Now that school is once again in full-swing in the US, it’s a good time to address, ugh, required reading. In March, Krysta wrote a great post arguing for required reading in schools: it exposes students to books (and ideas) they might not be exposed to otherwise, it ground students in the important works of their culture, it improves their reading skills, and it improves their writing skills. I agree with all of these arguments, but I think a lot of them are grounded in one key thing: teachers need to model for their students that required reading (and classics) can be both fun and informative.
Although I suspect that most of my literature teachers actually did like to read, many of my middle and high school English class experiences involved my teachers skipping or belittling required reading they personally didn’t find interesting–which in turn led the class to believe the literature wasn’t either interesting or important. If a literature teacher, someone whose very job entails teaching students about books and presumably encouraging students to like books, doesn’t think a certain book is worthwhile, why would a reluctant reader ever come to think the book is?
Every year of high school, my classes were assigned two books for summer reading, which we were to discuss and be tested on at the beginning of each school year. And every year of high school, my literature teachers discussed only one of those books, admitting they didn’t want to bother to talk about the other one because they didn’t like it. As a result, any academically-inclined student who sincerely wanted to discuss the book was cheated, any student who did enjoy the book was thus informed their opinion didn’t matter and they were possibly wrong to think the book was worth their time, and any slacking student who hadn’t bothered to read the book were rewarded and their ideas that reading didn’t matter were reinforced.
If teachers are going to assign reading for their classes, they need to read the books, too, and they need to teach them. They need to be open to the idea that even if they don’t enjoy a book, there still may be something worthwhile in the book. And even if they didn’t like a book, maybe their students did, and that enjoyment should be encouraged. Teachers need to be at the forefront of modelling that reading is important and that sometimes you have to read one thing when you’d rather be reading something else. My high school teachers weren’t.
My middle school English teacher, however, had the opposite problem. He threw away any suggestions the school gave for required reading, appropriate books for certain grade levels, etc. and assigned only books he personally liked. And he told his classes he had picked the books primarily because he liked them. While it may have been good for some students to hear that someone in the world like those stuffy old classics, and I did discover a lot of great literature in those classes (The Count of Monte Cristo, Of Mice and Men, The Hound of the Baskervilles), the experience felt limiting to me, even as a child. By reading only books that were among the teacher’s personal favorites, we were getting a limited perspective. The previous teacher had always assigned “girl books” (I hate the term as much as anyone, but it speaks to a lot of people) like Little Women. My teacher didn’t like “girl books” because he was male, so my class never read them. Apparently, “girl books” were unimportant.
If required reading is supposed to accomplish a lot of grand goals like introducing students to the canon, expanding their worldviews, and teaching them to read and write, teachers need to be open to those goals. Teaching literature involves teaching students to get the most they can out of any book, regardless of whether the book is entertaining or whether it agrees with the reader’s personal worldview. Teachers who skip books or mock books–specifically books they personally assigned and asked students to read–are perpetuating the idea that its important to read only things you like (as well as encouraging students to think that school assignments are somehow optional). Yes, schools should have required reading, but teachers should be required to actually teach that reading.