Why Teachers Need to (Pretend to) Like Required Reading

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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.

What was your school experience? How did your teachers approach teaching books they didn’t like?

13 thoughts on “Why Teachers Need to (Pretend to) Like Required Reading

  1. Panda says:

    That’s weird. Surely if it’s on the syllabus and you have to read it, you have to read it and the teachers have to teach whatever they have been given to teach right? Some of my teachers didn’t like the books they had to teach us but they still had to teach them to us so they did. Perhaps with not so much enthusiasm, but still 😛

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    • Krysta says:

      Teachers don’t always have a lot of oversight, though. If no one in the class reported that the teacher wasn’t discussing the reading, then I assume no one ever knew. I think teachers are supposed to have their syllabi/lesson plans looked over by someone, but who knows what they put on there. Maybe just “reading discussion” and let everyone assume it was about both books?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Panda says:

        Yeah but surely exam boards tell you to read a certain book and if the teacher doesn’t read the book with you then you fail your exams. Teachers have to teach according to what the students need to learn as set by the exam board otherwise they’re not doing their job right?

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        • Krysta says:

          I’m not actually familiar with exam boards. I know some teachers now and the majority teach at private schools where they have a lot more freedom with what they teach. There are general guidelines (in my understanding), like maybe the geography teacher has to cover certain parts of the world and the history teacher has to cover a certain time period, but as far as choosing what books they read–that seems to be up to either the individual teacher. I think in my high school there was someone above deciding on the book lists (maybe it was a committee and maybe the teachers had input), but my experience matched Briana’s. The teachers then made a decision as to whether or not they would actually discuss all the books on the list. We usually just had some sort of comprehension quiz in class, maybe had to write a brief paper on it. No one above, I’m sure, had any idea what we were actually doing. In fact, my one English teacher used to cancel class sometimes so he could catch up with his work. So we’d sit there and have “study hall” (that is, talk to each other).

          Edit: Sorry, didn’t realize Briana already engaged this. Now I will read on to see if I learn what an exam board does. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Panda says:

            Okay I’m kind of thinking this may be an America-England difference. For our Lit, we have to study 2 novels/novellas and a play and we write an essay on them in the exam (well that was our exam board but I’m pretty sure most exam boards set some books that pupils have to study then get an essay question on). Language was a bit different – we just studied analysis of language then get given a text to write about in the exam… 😛

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    • Briana says:

      I actually was under the impression teachers didn’t have a huge amount of oversight. Like maybe someone would come in observe two or three times a year and the principal would generally glance over lesson plans. The entire high school English department was told to read the same books for summer reading (based on grade level), but what teachers did with that was then their own problem.

      I then spoke to someone who told me at his school there was a lot more oversight, people were always in and out of the classroom observing, and there were really strict standards. So I guess it was a private vs. public school thing, and my teachers could basically do what they wanted unless a bunch of students complained.

      There was probably some more pressure in the AP English class to follow guidelines since that class is technically “teaching to the test.” but even there my English teacher didn’t feel compelled to do most of the recommended work. *sigh*

      Liked by 1 person

      • Panda says:

        But it’s not “recommended work” is it? It is the work that the teachers have to teach. People don’t really come in and check what they’re doing – the results of the students show it at the end…

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        • Briana says:

          Yes, I do think the statistics get checked on how many students pass the AP test, what the score distributions are, etc. I guess the “benefit” to the English literature AP test, though, is that it’s basically reading comprehension of texts that are printed on the test. So if you never actually read Hamlet in class, it might not be a problem. Very different from, say, the Chemistry AP test, where the teacher would definitely have to teach kids chemistry if anyone was going to pass.

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          • Krysta says:

            Well, in an English class, there’s no measure of what the students learned really, is there, unless it’s an AP class? Usually the end project is some sort of research paper and it doesn’t matter whether your teacher actually taught Little Women or not if your paper is on something entirely different. I’m just wondering what kind of lesson plans they submitted to be read and if it said something vague like “summer reading discussion” or if they actually wrote on there that they would be teaching Little Women–and then didn’t.

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  2. Krysta says:

    I think it can be valuable for a teacher to admit that maybe a book can be challenging or that not everyone will enjoy it, but it does have to be presented in a careful way. You don’t want to walk into the room announcing, “This book is difficult! So difficult probably none of you understood it!” Then it just sounds like you’re saying the students are incapable of the work assigned. And much the same, I think, can be said of mentioning you don’t enjoy a book. But then maybe the discussion should go to talk about why we read certain books if we don’t all enjoy them, what it means for a book to be “good,” if a book can be “good” even if you didn’t find reading it enjoyable, etc.

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    • Briana says:

      Yes, I think there’s value is acknowledging a book might be challenging or unfamiliar. I know it’s an approach a lot teachers take to teaching Shakespeare. But I can’t justify just declaring you don’t like a book so you’re not going to talk about it.

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      • Krysta says:

        I wonder if that could turn into a problem. If you’re modelling behavior that says you don’t do things you don’t like, would your students model that back to you? That is, come in and say they didn’t read the next assignment because they didn’t like it?

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