What Did You Read in High School?

usfpoeI had to stop myself from pressing “Post” last night on my Facebook status. It was 1 in the morning and for some reason I was recalling the memory of my high school English class. This was ninth grade, before I switched to the collegiate high school where I was granted a considerably greater amount of freedom regarding what I could read for school credit. Anyway, in ninth grade, my teacher stood in front of the class and explained to us what her curriculum was like. This was not only an honors class, but was in fact a “gifted” class, filled with those of us who had been part of the gifted program for seven or eight years.

Our teacher informed us that she would not be assigning any books or novels for us to read in her class because she wanted us to “spend more time with our families” (way to go, Florida educational system). She had no real reason to teach us anything, seeing as how we were guaranteed to do well on standardized tests with little effort. In fact, looking back I’m actually appalled at the instances in which my “gifted” class was assigned to an utterly incompetent, uninteresting teacher, based upon the fact that she or he would be less likely to suffer from a class that tested poorly.

All of the above is besides the point, though I thought I would articulate my freshman year experience more fully for added effect, I suppose. Most of the other 9th grade classes were reading Romeo and Juliet or To Kill a Mockingbird (the other classes also got to make a Romeo and Juliet “movie” as an assignment, and I was so jealous that I made my own with a few friends, even though my work wasn’t going to be graded. My friends didn’t know this at the time…). It seems like Shakespeare and Harper Lee are staples of high school reading lists, commonly found in the “Back to School!” section of Barnes and Noble Booksellers every summer and fall.

The problem with high school literature classes, I would argue, is the total lack of variety in the books chosen. I wish that someone (well, someone with a PhD in Education) would conduct a study about the books most often read in high school. The only statistics I could pull up were dated 1989—the year before my parents married and three years before I was born. However, has the “English class landscape” really changed that much?

Every book listed, save for Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, was written by a white man. I know that The Diary of Anne Frank is a popular choice for English classes, though apart from that, I can’t really think of any major required-reading books that delineate from a white male perspective. Of course, this discrepancy might just be the result of hundred of years of structural oppression, in which people of color and women were not afforded the privilege of literacy. Thinking about things like this makes me incredibly sad, as I consider all of the people throughout history who had stories to tell but could never express them in writing.

When I went to Barnes & Noble a few days ago, I saw a “Summer Reads” table. The table actually featured some Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Julia Alvarez. However, although these are books often read by high schoolers (well, the ones who aren’t caught up in Twilight), are these actually the sort of books that are assigned in school? Even looking back at my tenth grade year, we read three books—Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and (of course) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. All of the aforementioned books are from a white perspective, and two are from male perspectives. Maybe I’m making a big fuss about nothing, but I think that high school English classes would seriously benefit from more variety and a greater appreciation of international literature.

I don’t have any professional background in education, but as someone who graduated from high school three years ago, I think I can vouch for the importance having a varied perspective is when you’re an adolescent. Sure, reading Catcher in the Rye appeals to almost every white, angsty 15-year-old boy ever (the same could be said for Hamlet), but what about providing students with greater cultural awareness? The weird thing is that I remember my elementary and middle school Literature books as having more variety than the whole of New York City. Every other passage came from the perspective of someone who was non-white, disabled, etc. Unfortunately, these stories were quite short, watered down, and often forgettable. I wish that high school students had the opportunity to study novel-length works of fiction and poetry from non-white and female authors (do people even read Jane Austen in high school as part of a curriculum?).

I’m sorry my posts have been infrequent. I’ve been doing a lot of reflection about the purpose of my blog and where I want it to go. I was going to participate in the Pintester’s challenge (which seemed awesome!), but it’s more important for me to dedicate time to publishing posts that have been stewing around in my mind for a while (read: I was lazy this week).

I’m also thinking about taking on staff writing assignments for other blogs. My job hunt has been rough, and I recently received some inconvenient news that is going to make my job prospects even more grim.

Sorry, I digress. What did you read in high school, and do you think that your teachers assigned enough novels by people of color and women? Did you go to a public/private/charter school? Am I just being unnecessarily PC about all of this, as a non-educator myself?

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5 thoughts on “What Did You Read in High School?

  1. UGH THAT TEACHER SOUNDS HORRIBLE. D:

    We were required some Shakespeare plays, and in elementary, I read something called “Out of the Dust” by Karen Hesse and “The Velveteen Rabbit.” In sophomore year, I think, we were required to read “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, and a bunch of Filipino novels all throughout high school.

    • I actually do recall we watched the *movie* version of Romeo and Juliet in her class. During the nude scene she threw herself over top of the television so the room of 14/15 year-olds couldn’t see. What a bizarre lady.

      Things Fall Apart has been on my to-read list for ages! Sadly, my Amazon wishlist is like 300 items long and I’m currently stuck in a Haruki Murakami obsession…

  2. I really love your blog! Did you make that header image yourself (the “discharmed” one with the dog and the lady on a horse)?

    Anyway.. I agree that high school literature needs variety, notably non-white-male literature. But I have a feeling that the situation in the US and Europe is, in general, much better than the rest of the world. In Indonesia, where I come from, students are neither required nor encouraged to read Indonesian literature—let alone English. (Not in my school, anyway.) I didn’t read any of Shakespeare’s works until after I graduated high school.

    I’m also very concerned about education, especially in my country. Like Ken Robinson, I also believe firmly in the arts. (I highly recommend his TED Talks if you haven’t seen them. He strongly opposes the use of standardized tests.) I believe students should read more, because literature—and the arts—can teach us so much.

    Because I never read anything in high school, now I have a LOT of catching up to do.

    • Indeed I did make the header, thanks! The image is an old wood carving (public domain) but I slapped the text over top of it. I need to just bite the bullet and buy a domain so that I can customize the header more (can you believe my current header is the maximum size allotted for this layout?!).

      Wow, I can’t believe your school was so literature-unfriendly! The tragedy is that I know there’s loads of non-Western literature out there that American students (and, it seems, even the students of the cultures in question!) aren’t exposed to.

      I’m very much against standardized tests as well, so thanks for the TED recommendation! The US school system relies so heavily on tests to put certain students on “tracks” wherein students who struggle are essentially pushed through a system that becomes increasingly difficult to break free from, while high-achieving students lack challenge and creative outlets (such as art and writing).

      My home state of Florida recently passed legislation to eliminate “difficult” classes (Algebra II, Physics, and Chemistry) from graduation requirements and instead are allowing students to complete vocational programs for graduation credits. While I understand the importance of learning a skill or trade, the soaring popularity of healthcare, education, and technology jobs in America makes it so that students with vocational training might find their skills outdated in a few years and will end up having to return to school and take the aforementioned advanced classes *anyway.* Ugh, I have so much frustration about this!

      • I’m sure you’ll love all of Robinson’s talks then: 1, 2, 3, 4. They’re very funny and informative, and if all educators across the world would watch them, we would be in for some serious revolution. He also says, more or less, that the jobs our children would be doing in the future would be so different from what we know now.

        I really do understand your frustration. In Indonesia, the new curriculum will eliminate English altogether, which means that students will have to rely on private tutors and courses to keep up with the global language. Recently we just had national examinations, where teachers and school boards—in fear that they might lose their jobs if students fail—handed out copies of answers to the exams! Does this sound familiar? In the US I believe educators also have a quota to fulfill, or something like that. Talk number 2 addresses this issue somewhat at length.

        I’ve also written a bit on his inspirational book, “The Element”, here, if you’re interested.

        Enjoy the TED Talks! I sure did. 🙂

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