questioning why humanity exists on this earth at all when we are capable of the most awful acts imaginable. Just saying!

What’s your opinion on required readings? Is it worth slogging through a few boring ones to experience the gems you wouldn’t otherwise have read? Share your thoughts in the comments.

 

Sarah Knowles graduated high school in 2014 and is on summer break following her first year of college. When she has time, she writes YA. She is a former member of the critique group that blogs at Writers’ Rumpus, and, in the past, has been active on the teen writing site Figment.

4 comments

  1. This is a wonderful post (and I love Gatsby and Hamlet, too). Heated classroom discussions are a great result of delving into the classics and other books. At my library’s book group, we find that those who didn’t like the reading selection tend not to show up for what turns out to be a one-sided discussion. What a shame!

    Like

  2. I think there are benefits to slogging through a book you wouldn’t have read otherwise, epecially in a class where you will most likely gain insights. That said, as a non-class attending adult, I never finish a book that doesn’t resonate with me in some way.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s hard to disagree with such a well considered and logically expressed argument. IMHO you’ve got it exactly right. There’s a time and place for the classics, and the books selected should be carefully chosen for the themes that the teacher will have the class discuss. As you say, the point is to have active discussion. The solution you propose is elegant in its simplicity – classics should be read and discussed during the school term, while summer reading should be of a lighter nature. Sounds like a win all around to me! Great post – timely too!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Dear Sarah: I’m thrilled to hear that your English teachers encouraged lively, in-depth classroom discussions. I wholeheartedly agree that students should form their own opinions about what they read, and definitely should not be told there is only one way to interpret literature. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

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