high school

Thoughts after reading Insurgent

A small storm of thoughts have converged on me today as the result of three occurrences: 1) Yesterday I finished reading Insurgent, 2) I am disheartened by some of the response to the choosing of Miss America, 3) I am ever mindful of the place YA literature has/should have in the high school classroom.

Whenever I read a book, I think about what students could gain from reading it. In this frame of mind, I noted the following passages from Veronica Roths Insurgent:

People, I have discovered, are layers and layers of secrets. You believe you know them, that you understand them, but their motives are always hidden from you, buried in their own hearts. You will never know them, but sometimes you decide to trust them (510).

Color fills her cheeks, and I think it again: that Johanna Reyes might still be beautiful. Except now I think that she isnt just beautiful in spite of the scar, shes somehow beautiful with it, like Lynn with her buzzed hair, like Tobias with the memories of his fathers cruelty that he wears like armor, like my mother in her plain gray clothing (517).

If this book were read in my classroom, I would ask students to explain what they thought each passage meant in the context of the book. Then I would ask how they could apply this meaning to what they know of life.

How valuable it would be for young people to reflect upon their knowledge of othersfriends, family, acquaintances, strangersand on what they can or cannot truly know about them. How valuable to reflect upon what they choose to share with others and what others can never really know of them. Or upon how they can trust people whose motives may or may not be transparent to them. Or upon beauty and whether it might possibly stem from what people become because they have suffered.

Despite the usefulness I see of including such a book and such a discussion in a high school classroom, I have personally witnessed some educators dismissal of contemporary YA works as worthless, simple, or too focused on kissing, popularity, and vampires. Can such an attitude be espoused by a person who has read a book like Insurgent and discussed with students the passages quoted above? I have a hard time believing so.

The truth is that high school students possess many resources that will make meaning of canonical textsfor them. The teacher will do it in the classroom. The internet will do it outside the classroom. With so many answers out there, the sad truth is that many students choose not to read the challenging, original text at all. If they dont read the text, they cant make their own meaning.

One of the primary values of YA literature, to me, besides its presentation as less daunting than a canonical tome, is the use of a young adult protagonists perspective to make it easier for the young reader to make their own meaning.

When I read comments about in Indian-American becoming Miss America that call her a Muslim terrorist, or bemoan the fact that she was chosen just after the anniversary of 9/11, or that another, whiter candidate is somehow more American because she can shoot a gun and loves her country, I think of the chance that might have been missed when these commenters were in high school, what truths they might have discovered if they hadnt been forced to accept a teachers interpretation of a canonical text, but instead had been asked to read and discuss YA literature that delivered messages about being human in a way that could help them make meaning for themselves.

I believe that texts read in schools should be challenging, but I dont necessarily believe that for a young audience they should be challenging for their obscure language, sophisticated art, or esoteric philosophy. Many, many young people, to be sure, have the skills and aptitude to handle the canon independently or with minimal guidance, and I strongly believe all students should experience the canon. However, I feel there is a challenge even greater than the one to stretch a vocabulary or appreciate brilliant figures of speech. It is the challenge to ones ideas and beliefs about the world. For many, many students, YA literature is the very best vehicle to help them rise to that challenge.

I realize that this post probably seems self-serving because I’m now going to be a published writer of YA literature. However, my belief in the power of contemporary YA books predates my decision to write them. I write because I hope something I have to say will challenge young people to examine, then confirm or revise, their ideas and beliefs.

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What should high school students be readingclassics or books they enjoy?

Personally, I wish the answer were. . . What do you mean? Don’t high school kids enjoy the classics?

I always have enjoyed them. I loved, for example, The Red Badge of Courage and The Scarlet Letter when I read them in high school. I was an English major in college, so it would have been torture for me to take all the required courses if I didn’t enjoy the books studied in them. As an English teacher I did a lot of enjoyable re-reading of classics.

Yet being an English teacher taught me pretty quickly that most high school students don’t enjoy “classic” literature. In fact in the suburban, middle-class, mostly-white school where I taught, most students didn’t enjoy reading at all. If I hadn’t had the luxury of teaching the AP class, where just about all of the students admitted they at least liked to read, I might have fallen into a deep depression at the attitude of my other college-bound students, some of whom proudly declared that they had never read a book for school in their lives. They had made it to the twelfth grade by plagiarizing and reading SparkNotes. I honest-to-God once had parents come in to argue to the principal that their son shouldn’t receive a zero for work done with SparkNotes instead of the actual book. If the answers are in SparkNotes, the parents argued, and their son “researched” them, why shouldn’t he receive full credit? Never mind that, ahead of time so there would be no misunderstandings, I specifically forbade the class from using any source other than the book. The boy cheated anyway and expected to get an A.

There is much I could say about teacher education or teacher quality or the million things about teaching in a public school that hamper teachers’ ability to do what they know to be right and effective in a classroom. I could rail against TV, video games, and the internet. I could cite additional examples of unsupportive parents. Although it’s true that there could be improvements made on all of these fronts if we want children to read, still some children do read. The bottom line is that not everybody is a reader, just as not everybody is an athlete or an artist or a good friend. Some people just don’t like to read.

But that is no excuse for educators not to have high reading expectations. (I cringe as I write this because I know how really, truly hard it can be to get reluctant, plagiarism-entrenched, entitled students to do honest reading. I do not know first-hand how difficult it is to get disadvantaged students to read, because the issues with poor students are different than in the middle-class suburban school where I taught, but I do believe teachers when they say it’s hard work.) For a long time it seemed schools resisted the idea of giving kids books they enjoyed because the classics were better educational tools. Now I see schools adding those enjoyable reads, and I have mixed feelings. (Here I cringe again because I write, I like to think, those enjoyable reads, and I feel that there is value in reading for pleasure.)

There is a report out from Renaissance Learning stating that high school students, on average, read texts for school (both self-chosen and assigned) that average at a fifth grade level. This is in language difficulty and complexity, not content, mind you, but still. This statistic is disappointing to me.

You can find a million sources out there to tell you why kids should read books. Heck, why people of all ages should read books. Books expand the imagination. They develop critical thinking. They encourage empathy. They teach about otherness. They teach about the common human condition. They give pleasure. Etc. Etc. Etc.

You can also find a million sources out there to tell you what books kids should read in school. Here are some quotes from students themselves that I found online (Here is the original blog post where I found these quotes.):

As a student, I can firmly say that just because a book has endured through generations does not make it relevant to my generation. The veil of time often blinds young readers to a books meaning.-Jacob Stroud

Current required readings often make students skip the book and go straight to the movie or use SparkNotes to pass the test.-Olivia Reed

By exposing students to more modern literature they can relate to, they may come to view reading as cool or enjoyable, rather than only as homework or something that nerds do.-Ashley Monroe

If you go here, you can read the full answers given by these three students, which are actually much more thoughtful than these quotes might suggest. I would like to focus for the moment, though, on the ideas in these three excerpts alone because, unfortunately, I have heard these very arguments made by adults who should have the benefit of a wider perspective.

The idea behind the first quote drives me wild. Irrelevant? The moral question of responsibility for the bestowing (or ending) of life? (Frankenstein) The question of whether our circumstances are determined by a higher power or by ourselves? (King Lear) The question of what, exactly, makes a person worth marrying? (Pride and Prejudice) A young person who is struggling with the more complex style of older literature can be forgiven the difficulty in seeing the meaning in the text itself. It is the responsibility of the school to guide them past writing style (actually, I would argue, to guide them toward appreciation of style) and toward relevance.

The second quote could have been said by any number of students at the school where I taught. This is simple immaturity in the form of lack of personal responsibility. I didn’t cheat. The required readings made me skip the book and go straight to the movie or use SparkNotes. This is a very difficult challenge for an educator to overcome. Where I taught, a student saying such a thing would be just as likely to cheat on reading a book of their own choosingin fact, many students tried to do just that and would be angry at meat MEwhen their cheating was discovered.

The third quote has potential as an argument, but it is only the beginning, which I will expand upon in a sec.

So what should high school students be reading? In my humble opinion, anything that challenges them.

Challenge them to expand their vocabulary and decipher complex sentence structure. Challenge them to consider a new idea. Challenge them to view something from another’s perspective, from another era’s perspective. Challenge them to stick through a long book to the end. Challenge them to analyze, apply, synthesize. Challenge them to grow, to understand this world and their place in it. Challenge them to enjoy being the “nerdy” type who likes reading books!

School is for learning and challenges are the vehicle for learning. High school students should not be assigned books that fit snuggly into their comfort zone. To use a running metaphor . . . if you’re an 800 runner who races the 800 every meet, it does you good to challenge yourself to the longer 1600 or the faster 400 once in a while. The endurance or speed you pick up from going outside your comfort zone helps you grow as an 800 runner. Similarly, high school students have a reading comfort zone, a type of book they “enjoy.” Reading something that challenges them will affect how they approach the next book they read in their comfort zoneit will help them to see things in the text they might not have noticed otherwise, therefore giving them greater opportunity to grow from everything they read, even if they initially choose texts for their entertainment value only.

Now, I don’t think it’s useful to lay down the law and say, “They must read classics! Only classics are challenging! Everything else is a waste of time!”

I also don’t think it’s useful to say, “Let them read what they want! At least they’re reading!”

It’s likewise unhelpful to state simply, “They should read a mix.”

So much depends on the way the material is handled in the class. It does little good to assign challenging reading when the teacher ends up supplying all the insight, all the “right” answers, and it does little good to let students pick their own books if the teacher can’t then engage them in conversation about what they read.

There are many ways to approach teaching challenging texts (here I mean the “classics”), but I’m currently a believer in what I’ll call, because I’m quoting Barry Gilmore below, the “gateway and destination” approach, best explained in an article written by Gilmore in the above referenced Renaissance Learning report. Here is an excerpt from that article:

“The works students choose are largely what I think of as gateway novels and plays; they introduce themes and stylistic devices similar to those in classic works but often in a less urbane or nuanced manner. The Giver and The Hunger Games are gateways. They open the door to thinking about issues such as the rights of citizens to resist or the value of human relationships in a power-driven society. Julius Caesar, on the other hand, is a destination: a place where students, with their teachers, can investigate the same fundamental themes in depth. But the leap from the former works to the latter is a broad one. It requires the bridge of discussion and reflection.”

I would love to see more high schools pairing “accessible” works with “classic” ones. I like that more and more high schools are seeing the value in using popular YA literature as a teaching tool, and I appreciate that works today are encouraging more and more reluctant readers to read. I found value in having popular works in my classroom, but not at the expense of the challenge classic literature provides.

I once had a student, as her AP project, do a comparison of Paradise Lost (which we read together as a class) and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (which she read on her own and which is supposed to be a children’s version of Paradise Lost). I wish I could produce the paper for you to read her excellent insights. It was the kind of work I wish more kids had the opportunity to do.

Not every child is going to love the classics. Not every child is going to love reading. That doesn’t mean reading isn’t good for them, or that they can’t learn to love books, or that educators shouldn’t try to meet them on their level and progressively challenge them to understand things they might not seek to understand otherwise.

So the short answer to the question posed in this post’s title?


P.S. I wrote a follow-up to this post that discusses sources I used to research a high school curriculum book list: http://www.jenbrookswriter.com/2012/06/09/what-should-high-school-students-be-reading-follow-up/.

I also mention a few specific titles for a classroom library in this post:http://www.jenbrookswriter.com/2012/06/25/books-for-high-school-kids-building-a-classroom-library/.

And it seems I couldn’t help but mention the subject again:http://www.jenbrookswriter.com/2013/09/17/thoughts-after-reading-insurgent/.

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Articles linked in this post:

“Updating High School English” by LaToya Jordan: http://therumpus.net/2011/07/updating-high-school-english/

“Is the Literature in High School Too Cemented in the Past?” by Stroud, Reed, and Monroe: http://www.mlive.com/opinion/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2011/07/is_the_literature_covered_in_h.html

Renaissance Learning report (you have to click the link “Download your copy here” to get the pdf of the report): http://www.renlearn.com/whatkidsarereading/

Articles for further reading:

“Teaching Kids, Books, and the Classics” by Monica Edinger: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/monica-edinger/teaching-classics-kids_b_1191115.html

“Against Walter Dean Meyers and the Dumbing Down of Literature: ‘Those Kids’ can read Homer” by Alexander Nazaryan: http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/pageviews/2012/01/against-walter-dean-myers-and-the-dumbing-down-of-literature-those-kids-can-read-h

“High School Students Aren’t Reading Books by Choice or Assignment” by Maureen Downey: http://blogs.ajc.com/get-schooled-blog/2012/04/12/high-school-students-arent-reading-challenging-books-by-choice-or-assignment/?cxntfid=blogs_get_schooled_blog

“Leveling Up and Keeping Score: High School Students Reading at 5th Grade Levels, Report Says” by Becky O’Neil: http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2012/04/03/leveling-up-and-keeping-score-high-school-students-reading-at-5th-grade-levels-report-says/

“American High School Students are Reading Books at 5th-Grade-Appropriate Levels: Report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/top-reading_n_1373680.html#s805920&title=20_Marked_A


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There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.

— Nelson Mandela