I’m Late and the Cat Ate my Homework

Them’s good eatin’ words
This is my Monday post that turned into my Tuesday post that turned into my Wednesday post. That’s my week!

The original post was inspired by a post-rant by fellow blogger Gabrielle Prendergast about how high school kids hate to read the books their teachers assign to them. The rant wasn’t about the kids, it was about teachers who refuse to believe that no good literature has been written in the past 40 years and are stuck in Steinbeck mode.

She was inspired by a page of tweets by kids about having to read The Worst Book Ever. Some of these “worst books ever” include Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and (gasp) To Kill a Mockingbird. Personally, I don’t know how anyone can’t fall in love with TKAM, but that’s me.

Worst Books Ever? Okay, so kids are prone to hyperbole. What’s new. The response from the adult community was mostly sympathetic, thought. They reasoned that students “hated” the books simply because they were assigned to read them by their teachers. This reading is interfering with life, love, and entertainment. Plus, high schoolers like to assert their independence.

I have always loved reading, but I can think of at least three books I never read in high school simply because my social life was more interesting to me at the time (Grapes of Wrath, Johnnie Get Your Gun, and The Scarlet Letter). I did slog through Moby Dick for the sake of my inspiring student teacher senior year, but I wasn’t of it at all until 8 years later when I read it again.

I don’t think it’s imperative that kids love everything they read in school. As a matter of fact, being able to intelligently discuss why you didn’t like something is just as valuable as discussing why you did. That’s called critical thinking. But I do agree with Gabrielle that teachers should expand their repertoire of books and not just depend upon the old stand-bys.

That said I have to come to the defense of public school teachers for a moment. I’ve taught in public high schools before. Unfortunately, schools can’t always afford to buy new classroom sets of books.  Many years ago I taught at a rural school where the other English teacher and I had to organize our lesson units together because there were only enough copies of paperback books for one class. As well, sometimes we were handed a curriculum that specified by the district which books we had to teach. Imagine my dismay when I was required to teach The Scarlet Letter. Oh, the irony.

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I’m a fan of class discussion. I’ve had some really interesting, enlightening, and entertaining ones. So, I like the idea of everyone reading the same book. I’d love to hear from public school teachers about more recent fiction they’ve incorporated into their class. Some socially relevant contemporary fiction that comes to my mind:

Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
The Fault in our Stars – John Green
Split – Swati Avasthi
The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak
Little Brother – Cory Doctorow
The Adoration of Jenna Fox -Mary Pearson
The Book of Fred – Abbi Bardi
Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher
Wintergirls – Laurie Halse Anderson

I still can’t dismiss To Kill a Mockingbird, because it’s one of my all time faves.

And look, I managed to stay mostly clear of speculative fiction!

Feel free to cop to those books YOU didn’t read in high school.


Filed under YA literature

7 responses to “I’m Late and the Cat Ate my Homework

  1. I taught boy ESL learners who loved SILVERWING by Kenneth Oppel and HATCHET by Gary Paulsen, and those aren’t event that recent.

    I think a little more genre would go a long way in the classroom. A bit more sci-fi, some fantasy, some mystery. It’s all a bit “literary” and therefore dull.

    • Oh, yes, lots of students love Hatchet. I know lots of boys who love Phantom Tollbooth and that’s 50 years old, too.

      I completely agree about using genre fiction. That comment was more a personal joke because my default mode is speculative fiction. That is 80% of what I read.

      The list is of engaging socially provocative contemporary fiction that my high school creative writing students have liked in the past. So many kids read speculative fiction already and there are kids out there who prefer more “realistic” fiction. I also don’t see anything on that list that is overly “literary” and therefore “dull,” but of course that’s subjective. My students loved Book of Fred and Part-Time Indian and we had some great discussions around them.

      If I were teaching public high school I’d definitely use books like Leviathan and Ship Breaker. With Leviathan you could discuss what was real and what was altered history and get the kids thinking about how the world would be different if certain things had been invented/discovered earlier. They could draw new maps of the world after the environmental disasters of Ship Breaker. And distopian fiction is definitely great for talking about politics.

  2. This is quite interesting. I see this problem in elementary and middle school, too however. Unfortunately, if it’s just schools where kids are reading the more ‘literary’ stuff, and they’re not getting it at home too, then I think kids are less likely to embrace it. But it’s a fine line because we don’t want to stuff those older books down their throats either. There needs to be more of a balance, but I think that parents/caregivers need to encourage a varied reading list also.

    • I found that some of my students parents didn’t read or keep books in the home and that’s sad. It doesn’t mean the kids won’t love reading, but it certainly doesn’t help foster the love. If teachers really want students to read the classics, perhaps the students could be given a list and make a choice, that way there’s more personal investment. Or form small “reading groups” that make a choice together. Anything they can do to make the students more invested in the material.

  3. I think the teacher makes a HUGE impact on whether kids love/hate a book. If it is just assigned out and then picked apart and tested to death on insignificant, stupid facts, instead of having relevant discussions on it and writing opportunities to help the kids enjoy the book, then of course they’ll hate it. I’ll hate it too.

    I think teachers can help kids love a book by giving them background info on it that is intriguing, or asking questions beforehand and then telling them to read the next 5 chapters and come to class next time prepared to answer those hard questions about choices or something the character will have to face. Make it relevant to the kids–not just a bunch of words teens dread being tested on. If teachers can help kids see how books can transport them into different worlds, or different characters and problems, and that these help them in their OWN lives, maybe more kids would come out of school liking to read.

    • Absolutely. Like I said, I slogged through Moby Dick my senior year simply because I loved my student teacher. I felt sorry for her that she had to spend an entire semester (yes, it’s true) on this book. She was so lovely that I wanted to read it for her.

      If the lessons turn into lists of vocabulary words and study questions, I’d be bored, too, as you say. Some teacher just know how to make anything relevant and interesting.

  4. This is such a great post! And such a tricky thing when public schools have so little money to dedicate to buying new books. *Sigh*
    It seems like one thing that could go a long way would be if teachers were able to give their students a bit of lee-way in deciding which books they’d read that semester – a bit of agency, you know? Maybe there would even be a way to allow the students to choose books and excerpts could be read in class (handouts or ppt rather than a full-blown book). So hard though when the curriculum is rigid.

    Anyway, thanks also for stopping by my blog and providing the suggestion re: agents that rep spec-YA. It’s much appreciated!

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