Can Sci-Fi and Horror Save High School English?


“IT’S A COOKBOOK!!!” An image from the Twilight Zone adaptation of “To Serve Man.”

A flying saucer lands on Earth and the alien race the Kanamit bring world peace and turn Earth into a paradise.  But they have a hidden agenda and it’s all contained in a book entitled, “To Serve Man.”

Little Anthony Freemont has psychic powers and uses them to make everyone who crosses him go away … or even worse.  People just have to constantly believe that “It’s a Good Life!”

Our narrator gets a call to get his snowplow truck out and along the way picks up a hitchhiker who initiates a conversation about a serial killer on the loose who has been killing hitchhikers.  He does this “Time and Again.”

A mysterious man who has been living alone in a castle for as long as he can remember decides to break free in search of human contact and light.  He is “The Outsider.”

George Hadley and his wife live in the perfect customized, automated home of the future.  Their children spend their time in a virtual reality room called “the nursery” and are very attached to it.  George thinks that they might be too attached to “The Veldt.”

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea that what I just listed are short summaries of science fiction and horror short stories, each with a plot that has its fair share of twists and turns, sometimes even waiting until the end to reveal that twist.  They’re also stories I have either used or considered using in my English classes.

A couple of months ago, as part of the work I’m doing for my adolescent literacy class, I gave two of my classes an interest survey that asked them about when they read, how often they read, and what they read, as well as what types of movies and television shows they like to watch.  You’d think that by January I would have known this by now, but aside from talking about superhero movies and the occasional blockbuster that most of us have seen or heard of, my students seem to talk more about what they’ve seen from friends on Snapchat lately than anything they happen to be watching or what video game they were playing.

When we did get a conversation going about television or movies, the subject would often turn to science fiction or horror, especially horror.  A number of them watched Stranger Things last fall (as did I) and a few had started watching it.  Many of them had seen the Purge films, and lately have been recommending Get Out (which I think my wife and I plan on seeing once we have a child-free night).  The survey results reflected that–teenagers like horror.

And everyone who was a teenager between 1979 and now just went “Uh … DUH.”

Now, I’ll confess that I’m not a horror aficionado, but I do like a good scary movie from time to time and I’ve seen all of the classics of my youth:  Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th as well as straight-up classics like Night of the Living Dead.  I think I’d also put Psycho in that box, although I can’t tell if that’s a suspense flick or horror.  Anyway, there’s something that’s been universal about being a teenager and plunking down your hard-earned lawn-mowing money to see whatever splatter-fest is in the theater.  To a lesser extent the same can be said for science fiction, as in some cases you’ve got your blockbuster sci-fic/fantasy/action movie (Star Wars, for instance) that a large number of students will go see, but not all of them will sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, or some other “hard” science fiction.

Anyway, that led me to ask why there isn’t more sci-fi and horror on my curriculum.

There’s definitely some dystopian sci-fi; specifically, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which I personally think is even more relevant in 2017 than it was in 1951 and not just because of the politics contained within (seriously, go reread it and tell me that it’s not a tech nightmare).  But beyond that, I didn’t have much, and when I took a course in YA lit last semester, we read a little sci-fi but completely skipped over horror, to the point where I wondered aloud why we weren’t really touching on the genre.  Oh wait … there’s Poe.  But Poe is well-covered territory in English classes other than mine, so with the exception of the poem “To Helen,” I don’t really touch the guy.  Frankenstein is taught in the twelfth grade course (in fact, when I taught twelfth grade, we read it), and Dracula is another text that is more AP-level.  And Stephen King I’d reserve for options on independent reading because of the pearl clutching that tends to go on during the more dirty parts of The Catcher in the Rye.

As a way to find whole-class reads in the science fiction/horror stable, I started looking for short stories, novels, or stand-alone excerpts from novels.  I tried to find things that were contemporary and found some great stuff (“Patient Zero” by Tanarive Due is freaking amazing), but as I kept looking, the stuff I found was either too sexually explicit or was way too above their level.  So I went to a place where I, as a teenager, found some great science fiction stories:  The Twilight Zone.

I asked “What Zone episodes were adaptations of short stories?”  After all, it seemed to work for “Lamb to the Slaughter” and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. That’s where I found, at a first glance, “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby and “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight.  And I know that what I did was a classic “read the story”/”watch the movie” bit, but it worked pretty well–the class found those stories to be “creepy” or “weird” and liked the twist at the end of “To Serve Man.”  They were able to handle the black and white of those old TV episodes and we even watched the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes of The Simpsons  (the one based on “It’s a Good Life” also features adaptations of “The Monkey’s Paw” and Frankenstein and has one of the best lines of the show–“Dammit, Smithers, this isn’t rocket science; it’s brain surgery!”).  And I have been slowly compiling stories that I may or may not use, plus looking into a couple of novels that might be worth it, including The War of the Worlds (which I have to reread anyway).

But, after 1000 words already, I don’t think I’ve really addressed my topic or thesis or whatever I’m supposed to be calling it (people stopped reading long ago anyway), which is why science fiction and horror are good genres besides their being in my students’ wheelhouse.  Well, if you look at even the laziest-written sci-fi/horror, you’ll see a host of literary devices: allegory, symbolism, metaphor, and universal themes about humanity and human nature.  You can even use them as mentor texts for descriptive writing, like I did with the first chapter of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (h/t to my father, who used to read it aloud to his marine biology class while playing the John Williams music).

None of these strategies, by the way, are anything new, but I think that when English teachers think like English teachers, we have a tendency to think that any short story used in class has to have “literary merit.”  Many of us have been moving away from this mentality in recent years, but I think that it lingers in the back of our minds, especially because so many of us love literature.  But science fiction and horror, with some few exceptions, has been marginalized for decades and never been raised to the level of “literary,” just as sci-fi/horror films rarely, if ever, win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  Yet some of the best discussions I’ve ever had, especially ones that border on philosophical, have come when talking about the consequences of actions in the context of a sci-fi/horror plot.

So as you’re planning for the next semester or year, dive into the realm of scary or weird.  Try out some short stories.  Find some old episodes of The Twilight Zone (which is streaming in various places), The Outer Limits, or even Star Trek (I kinda want to show “The City on the Edge of Forever” but need to build a lesson plan first).  Grab some old pre-code sci-fi/horror comics (you’d be surprised how many tackle important issues, such as prejudice), or simply start a conversation about horror movies in class and see what happens.  You might find it to be more engaging than A Doll’s House.

Oh, btw, there is a twist ending to this post.  High school English doesn’t need saving.  I just put that title there so people would read it.

This has been bad twist ending theater.  Good night.

Scar Tissue

One of the sentiments I see very often when people write about establishing relationships with students is that teachers need to show that they make mistakes and are vulnerable, and a lot of times that comes through sharing personal stories.  While I understand the ideas behind that, I am not sure that I completely agree because sentiments like that sound like they’re coming from a pretty, popular girl who is telling a less-popular, self-conscious girl that she shouldn’t be so self-conscious about her looks.  “Be vulnerable and tell stories” is the sentiment of someone who never had his vulnerabilities used against him or thrown back in his face.

One of my favorite essays of all time and hence, one of my favorite essays to use in my advanced English class is Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When The Other Dancer is the Self.”  I’ve mentioned it more than once and written about it more than once and that’s because it’s so well-written and generates some great discussions about how people judge one another based on physical traits or characteristics as well as the cruelty of children toward one another.  We discuss this essay in my classes via student-run seminars, so I don’t do very much talking except to either clear up factual questions the group can’t answer (although I have been known to jump in when things go completely off the rails).  But when it comes to this essay, it’s very hard for me to not say anything because of how the subject matter affects me on a personal level.

You can’t notice it unless you look very closely or meet me in person, but I have a scar under my right nostril.  It’s the result of a bicycle accident I had a few days after my thirteenth birthday–my face hit the handlebars of my ten-speed and one of my front teeth went through my lip.  For the first three years after the accident, the scar was very noticeable because the tissue had keloided, meaning that it had puffed up and instead of looking like most scars, it looked like an extremely large pimple.  Combine this with the fact that I had two false teeth, which I was wearing until my orthodontist completed the task of moving my other teeth over so my dentist could cap them with veneers, the school year following the accident (eighth grade) was a nightmare.  I wasn’t really popular to begin with and the comments I heard ranged from “Can you take your teeth out?” to “Why don’t you pop that thing?”  I even had one person offer to perform home surgery with an ice cube and an Exact-o knife.

I am hesitant to compare my experience to Alice Walker’s because that would be an exercise in ego and I would surely be taken to task for my ignorance as well (and rightfully so), but whenever I read and discuss the essay, I can’t help but make that text-to-self connection and notice at least some similarities.  We both had noticeable scars (hers was in the eye, the result of a BB gun), and both had corrective surgery sometime later (I went to a plastic surgeon and had a skin graft done between my sophomore and junior years of high school) that on some level fixed the problem.  Walker writes about how her grades improved and she excelled beyond that; I heard, “Oh, you popped it!” a few times before not having to hear much of anything else about my facial irregularities.

Still, the damage was done and it took being around people who didn’t know about the scar on my face (read: people not from my high school) to realize that everything would be fine. As a result, I came to terms with my scar and the insecurities that came with it, and the scar on my face stopped being the first thing about me that people saw, thought about, or commented on.

I should tell this story when we discuss the essay in class specifically because it dovetails so well with it and as I mentioned, it’s a good text-to-self connection moment.  And yet my experience with being pushed around and both aggressively and passive-aggressively ridiculed during my formative years makes me very hesitant to do so.  I still reflexively act as if anything I say can and will be used against me.  Plus, even though my students are intelligent, they are also teenagers and not all of them have the maturity to absorb or handle that amount of honesty, especially from a teacher.  Sometimes they do, and I have told a version of my scar story and related it to the essay and that seems to be a positive contribution to the discussion.  Other times, I’ve started to talk but held back when side conversations and chatter that weren’t going on began the moment I opened my mouth.  After all, why should I open up like that to people who can’t give me the respect of a single word?

I have no problem making and owning mistakes as a teacher (I think I’ve said “I’m an idiot” out loud more times than anything in class), but the vulnerability and soul bearing that I read about doesn’t come as easy.  There is a line between humility and humiliation, and controlling who you are as well as how much people see of you is just a demonstration of your own humanity as baring your own soul.  Scars are what they are for a reason–they remind us of damage and of pain.  And yes, they can remind them of resilience and strength, but it takes a while for some of us with the scars to discover that, and until we own those scars we shouldn’t be told that we have to reveal them to and share them with everyone else.

Where are the other voices?

Back in the spring, my advanced English class was having a discussion about Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” and at one point one of the students leading the discussion asked a question and got a reply of “Oh well, I don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman.”

Now I usually stay back during class discussions because I want to let the students take the lead and see where it goes, but I was struck by the dismissive tone the student in question–a white male, by the way–had used when making the comment and when the group leading the discussion had a hard time coming up with a response, I said, “Well, of course you don’t.  Which is one of the reasons we read writers like Alice Walker.”

The discussion continued from that point and went pretty well, but that comment continued to grate on me, especially a few days later when a similar comment was made while several students in the class went off on a great thread about what it’s like to have parents who were immigrants or who live in a bilingual household.  This time, it was a snarky remark about how “this isn’t my experience,” to which I did my best to be diplomatic by offering up that it wasn’t my experience either (I’m a white kid from the suburbs of Long Island, after all), but I always want to hear these different stories and experiences from different perspectives.  And to the group running the discussion’s credit, they shut him down right away by giving him one of the most epic death stares I’ve ever seen before moving on.  I made a mental note to praise those students later while also making a mental note that the guy making those comments really needed to shut up.

Moments like this are what I think about when I read the latest tweet or post about the importance of student choice in reading and letting them read what they want to read, as well as the vast number of Dead White Male authors I have read and studied in my time.  I touched on why DWMs are a default setting years ago and have also gone on about how it does not begin and end with choice, although I want to expand a little on the latter.

I assign reading.  And I will readily admit this.  Yes, I am working on a way to incorporate more independent reading, perhaps through more informed choice, but I don’t think I will ever not assign reading despite what trend pieces and tweets say.  Why?  Because of what I detailed in the first few paragraphs of this post.  Like I said, I grew up on Long Island and my town was a very white suburb where the biggest problems ever faced were what to do with the kids who liked to drink the woods on a Friday night.  The books I was assigned to read in high school, while very good, had a very common demographic characteristic and the reading that I did own my own rarely strayed from the comics/fantasy/sci-fi realm.  While I did know of the existence of The Color Purple or The Joy Luck Club because they were boxes on the shelves of my local video store, I didn’t read anything by Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or any other non-white authors until they were assigned to me in college.

The reason?  Partly my own immaturity and sheltered view of the world, partly because I had no idea that they were there.  Perhaps I would have found them, but I have to say that maybe I would not have or I would have been dismissive of them the same way that student was if I had not been introduced to them and had gained the willingness to sit back and back and listen to those other voices and perspectives (and even then, Loyola College in Maryland was not a bastion of diversity).  So as an English teacher, I want my students to see, hear, and read the voices that are unlike those around them and try to provide a diversity of race, gender, religion, and sexual identity in the course concept.

Of course, this is not easy and I have not perfected it at all.  I am still having a hard time finding LGBT voices to share in class, and I could stand to just have more volume in that library, which is what I will continue to do as long as I’m an English teacher.

The Accountability Paradox

One of the more frustrating things about being an English is when you assign reading and students don’t read it.  What is even more frustrating is when you assign reading and they don’t read it because you haven’t assigned questions or aren’t giving a quiz.  This has been a problem over the last couple of years in my advanced English classes.  I try to have my students feel like they are not being tracked, nagged, or inundated with pointless busy work; however, instead of an invested group that comes ready to discuss whatever the day’s topic is, I sometimes find myself feeling like I’m being taken advantage of.

On some level, I get it–when everything you have ever read for the past few years as come with an assignment attached to it, it’s hard to adjust to someone who says he wants to spend the period just talking about it; furthermore, with no questions or multiple choice assessment attached, just an analysis paper when all is said and done, there doesn’t seem to be much point to actually doing the reading.  Parents even have a hard time adjusting to this style–I remember a year when one parent complained that I “didn’t have enough grades in the gradebook” and that her daughter said, “All we do in that class is talk.”

And it’s not like I just drop a book on a desk and say, “Read it and come ready to discuss.”  I set the book up with guiding questions and then actually turn most of the discussion days over to students who then run the class as a seminar.  Granted, I set aside at least a day or two so I can run the discussion in order to get to topics that we didn’t get to on the seminar days, but for the most part, the discussion is student-led and student-driven.

On one hand, it makes the class more comfortable because they spend most of the time talking to each other and not me (I literally sit in the back of the room and barely say anything until maybe the last 10 minutes); on the other hand, I often notice that the groups running the seminar wind up feeling as frustrated as I do when they are met with complete silence.  They also worry about their grades, although I do what I can to reassure them that i take into account the class’s lack of participation and look to see how they work around the problem.

So overall, the continuing existential dilemma has presented itself:  grades are not supposed to be punitive, and out of respect for my students, I try not to grade punitively.  I could give a quiz the day the reading is due, which would trap all of the students who didn’t read, but what does that honestly prove?  The paper that’s assigned comes after all of this discussion and it serves a clear, twofold purpose:  I want them to show me how they as individuals can analyze and interpret those works of literature and also want them to have the experience of writing the types of essays and papers that they will continue to write beyond my class, whether it be in AP English or in college.  Our group discussions and seminars should help with that because the guiding questions from the beginning of the unit are the same questions that can be used in discussion are the same or similar questions for the paper.  The grades are more evaluative than punitive and it should show how well students have grasped what we’re doing (if that’s the right verbiage–if not, I’m sure someone can edusplain it to me).  But again, to them, no grade for just doing the reading=no need to read.

Part of teaching literature is to enrich and grow, to take students out of their comfort zones with works they would have never considered and then to explore those works to see what they reveal about human nature or society.  We use literature to explain the whys and hows of the world and to understand that which seems incomprehensible.  However, in order to teach such understandings the literature has to be read.  I want to help my classes reach that point but refuse to lower my standards so that they are rewarded just for doing the bare minimum.

Killing Trees and Pulling Teeth

The other day, as I was making yet another stack of copies of another short story that my sophomores will be reading in a couple of weeks, I had a thought:  why don’t we have copies of a really good anthology of short works geared toward high school students?  Oh sure, there are English textbooks, but those are bulky, bloated, and are geared toward test prep more than toward teaching literature.  What I mean is a “normal-sized” paperback filld with short stories or essays, something similar to the copies of The Best American ____ I used to be issued for various writing classes in college.

Now, I know that’s probably a dumb thing for me to say because there probably is an anthology out there somewhere and I just have to find it; however, that’s easier said than done.  Where I am, time to do anything is virtually non-existent and so is money for the most part.  So even if I did carve out an hour to search for a collection of stories, I probably would wind up buying one copy and then would find myself once again standing in front of a photocopier making a class set of a short story.  In other words, I’d be right where I was a paragraph ago.

I could always ask my students what they would be interested in reading, but I am not sure that they would know very many short works of literature aside from, perhaps, the occasional poem or the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  Furthermore, when I have such conversations about literature with students, the works they bring up are either inappropriate for the class (i.e., too much sex or foul language, even for me) or are below grade level (i.e., the honors student who tried to submit Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as an independent reading novel).  So I wind up searching things out myself and that leads to the same photocopier, which I am sure is tired of me staring at it while begging it not to jam.

I hear and read a lot about getting reluctant readers to read and a lot of the solutions seem to be geared toward younger students or are extrinsically based (you read books?  Here’s pizza!) and I’m skeptical that they would work for high school sophomores who have had several years of not reading.  Furthermore, these students often focus so much on the length of the work of literature and that can add to the reading battle–I’ve actually heard vocal complaining that a five-page short story is “too long.”  Five. Pages.  How do you even respond to that?

Well, with a photocopier.  And a class set.  And the hope that maybe this will be the story that everyone likes and connects to so that for once a discussion about literature isn’t like pulling teeth.

From the Bookshelf: Teenage Wasteland



The cover to “Who’s Next,” the album that contains “Baba O’Reily,” a song that is often mistitled as “Teenage Wasteland” and therefore gives the story its name.

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.


As I sat down to type this post, I took a glance at the italicized intro that I’ve got at the top of the screen there and realized that this entry is a bit of a cheat because it does come from an English textbook.  However, it doesn’t come from the English textbook that my school district purchased for the 10th grade, so it counts as “outside” the textbook.

Anyway, “Teenage Wasteland” is a story written by Anne Tyler in the 1970s that takes place in what I guess you could have referred to as a “normal” suburban community and features what for the time would have been considered an “average, normal family” of two parents and two kids:  Daisy and Matt and their two children, Donny and Amanda, who both attend private school.  Donny is currently in high school and has been getting into trouble as of late, which is the source of an enormous amount of consternation for Daisy, who can’t understand why her son’s grades are slipping and constantly blames herself.  Eventually, in an effort to solve the problem, Daisy hires a tutor named Cal, who doesn’t seem to tutor and instead allows a group of kids to hang out around his house and tries to dictate what the school and Donny’s parents should do and doesn’t seem to be concerned that Donny’s grades slip even further.  Eventually, Donny gets expelled because beer is found in his locker and while Cal tries to get him to fight the system, Daisy decides she’s had enough and puts him in public school.  Soon after, Donny runs away and the story ends with the feeling that the family is broken in some wayer is known for having a realistic approach to the portrayal of a family (I recently read her novel A Spool of Blue Thread, which was very good) and because the plot is easy to follow and the characters are vivid, this story is a good example of how stories can seem simple yet be much more complex or nuanced.  My students find each of the characters easy to identify because they are not an extraordinary family in any way; furthermore, by making them be a middle/upper-middle class suburban family, Tyler avoids any conflict that the parents may have regarding money and allows for the plot detail that Donny has been through more than one private school (which I am sure is a subtle nod to another troubled teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield).

It’s all “ordinary” in the same way that the Judith Guest’s Jarrett Family are the titular Ordinary People, and that was important at the time because there was a sense (and still is) that “these problems” “don’t happen here,” meaning that bad things don’t happen to people in “nice” neighborhoods.  Crime and the crime brought about by certain drugs is the problem for places you’d see on the news and drinking, smoking and pot … well, that’s not a problem, it’s just kids being kids.

So Donny runs away and in order to figure out how and why this happens, my students and I do two things.  First, we do a character analysis of all five of the characters featured in the story–although to be honest, Donny’s sister, Amanda, is mentioned in passing a few times and rarely, if ever, actually appears, but the fact that she’s constantly ignored is important.  I like the idea of a character-driven story and how you can look at the same events through the eyes of four or five different people, and that allows us to gather the information we need to do the second thing, which is figuring out who’s responsible.

Granted, assigning blame isn’t a hard thing for anyone to do in our culture–I think that half of the content on the internet is devoted to blaming someone for something–but there’s assigning blame and there’s determining responsibility and the latter is a much more informed decision.  After the class has described and discussed each of the characters, working through their strengths and weaknesses, I then ask the question: “Who is responsible for Donny’s running away?” Over the course of our discussion see how Donny, both of his parents, Cal, and “the system” are all responsible for what happens to the kid.  Donny never takes responsibility for his own actions, Daisy is wildly inconsistent when it comes to disciplining her son, Matt really does nothing and basically figures his wife is going to take care of it, Cal is manipulative and seems more concerned with himself, and the system itself can be more punitive than it has to be.

This has, in the past, led to conversations about what makes a good parent, what makes a good teacher or principal, and whether or not kids who get in trouble should be punished for what they do.  And to their credit, my students have very often presented a balanced view and are able to discuss when I push back on some of their points.  There’s a lot to glean from Tyler’s story about how characters can be complex as well as how certain problems can be nuanced and have no easy solution.

Tyler’s stories have never been collected in a single volume and like I said, I got this out of a random English textbook in our book room, but I did find a .pdf copy online.  It’s not exactly “legal” but if you’re interested in reading it you, can read it here:  “Teenage Wasteland”

Independence, assignment, and finding the mean

I have my advanced English students fill out a class survey every year.  It’s anonymous, so they don’t have to fear any reprisal for saying negative things (not that there would be reprisal, but let’s be honest about human nature here–if your name is on it, you might not be as honest because you fear getting in trouble), and I ask questions about their favorite assignments, least favorite assignments, favorite works of literature, what they really liked, what I could do better, etc.  It’s been very helpful over the last few years–I’ve gotten suggestions for books, short stories, and essays; I’ve gotten input on how to better the grammar and vocabulary part of the course; I’ve been told I have an attitude problem; and many other good pieces of feedback.

Two years ago, my students overwhelmingly didn’t like or didn’t read All Quiet on the Western Front.  One student, in the survey, went on an epic rant about how we were reading a story written by our enemy in the war and he didn’t see the point of that; another wanted something more recent; and still, another wanted a character that was more relatable.  With the exception of the first, these are all valid arguments, and after some consideration, I dropped it from the course last year in favor of an independent novel.

This didn’t turn out as well as one would think it would.  After all, allowing my students to choose their own books to read is supposed to be the English teacher equivalent of putting Kal-El in the rocket ship on Krypton.  But I discovered quickly that simply saying “Here, it’s your choice” doesn’t automatically make everything better; furthermore, I discovered that I really missed teaching All Quiet on the Western Front.

I have done an entire podcast episode on how great Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is, and the reason that I love teaching it is because it teaches so much about the First World War as well as the psychology of modern warfare.  Paul Baumer’s going off to war as a result of a flurry of pro-war propaganda and then encountering the conditions of the battlefield and the horrors of war as well as the mentality he acquires in order to survive as a soldier (others refer to this as the “thousand-yard stare”) is still so relevant nearly a century after the war and 75 years after its publication.  Plus, discussing the novel in class allows me to bring in examples of other culture and popular culture from the World War I era and provide a history and culture lesson that they might not get in history class because of the “breadth vs. depth” of our state social studies standards.

Of course, I can hear the criticisms as I type–“Why don’t you pick something more relevant to today?”  “Why don’t you pick something that is more recent?”  “Why not read something about the Iraq war because that’s their era?”–and they’re all valid.  Remarque’s novel is German and set a century ago; why not grab something more relevant in order to make their experience more authentic?

Well, I’ll put it this way:  having my students read about something that’s going on right now doesn’t broaden their minds.  I could very well pick something writing by an American soldier and about an American war; however, while that would help them emphasize with an American soldier, it would perpetuate this selfish notion that we have in our culture that things only happen to us and not the rest of the world.  One of the more important concepts for me to teach in my English class is that of universality; specifically, a universal theme.  Handing students All Quiet on the Western Front helps accomplish that because so much of what Paul goes through in that novel has happened to many soldiers in many wars in many countries.  My colleague teaches The Things They Carried in 11th grade AP English and whenever I reread that book (a personal favorite) I see so much of Remarque’s influence.  All Quiet on the Western Front is The Catcher in the Rye of war novels–you can trace just about every modern-day novel, movie, or television show about a soldier’s experience in a war back to Remarque.  So why wouldn’t we explore the archetype?

I’m putting the novel back in this year.  I’m not getting rid of the independent novel, though–there’s still value in that.  But somewhere between a free-for-all and being in lockstep is a mean where both my students and I are contributing to their enrichment.  School never killed my love of reading (as so many others claim it does) because I had a lot of respect for my teachers and wanted to explore what they thought was important when it came to literature.  There were times where I wholeheartedly agreed with them (Fahrenheit 451, which I read in English class, remains one of my all-time favorite books); and there were times I flat-out disagreed (Ethan Frome?  Gag).  But not having a teacher to hand me those books would mean that I would have never sought them out and would have continued on a steady diet of junk food and popcorn reading that, while fun, needs something more nutritious to go along with it.