I 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?