Required Reading

Quick question: what texts (novels, short stories, poems, whatever) do you think high school students should graduate having read? If YOU could set the canon, what would you include?

I’m writing a syllaubs for a senior class (that I may get to teach this coming term!) and I’m trying to settle on what I’m going to have the kids work with for their last high school English class.

Thanks, Everyone!



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22 responses to “Required Reading

  1. These are my gut responses, and they’re fairly “traditional” I suppose… with more time, I would come up with some more “off the beaten path” ideas. But here’s my initial reaction:

    King Lear (a must!)
    To Kill a Mockingbird (another must – and one you already have)
    Winesburg, Ohio
    Main Street
    A Doll’s House
    The Color Purple
    Civil Disobedience
    Some Emily Dickinson
    Some Virginia Woolf
    Some Edith Wharton
    The House on Mango Street
    Lord of the Flies (which I hate)
    Some Faulkner
    Perhaps some Flannery O’Connor

    So many books, so little time…

    • Mamie, tell me why, if you hate it, you put Lord of the Flies on there?

      Here’s the thing that I wonder; why do we continue to subject our youth to the very things that we dreaded as students? Is there other work that we can have them do that teaches them the same sorts of lessons that the pieces we “hate” do? Just because something’s old, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily valuable; how can we do all the things that reading does – creating community and shared experience, generating critical questioning and thinking, providing framework for future experiences – without making students suffer through the same torture we endured as kids?

  2. Oh, my! You’ve put me on the spot… I think I hate it more from having a painful experience teaching it in my very first year (to 7th and 8th graders, a bit too young, in my opinion). I did not choose the text for that class, and they were really struggling with it when I came on the scene. I then tutored a student through it a couple of years later, which was also rough.

    My own experiences with the book (10th grade or so) were more positive, from a literary standpoint. There are some many themes in the novel that work themselves into other media… many text-to-text, and quite a few text-to-world connections to be made there.

    Mr. Mamie did not have anywhere near the quality of education that I did, and while that doesn’t have any affect on our relationship, we do notice and comment on references that I “get” and he doesn’t becasue of his “literary deprivation.” Not too long ago we were watching some movie or other, and a scene in it was strongly evocative of the incident in Lord of the Flies when Piggy’s glasses are deliberately destroyed (boatloads of symbolism, and ramifications for the rest of the narrative). Very powerful. It’s interesting how those connections come up, and the depth that is given to the current/new media when the relationship to other texts (using the term loosely) is recognized.

    Another example, with this particular book: Remember a couple of years ago, there was a reality show on TV called “Kid Nation” – NOT that I actually watched it! However, from what I saw via commercials and other media, the premise just reeked of Lord of the Flies!

    I do agree with you in the feeling that it’s just dreadful to “have” to teach something that we hated ourselves as learners. There is no joy in that experience! I was just doing some reading on a concept called the “artistic modification menu” [Renzulli, 1988] which is part of a larger schema for curriculum in gifted education. In this aspect of the model much attention is given to the concept of “proper mediation” of a given curriculum/lesson so that “the teacher is able to personalize and interpret curricular material in such a way that he or she brings life and meaning to the content.” For ANY content that we teach, I do think that we need the intimate connection with – the LOVE for – the material in order to truly and deeply engage our students.

    So, teaching a book one hates would seem to be a non-starter. But, if I read Lord of the Flies NOW, would I have a different reaction? Would my desire to find a way (using this text) to bring forth those connections be enough to ensure “proper mediation?” Would I feel that my STUDENTS could connect to the text?

    The wonderful thing about being in control of your own syllabus is that YOU get to choose what texts you’ll use to illustrate the concepts and connections you seek to emphasize. With so much fantastic literature/media available to us, WHY should we stick with the “same old?”

    Point taken! 🙂

  3. Sorry to put you on the spot, Mamie, but you rallied BEAUTIFULLY!

    I ABSOLUTELY agree with you on the “shared experience” thing. The references that I’m able to glean (from t.v., movies, songs, you name it) because of my reading/literary practice make my life, and my experience of those secondary things, SO much richer. I often feel bad for my students because they DON’T see those references (and I know there are a TON of things with connections to classical literature and mythology that go right by me). For me, that’s the whole point of the work that I do. Take this, read it, think about it, then bring it out with you into the world.

    I once answered an essay question – for a Teaching Secondary School English class – which asked why we teach so much Shakespeare. The teacher was of the opinion that we teach TOO much Shakespeare; that we teach it to the exclusion of any number of other writers of the time. I argued in favor of the Bard, and if I recall correctly, my main argument was his accessibility. WE learned it in school, I argued, so that makes us far more able to TEACH it as educators.

    I have to be careful of that kind of answer, though; just because something worked for me, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for someone else (or anyone else, for that matter). I think the point you make here, Mamie – that we have to engage with texts that we can extract joy from (and I contend that “joy” can be derived from texts that drive us absolutely bat-shit insane, as well – is exactly right. Unless we ourselves – the teachers – can fully and energetically engage with a text, we’re never going to be able to impart that kind of enthusiasm to our students. It’s not really about WHAT we read, I think; it’s more about HOW we read, and what we come away with when we put the books down…

  4. “It’s not really about WHAT we read, I think; it’s more about HOW we read, and what we come away with when we put the books down…”

    I ADORE this statement! Going to steal it for use in my university class tomorrow night. The current readings are somewhat dry – research studies and the like. I know my students are suffering, and not feeling hugely engaged. I actually dropped a couple of chapters off the week’s assignment, in the hope that the would have more energy to engage in the remaining readings. I know they are frustrated by the theoretical, and want/need desperately to have me hand them something they can do in their classrooms the next day, versus some idealized theory that doesn’t “fit” their exact situation. However, this IS a graduate-level social science course, and we do occasionally have delve into research/theory. The question becomes, what can we DO with it? HOW to we interpret the information in a personal context?

    It is often said that the “highest” form of learning occurs in the application of knowledge/transfer across domains – B. Bloom: application level of the taxonomy; W. James: “knowledge how” from his three levels of knowing. So what we “come away with,” and what we DO with it, I would say, can most certainly be said to be more important than the literal text.

    Ah, Chili, you brightened my day with this exchange!

  5. What I love about LOTF is the discussions we have about human nature; the text is also an awesome one for discussion of symbolism. I read the book with my 10th graders, but I think reading it with seniors could be an even richer experience.

    I agree with Mamie on TKAM and Thoreau. I also think Hamlet is an amazing work for discussion. Huck Finn is on there, for sure.

  6. What I think are musts? I agree with several of those already posted (King Lear, To Kill A Mockingbird). Brave New World popped into my head, immediately. Which then leads to the Sci/Fi trail: Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Frankenstein, etc.

    Then, I let my mind wander to the books that I was so happy to get to read in school because they weren’t tedious, and I did not loathe every minute: The Hobbit, The Once and Future King.

    Finally, there are the ones that I see NOW on school reading tables at the book store that really excite me: Uglies, Ender’s Game, Watership Down, The Giver. I would have loved these in school.

    They teach a class at the local U. here on novels for young adult readers. It’s for people going to teach high school to have a chance to read and discuss many of the novels they may not have experienced during their own education. I think it would be fun to take it.

  7. See, Mamie? THIS is why I blog! I love – LOVE, I tell you! – this kind of interaction. I NEED voices from outside my own head, my own experiences, so I don’t end up doing the same (safe) things over and over…

    Dancing, I keep gravitating toward Hamlet because I have it knocked. I KNOW this play, and I feel absolutely confident teaching it. King Lear? I don’t know that one so well… perhaps I should.

    Seester, is there any way you could get your hands on that syllabus for me? When I asked Mr. Chili this question, the first book he mentioned was 1984 (and you KNOW I’m going to teach Frankenstein!!!). I don’t want to root my classes too deep in the “old stuff,” though; I think there is a lot of modern literature that is really, really valuable, and you’re kind of my go-to gal for that kind of thing (you and WordLily…)

    Should I get more specific and ask WHERE in the four-year span you would put these books? While this post was inspired by my having to come up with a syllabus for a senior class right quick (there’s a good chance I’ll be given the class to teach starting in February) the fact of the matter is that I’ve been tasked to rewrite the entire CHS English curriculum, so I’ll take all the help, suggestions, and advice I can get. Keep it coming!

  8. I don’t really need to tell you what I’d recommend, do I?


  9. Driving home, I was thinking: Orwell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ursula K. LeGuin, the Giver trilogy, Bonfire of the Vanities, Gretel Ehrlich, Blake’s poetry, Canterbury Tales and Paradise Lost as foundational texts…. so, so many possibilities!

    Here’s a thought, Chili: Have you considered formulating the class structure into book group/workshop model, where the whole class ISN’T reading the same text, but rather, reading within the same THEME (eg., conflict, futurism, character transformation, personal narrative, yadda yadda…). Depending on the number of students, you might have 3 – 5 different texts going on, with groups of five or so students reading each text. The class discussions center on the THEME, with opportunities for students to “jigsaw” and share specifics of their selected text. This format allows you differentiate for interest/learning style, reading level, etc. It also allows you maintain your standards while differentiating content/process/product for students’ varying learning needs. You already use film very effectively to illustrate certain concepts/themes – you could make the showing of a film the “common experience” which culminates a particular theme’s study.

    We can chat more about this if you like – it’s how I make my living in academia, after all!

  10. No, Falcon, you don’t. I’ve met you, remember? (smooch!)

    Yes, please, Mamie; tell me more!

    I’ve tried – ENTIRELY unsuccessfully – to run a class where students are reading different texts. My biggest concern is that the kids I’m working with aren’t quite there yet, and that I’d need to have a pretty intimate understanding of ALL their texts to make sure that they’re headed in the right directions. I’m still fascinated by the idea, though, despite my failure to make it work in the past. Would you be willing to help me put together a unit that does this?

    • Chili, I’d be all over helping put together a unit using multiple texts.

      I’ll email you with some documents on differentiation, and a few other things – in a couple days; I’ve got to prep for my class tomorrow night.

      Meantime, any themes/genres/structures you’re considering?

  11. Ellison’s The Invisible Man; it is complex in that it explores the inter-dynamics of black culture and the experiences via first person narrative. In terms of style, nice piece to compare to Faulkner and Wright.

  12. The Hobbit is suitable for freshmen, so are Uglies, Ender’s Game, and The Giver. I would put Watership Down in the middle 10/11 grades, then 1984, Frank, in the Senior Years. Spread out the dystopias because no one wants to spend an entire year reading those. That’s just me. If I were a 9th grader, I’d wish to read something happy like the Hobbit after a downer to perk me up.

    I will see if I can scrape up that syllabus for you. I think I know one of the people who has taught it.

  13. I have not heard back, but here’s a webpage another friend pointed me to that has tons of reference materials in YA lit:

    I hope it is helpful.

  14. Seester, this site is AWESOME! Thank you!

    I had a meeting with my director last night (over pound cake slathered in Nutella; I love her!) and we decided that the Language Arts classes (the core English classes, not the genre-specific electives) will be centered around the school-wide theme. Every year, the school chooses a theme that we try to focus on as we plan our lessons (this year’s is tolerance. I can TOTALLY work with that!). Next year, the director wants to make Alice in Wonderland a primary focus of the theatre arts program, so we agreed on a theme of “coming of age/self-identity.” There are a TON of things I can work into my LA curriculum with that theme, and now that I’ve got a starting point, I’m eager to put it all together.

    I’m continuing the call for suggestions, advice, and recommendations. Keep ’em coming!

  15. Awesome theme! What fun to get to plan such a comprehensive experience!

  16. Some things that I would add that are on our seniors’ list (and that haven’t been mentioned)…
    Kite Runner
    I agree with a lot of the texts listed and then would also add
    Joy Luck Club
    The Things They Carried
    The Book Thief
    House on Mango Street
    Fallen Angels
    Sunrise Over Fallujah

  17. Pingback: I LOVE My Readers! « A Teacher’s Education

  18. I think that you aren’t going to please all of the people all of the time. For instance if I’d been assigned a Tolkien as a teen (or now) it would have been torture, whereas As I Lay Dying changed my whole literary life. I would recommend As I Lay Dying unequivocally for any HS age.

    I really like Midwest Teacher’s list because it represents books of many cultures. The Bluest Eye is another really lovely one and is appropriate to teens. Toni Morrison is such a gift to read but the subject matter in the longer works is raw and you might need permission slips.

    I read Macbeth in HS rather than Hamlet or Lear. I’d be interested to hear why people chose Lear over others. Hamlet is the longest Shakespeare work, I’m not sure why it’s the most used. Macbeth has just as many universal themes and timely lessons and gory deaths and he dispatches them in a much more efficient manner. Plus it’s super fun to perform.

    I read Lord of the Flies as an adult of my own volition. It’s one of the many (MANY) books that “everyone has read” that my public school did not bother to run by me. I often feel wildly out of place in literary discussion because of big holes that left. After college I started to try and fill them in but you can only do so much.

    We also read Dickens when I was in HS. He’s good. I love Tale of Two Cities.

  19. An important barometer for me is books that I carry around – happily – in my head, 30 years after graduation.

    That list starts with anything by Flannery O’Connor. Slaughterhouse Five and Catch-22 come next. And Leon Uris’ books, particularly Trinity, were excellent but don’t seem to make many course lists any more. From the earlier years in high school, anything by Steinbeck, The Hobbit, Animal Farm, and 1984.

    Lastly, the “featured guide” on our site today happens to be about High School Literature, which may offer some excellent teaching resources for you as you complete your syllabus.

    • Mark, this is a WONDERFUL site! HOW did I not know about it until now?!

      I think I’ve settled on the books I’m going to read with my students this term. I’m arranging my class according to theme focused around the observances we make for the next 5 months: February is Black History Month (our novel will be The Autobiography of Malcolm X, unless Carson tells me to read Native Son instead); March is Women’s History Month (I’m planning on anchoring that unit with A Thousand Splendid Suns, but The Handmaid’s Tale is also up for consideration); April is the month in which we recognize Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day – I’m turning that into Genocide Awareness Month and reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee with my kids. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and our focus novel will be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Finally, June is Gay Pride Month; we’ll honor that by reading Bow Grip as our central novel. I’ll fill in the rest of the units with lots of poetry, short stories, and primary source documents. I’ll do my best to chronicle the happenings here; I think this is a semester I’m going to want to refer back to as I continue my teaching practice.

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