Are Some Books Just Too Difficult for Teachers to Assign?

Difficult Required Reading

When the issue of required reading crops up, opponents of the practice often cite the difficulty of some (usually older) books as a reason required reading should end.  Being asked to read classic books is simply too hard for the average student, they argue.  The solution?  Let students read whatever they want instead, so they never have to feel challenged or step out of their comfort zone.  But this argument ignores the very purpose and function of school as a place where students learn and grow.  It assumes school should always be pleasurable, even if this means students never acquire new skills or new knowledge.

Students (and their parents) today feel an increased need to succeed; only by achieving perfect marks do many feel they will be able to get accepted into their ideal school or hired for their dream job.  As a result, many now seem to see school as a place where the teacher is required to give them high grades–and something is clearly wrong with the teacher if they do not.  But this attitude forgets that school is supposed to be a place of learning.  And, when a person learns something, they typically do not do it perfectly on their first try.

A student feeling challenged by a book is a sign that the teacher is doing something right, not something wrong.  Yes, it is possible for a text to be too challenging, enough so that a student may give up completely.  But teachers are trained professionals.  They are aware that a sweet spot exists, one where students are challenged just enough that they grow.  Setbacks will occur along the way.  Frustration may ensue.  But, ultimately, reading a difficult text should help a student advance by teaching them to recognize new vocabulary, tackle more complex sentence structures, and engage with new and complex ideas. These are things that may never happen if teachers never ask students to stretch their boundaries a little.

And school is the perfect place for students to try new things because they have a trained professional to guide them and classmates to help them.  Required reading is required precisely because it does not happen in isolation.  If a student is asked to read a book they find difficult, they are also provided with the tools and the training to make it more accessible.  Glossaries, reading guides, summaries, author biographies, historical overviews, class discussions, and more are all provided because the teacher knows the text is difficult.  But they also know they can teach students what to do when they are faced with a challenge.  Not to give up.  But to find ways to approach the text despite how scary it might feel.

Frustration, fear, and failure are a natural part of the learning process, and things that should be embraced rather than avoided.  Removing difficult books from classes because they are difficult means students would never be asked to go beyond their ABCs or Doctor Seuss, or wherever they last felt comfortable because they knew they could get an “A” without even trying.  But life does work that way.  It is  not a rubber stamp of a person’s previous knowledge, but a constant learning experience in which people are asked to try new things.  If a person has not learned in school how to fail, learn something from the failure, and move on, school has not fulfilled its function.  So let’s not remove books from the curriculum because we think they are too hard for students to read.  Let’s teach students how to read them.

Why Teachers Need to (Pretend to) Like Required Reading

Discussion Post Stars

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?

Top Books I Discovered from Required School Reading

Discussion Post StarsThis Wednesday, Krysta wrote about the pros and cons of required reading in schools. She noted that we all have horror stories of immensely dull novels we had to read for class, but also asked: what about the required reading we loved? To continue the conversation, here is a list of some great books I first encountered as class assignments.

The Winners

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

One of the local high school teachers was furious when she discovered our eighth grade teacher had assigned this to our class. She huffed and puffed about how it was too complex and too long, how it would take her half a year to even begin to get her students to understand it. Personally, I think she blew things way out of proportion. I read this book, unabridged, with zeal. And though I probably didn’t get everything there is to get out of the book, I did go on to reread it a few more times, which certainly helped.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I read this one in high school and instantly fell in love with the characters and the beautiful writing. It’s still one of my favorite books, and I’ve been able to re-read it a few times and still love it just as much; no re-reading disappointment here! Hopefully Go Set a Watchman will live up to it.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

My third grade teacher read this aloud to us in class, and I couldn’t get enough. I spent the next several weeks checking out the rest of the series from the school library. And then checking them out all over again. I’m so pleased I was able to encounter these books as a child because, as much as I still like them, I just don’t have the same experience reading them as an adult.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

This one was also assigned by my eighth grade teacher. He was very explicit about assigning books he thought were interesting, instead of assigning ones that fit some recommended grade level. I’m still surprised he got away with this one, due to all the cursing, but I’m so glad he did. I’ve gone on to read several other Steinbeck novels and like most of them, as well.

Honorable Mention

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

My high school English teacher was no longer to officially assign this book because of the cursing…so he gave away the old classroom copies of the novel to anyone who would take one. I think more students probably read this book than if it had actually been required; the lure of banned books is irresistible. And while I don’t think I was ever really an angsty teen, Holden’s disgust with anyone and anything he found “phony” really resonated with me.

What great books did you discover from required reading?