A student and I were talking in study hall the other day about some of the books that she reads, and she pointed out that she was reading the latest in a YA series, but followed that up with “because I read the other three, so I have to read this one.” The conversation then turned to some of the YA books that have come out over the last decade or two that have staying power.
Right away, we both seemed to agree that the Harry Potter books fit well within that category, even though I have never read a single page of any of them (and to her credit, she didn’t recoil in horror as if I just punted her baby 30 yards because I’ve never read them. I simply haven’t. They came out at a time when I wasn’t interested in them, so I never read them.); and we tenuously agreed on whether or not The Hunger Games will be on teens’ hit lists in 2022 (we both agreed the first novel has the best shot).Then we turned our attention to Twilight.
Okay, I brought it up because I knew she’d laugh because she knows my utter disdain for Stephenie Meyer’s sparkle sparkle vampire saga. But I can’t help it because those novels are such an easy target. After all, they have been incredibly popular during the past decade, and the quality of writing is suspect at best. When I wrote for Change.org in 2009 about “The ‘Twilight’ of serious teen reading” (which I’m pretty sure was their title, not mine, but whatevs), I was writing in regard to a columnist’s whining about how the big-name authors of his day are largely ignored by today’s teens in favor of what’s essentially popcorn. The gripe is legitimate in a sense, although it’s not exactly a new one since our culture has been debating the merits of pop versus substance since Elvis first appeared on the scene and Annette and Frankie were making movies about going to the beach.
What has struck me as interesting during the time since I wrote that blog post is how many teachers seem to not only love the popcorn, but are buying and feeding their students the popcorn as well. Don’t get me wrong, I read my fair share of it and am always up for talking about it. But there seem to be so many teachers out there who are so focused on not having their classes be the derided “boring English class” that they have swung the pendulum completely to the other side and are eschewing most, if not all of the classics for stuff that’s engaging or is going to “work” in their classrooms.
Okay, I’m probably making assumptions and exaggerating there, but I think my concern is legitimate because there is a point where a student-centered reading list becomes not just ineffective in terms of what you’re actually trying to teach them, but also amounts to nothing more than pandering. I’m not averse to discussing the adventures of Katniss Everdeen and I think that there are great explorations of plot, character, and theme that can happen with just about anything that a student is reading, and I’m open to that discussion. At the same time, however, I also see my role as someone who enriches a student’s reading experience, or even dares to take them out of their comfort zones, challenging them with texts whose language is more complex and ideas run more deep than the sci-fi/horror/romance they’ve been reading.
For instance, my advanced sophomore class has just wrapped up reading and discussing Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. One of the reasons I assign it is because unless those students have been taking drama/theater classes for the last couple of years, it’s highly unlikely that they have read any Shakespearean comedy (possible exception: A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Twelfth Night is pretty accessible and we steer our discussion around first making sure that everyone can follow what is going on and then digging deeper to discuss not only all of the literary devices at play, but the answer to the question that I’m sure quite a number of people have asked over the years: if Shakespeare died 400 years ago, why are we reading this now?
Which is a question I should be able to answer about any of the works I assign in English class. I’m not going to teach a work of literature because it’s a “standard” and have that be the only reason; similarly, I’m not going to pick up a new book and teach it because it’s “hot.” I like the idea of striking a balance. Furthermore, I don’t mind the idea that my students may not all go on to read further works from the authors or eras we cover. All Quiet on the Western Front may be the only war novel that someone in my second period ever reads; some may go on to read about other wars from other authors. Their experience with Shakespeare may stop, for a while, at Orsino and Viola; others may go on to Othello. I never read Jane Austen or Edith Wharton beyond what I was assigned in high school and college; on the other hand, I’ve further explored Kurt Vonnegut, Mary Shelley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as The Bard himself. To end what seems like a slightly incoherent, rambling post, I feel that I need to avoid the need to be trendy. Or at least strike that balance between the classic and the fly-by-night.