Two Important Questions

Two questions have been posted here this week that need some attention.

The first came from “Teacher in Need”: “While I am not sure if this is the correct means of communication, I am going to try this avenue. I was trying to find a way to allow my ninth grade students to communicate with you as they are reading your novel in class this semester. Is this idea possible? Is this the correct place for them to try? Any answers or suggestions would be appreciated. We have been reading your novel in my classes for the past six years, and I want to try something new with my students. Communicating with you would be a fantastic experience for them!

Thank you so much asking this, and for doing it in a way that allows me to share my policy with everyone else out there. I would love to communicate with your students. I understand how that enriches the experience for them. It enriches my experience, too!

But I have to be a realist. (My family and my editors are demanding this on a daily basis now.) There are a whole lot of ninth grade students reading SPEAK out there. There is one of me. And I am facing another year of ridiculous deadlines and a boat-load of promotional obligations and travel. I already spend 10-30 hours a week on non-writing tasks that have direct connections to my work, like responding to student questions. I am trying to cut back on this because I feel my primary responsibility is to write books.

I have tried to put my responses to common questions about the book in easily accessible places. Please grab a copy of the reissue of the paperback (Platinum edition) – there is a long interview in the back, and a note from me about censorship efforts. Have your students go through the SPEAK pages of my website. (I will try to get the SPEAK FAQ pulled together by the fall.) Combing through the archives of this journal will yield lots of info, too.

If, after searching all of these places, your students have a question for which they cannot find the answer, then ask them to post it here to my LJ and I’ll be happy to respond. I hope that will work for everyone.

The second question was posed by Dorian, who heard me speak at Cornell last week. He disagreed (politely) with my statement that teaching the Classics to many high school students is a waste of time, and further, it is detrimental to literacy efforts. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, so I’m posting my thoughts here.

First, I have nothing against the Classics. Some of them I like, some of them I don’t like. (OK, some of them I loathe, I admit it.) And I think it is important for high schools students to acquire at least a passing acquaintance with them, in order to have a solid foundation of literature.

My opinion that the Classics are a waste of time for most students comes from hearing that statement from countless thousands of students themselves. I know some kids, like Dorian, like them. Huzzah! That rocks. Kids like that, I don’t worry about. Clearly, they have the reading and analytical skills we wish that all students had. I am worried about the other 80-90%.

Here’s the thing: many of the Classics were written more than one hundred years ago. All of the Classics were written for adults. Many high school students struggle with both of these aspects. They find themselves fighting through dense text trying to understand situations and worlds that they have little or no connection to. Is it any wonder that so many of them graduate saying that they hate reading?

They loved reading at the end of 6th grade. We do a terrific job in America sparking the enthusiasm of kids for books – fiction and non-fiction. We hand them books that are appropriate for their age and reading level, and that have stories that connect to them. Then they get to the secondary level, and many of them start hating books, largely because the books have no meaning for them, or are beyond their ability. Yes, there are some incredibly gifted, passionate teachers out there who manage to teach the Classics well, despite the long odds against them. But their numbers dwindle as the amount of time they are forced to dedicate to the preparation for standardized tests increases.

Is the goal to graduate students with an understanding of the Classics? In an ideal world, yes.

The real goal is to graduate students who understand how to read. Without that foundation, everything else is wasted.

How does this play out in the real world? In the US, 40 million adults are functionally illiterate. A study of the American Academy of Family Physicians Patient Education Handouts found that 76% were written at a 9th grade level or higher. Over 300 studies have reported that most printed patient materials are written at a reading level that is too high.

Read this from a report of the National Institute of Literacy: “The ability to read and understand complicated information is important to success in college and, increasingly, in the workplace. An analysis of the NAEP long-term trend reading assessments reveals that only half of all White 17 year olds, less than one-quarter of Latino 17 year olds, and less than one-fifth of African American 17 year olds can read at this level.

By age 17, only about 1 in 17 seventeen year olds can read and gain information from specialized text, for example the science section in the local newspaper. This includes:

1 in 12 White 17 year olds,
1 in 50 Latino 17 year olds, and
1 in 100 African American 17 year olds.”

I wish we had all of our 17 year olds to the point where we could have them enjoy Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Thoreau, and, yes, Hawthorne. But to get them to that point, THEY MUST LEARN HOW TO READ. Their chances of developing into literate adults are greatly enhanced if we hand them books that are interesting, engaging, and written in the vernacular. Most of the Classics do not fit that definition.

What do you think?

33 Replies to “Two Important Questions”

  1. I think if we started from day one with the classics, we wouldn’t have this problem. I may have a different definition of classic, though. There are tons of classics in children’s lit- Beatrix Potter, Burgess, Lang’s fairy tales, Mother Goose, ect… There are classics from every culture, and every age- even today.

    I know that’s idealistic, and not going to happen for most kids today. I think we’re looking at a bleak future if our kids aren’t getting the classical education that the leaders of history have always had.

      1. Well, like you said, only 10-20 percent of highschool students have analytical skills we wish they all had. Are they going to be effective leaders without those kinds of skills and without a grasp of what the classics teach us- who we are and how we got where we are today?

        Children used to be taught to read from the bible. Compare that rich literary quality with what kids are learning on now. I’m not saying every first grade teachers needs to break out the old testament. Just pointing out how schools and our society have continually been dumbed down. We end up with a country of followers. Perhaps I shouldn’t say the future will be bleak with out an education of the classics, but we’re already there.

        1. You might be interested in doing a little research into the history of education in the US. I’ve been reading up about it and it is fascinating.

          You don’t think there is a rich literary tradition in schools today? What books are you objecting to?

          As far as I can tell, elementary school educators have done a fine job combining old favorite texts – some of which you cited – with new books. I think that approach of offering the best that every generation has to offer is why our literacy rates at younger levels are as strong as they are. I wish we could see more of that in upper grade levels. (Some teachers and schools are doing this, BTW. It’s not a completely depressing situation.)

          As far as I know, it’s been more than four generations since public schools stopped teaching reading from the Bible. So we can’t blame our literacy woes of today on that shift.

          I don’t agree that we’ve been dumbed down. If anything, needs and standards are moving higher. We just need to find the best way to reach them so that all Americans can read, write and contribute.

          1. I didn’t think this was going to turn into a debate. I’m actually surprised to be having this exchange with you. I’m a huge fan. Speak is one of my favorite books- a classic, if you ask me. In replying to your post, I just wanted to suggest a remedy for the problems you sited. I’m surprised you even took the time to reply.

            First off- I don’t fault teachers for what I believe to be the dumbing down of America. I applaud teachers- they have a tremendous job, as today they are expected to do triple duty- teach, parent and police. So please, don’t think I’m criticizing teachers.

            I can’t say I object to any certain book, but I know personally, looking back, I don’t feel like I got a very good education. I was not exposed to those classics I sited and most people I know weren’t either. Very little time was spent on literature- on anything classic- history, science, ect…

            I agree it’s not a completely depressing situation. I’m speaking in generalities.

            Let me just say, there is a saying I love- Entertainment and indulgance are the enemies of education. The teacher teaches, the student educates. Children come to us curious and ready to learn. We are trying to spoon feed knowledge into our students, but education isn’t a passive process. No wonder they are ambushed by the classics. If they get to highschool hating learning, something has gone wrong. If highschoolers used to be able to handle the “classics,” why aren’t they now, if needs and standards are moving higher? Why are they coming to highschool unprepared? Generations throughout history were educated on the classics. Why not now? They should be able to.

            Which leads me to another thought, and perhaps you’re right after all. A friend and I were talking about this not long ago, and she suggested that maybe we expect too much out of public education. It used to be, not everyone went to highschool and studied the classics. Maybe we’re kidding ourselves in wanting Americans by and large to be educated literate people. Maybe shooting for literate enough to read the menu at McD’s is as good as we’re gonna get.

            How do you do the quote thingy? You said, “As far as I know, it’s been more than four generations since public schools stopped teaching reading from the Bible.”

            Sure. I said continually dumbing us down, not over night. Consider that even though schools stopped using the bible, families continued to read it together at home, children being exposed to the rich language from a young age. Also, the King James version was used, a richer literary quality than other versions used today.

            Thanks for taking the time to respond to me. Wow, I rubbed elbows with Laurie Halse Anderson! Well, virtually.

          2. If highschoolers used to be able to handle the “classics,” why aren’t they now, if needs and standards are moving higher? Why are they coming to highschool unprepared?

            I wonder if this is, to some extent, due to a lack of patience in modern times? Are the classics more difficult for today’s students to digest because today’s students generally have shorter attention spans?

            I remember reading The Canterbury Tales in old English in the 11th grade–and feeling frustrated at the time it took to wade through the very different language. I always loved literature, so I would imagine that those who are/were more easily put off would have thrown in the towel quickly. I was certainly tempted at times.

            There is a certain amount of time investment and concentration required to read and digest and interpret Shakespeare and Homer and Melville and Faulkner.

            Thoughts?

          3. I think that could have a lot to do with it. Instant gratification, right? My husband just sent me an article about kids watching too much TV today. That’s one thing we’ve done in our home- got rid of the TV, do more reading, playing, talking.

            I am trying to wade through shakespeare myself- whew!

            I think if we were exposed to the language from an early age, it wouldn’t seem so much like a, well, foriegn language.

          4. just curious which authors you’ve been reading pertaining to the history of american education. i started reading the work of John Taylor Gatto and was definitely affected by it. if you havent read his work, i recommend it.

  2. i think i could not agree with you more if we were actually the same person.

    this very issue has always been one of my biggest problems with the american educational system. i learned to read when i was 2. i read consistantly at a 6+th grade level from the time i entered elementary school. i won the reading contest at the library so many times they actually disqualified me from winning the grand prizes. throughout my entire school career there was no doubt in my mind that when i went to college i would be getting my degree in English.

    and then i hit high school…and my entire world fell to pieces. i was given book after book to read that, at best, bored me to tears and at worst ended up hurled with exceptional force through my open window to land in my front yard (incidentally, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Wuthering Heights made excellent compost). i started frantically looking around for anything…anything that i could read and maybe write book reviews on, and found nothing. the best i could do was bruce coville. and even if i was fortunate enough to be given a good book, the teacher would inevitably work it to death to the point where i no longer derived any pleasure from it. i can’t tell you how many times i sat in class on the verge of an adolescent breakdown thinking “it’s EDGAR farking ALLEN POE…he wrote it that way because he THOUGHT IT WAS COOL!!!!”

    i started just not reading books. i would completely ignore assigments, and my grades dropped from straight As to just barely scraping by Bs. i never recovered. i started college as an English major and quit in the middle of my sophomore year when i realized that i had still not enjoyed a single thing i’d read in any of my lit classes.

    the worst part of it for me, especially when i reached college, was how the professors would insinuate that i was somehow lacking in taste or culture for not appreciating Melville, Hawthorne, Salinger, Joyce and Bronte. over and over i was told that i had to read these books because they were ‘classics’ and i just got more and more bitter thinking “justify it! justify to me that these books still hold as much relevance as they did when they were written. tell me these books are still relevant today and i’ll tell you Holden is a lazy emo whiner.”

    i eventually found other authors that rekindled my love of the printed page. i found Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. I found Neil Gaiman and Tom Robbins and Paulo Cohelo and Daniel Quinn and Derrick Jensen. i found comic books and webcomics and online blogs that had more to say (and said them better) than any of the “classics” that had been forced down my throat for the last ten years.

    i’ve never gotten my groove back. i now have to sit down and actually force myself to begin a book, even one by an author i know i’ll like. i feel sometimes like a trauma victim facing the thing that traumatized me…trying to overcome the psychological obstacles that can allow me to move on.

    …maybe if i had stayed an english major i would have learned how to write a proper conclusion. as it stands, i agree that the system is broken, and only gets worse year after year. we need to do something drastically differently if we want offline communication to survive at all in the next century.

    1. first of all, heck yes to tom robbins! man, can that guy write LONG sentences.

      perhaps some teachers teach the classics because it was what they had shoved down their throats, because it is what they can find the most resources and pre-made lesson plans for.

      it takes WORK to find a genuinely good novel (especially if you are a teacher that doesn’t like to read. i shudder at the thought myself, but i have met them.), prepare enriching activities for a class, reflect on the book yourself, etc. not to mention gaining the approval of a department, superintendents, administrators, principals, parents… perhaps nobody wants to put forth the effort.

  3. I agree

    I agree with your post. I just graduated high school and after 4 years of taking AP English classes, I can honestly say that there was not one book that I really enjoyed. Most of the kids in my AP classes didn’t have any problem with reading and analytical skills, but when forced to read these supposedly “enlightening” classics that are supossedly some of the best in literature to date, we hated it. Almost every single book seemed dead to me. I did not take away anything from it, and therefore I deemed it a waste of my time. Am I wrong to say that I think the writing style in books like yours is more interesting than Hawthorne’s? I don’t think so, and I think it’s completely outdated that schools still force students to study only the “classics” when there is so much good, god-forbid MODERN literature out there that students could actually relate to and have a discussion about, instead of staring blankly at a teacher every day as the drool slides down their chins.

    ~Anna

  4. Question

    Will you ever write more books like Catalyst, or Fever, or my favorite Speak? Do you like love books? Do you think you will ever write one?SpeakWill you ever write more books like Catalyst, or Fever, or my favorite Speak? Do you like love books? Do you think you will ever write one?Speak

  5. I agree with you: teaching the Classics is a big waste of time.

    I am a former 11th grade English teacher. I taught ‘regents’ level, which meant I had a range of different abilities in my classes. Every year, I trudged through The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, Huck Finn and others. While these books have great themes, kids don’t read them because they cannot relate to them. The only book my students read consistently year after year was Catcher in the Rye. They loved that book! The kids who would tell me that reading was ‘stupid’ could relate to Holden Caufield–for they, too, were caught between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. During the last year I taught English, I petitioned my department head to change the books we taught. I wanted to make them contemporary; something kids would read and care about. I was shot down. However, another teacher petitioned to have Catcher in the Rye removed from the curriculum because she thought it was “immature”. She almost got her way.

    Let’s teach kids to like reading. Let’s not push stuff down their throats that they won’t read and make them resent English class.

    I moved on. I’m now a school media specialist at another high school and I LOVE IT! I have been encouraging my students to read the wonderful array of contemporary YA fiction. The English teachers at this school are beginning to trust me and my judgment.

    BTW, I did get Speak added to the summer reading list of both schools for ninth grade. The kids love it.

  6. Those numbers are shocking!

    Yes, I agree- “fun” reading would help. Comics, graphic novels, lyrics, magazines- anything that will keep kids interested enough to improve their reading skills.

    As for why people were better able to relate to the classics in the past- Perhaps it’s partly because those books were contemporary, then? Or, at least, enough so an average reader could relate. Also, teens are a rather new demographic- before the mid 20th century, it seemed more like there were little adults and big adults- no adolescence in between the way we think of it, now. CATCHER IN THE RYE really was one of the first books for teens, and I think that’s why it’s the only “classic” the teacher above mentioned that her teens still relate to well.

    That said, it only makes sense that many young people today can’t relate to most of the books written for the adults of the past…

  7. IMO, it’s not what is taught but how. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English teacher who gave us classics-some of which we loathed, some of which we grew to love. She didn’t ask us to like them, in fact with some we had discussions on what made it a bad book. But we still read them. And then extensively discussed them. Does it really give me a higher hold in my continuing education? Probably not so much, realistically. But if the books are presented in a way that encourages discussion, so the kids that don’t ‘get it’ can see things in a new way, instead of the books being handed out and students ordered to “just read it,” then they might be able to see a small part of what makes the classics “classics.” And they don’t even have to like them to do it.

    1. I agree with this point. I hated the Scarlet Letter so much in part, I think, because we were bombarded with symbolism lessons. Also, as a fast reader, I was usually very frustrated by the short page limits on any given section, and I imagine other people thought the limits were too long. However, I learned about Shakespeare from an amazing, passionate, devoted teacher, who didn’t dumb it down at all, and everybody in the class loved it. So I think focusing on discussion of classics, rather than definitions, is important.

  8. here’s what I think

    I was always taught that reading is about the human experience. I think that some high school students cannot relate to some of the classics because they cannot relate to the experience of the characters and because of this fact they become uninterested. Although the emotions of the characters may sometimes be emotions experienced by the readers since the situation may very well be unrealistic to them it is another reason why they become uninterested

  9. Kids don’t like classics because those books were written back then. Situations were a bit different. English was a bit different (even punctuation were different, or so to say, exaggerated. I love semi-colons, but wow, man! Give them a break). We’re more simple now. Those were also meant for adults. Kids wouldn’t be able to connect with those books. If they were to be forced to choke a classic down their throat they will die. Why not give them something modern, something they would actually have fun with, to read? Kids would most likely want to read more. They would want to talk about it because they can relate to it and understand what it’s saying instead of having to knock their brains out to the point they hate reading.

  10. I agree with you that most high school students don’t have the maturity and life experience to relate to the so-called “classics”. I remember my class reading The Metamorphosis (Kafka) in 10th grade – what was I, 15 or 16? – and my thinking that it was the dumbest book ever. I mean, he turned into a giant BUG! I didn’t get it at all. And Ethan Frome? The WORST! Don’t get me started on Winesburg, Ohio or anything by Faulkner. I loved Shakespeare, but I know I was in the minority. We always need to keep in mind that Shakespeare wrote the plays to be performed and seen, not to be read. They are much easier to understand when brought to life. But it takes a bit of effort to get used to the language, or you miss all the humor and irony and bawdiness and wordplay that makes Shakespeare so wonderful and amazing.

    But I was in advanced English classes, I was a voracious reader since I was 5, and I was (and am) a serious lit geek. I love picking apart literature to get at the underlying themes and nuances of language. Not everyone is turned on by this. The best way to get someone to read is to hand them something that they can relate to, that piques their interest. And for the kids in high school today, it’s novels like Speak and Catalyst, and some of the other wonderful YA lit that’s out there. YA is not Sweet Valley High anymore. Many YA books are brilliantly written, and discuss issues and situations relevant to teens today – not teens from the 1800s or the mid-1960s. Yes, Shakespeare’s themes are universal and transcend time – but first, you need to get the kids to read – to read anything.

    I wonder if there is a good way to balance the classics with contemporary YA lit. I think, then, that this points to a larger issue – and that’s with the standardized testing (like the Regents in NY State). The curriculum as a whole will need to be reviewed and updated to focus on these modern classics as well as Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Poe. The same skills will be taught – how to identify themes and analyze characters – just with books the kids can relate to. Those skills will carry over when these kids learn about the classics in undergrad – but more importantly, reading will be with them for the rest of their lives.

    Maybe I should try Kafka again, now that I’m older and wiser …

    1. I think age has a lot to do with it. I recently finished Vanity Fair, and loved every page of it, whereas when I tried to read in in high school I nearly gagged.

      The idea of using modern lit to teach the basics of lit crit/analysis and then reading a classic book once the basics are understood is one that I believe is becoming more popular, and I for one think it is genius.

    2. Good luck with the Kafka…I can stomach a lot of classics but that…I will forever have the image of an apple embedded in a giant bug’s back in my mind for the rest of my life…lucky for me my teacher made us all draw the funniest scenes out of the book and turned it into something fun…who knew existentialism could be fun? *GASP SHOCK HORROR* Haha

  11. Re: Question Two

    It’s not just the “classics” that are the problem. It’s the prolific number of bad choices out there. A few weeks back I posted about summer reading lists, and I stand by what I say — many schools have too many dead white authors (for adults, as you noted). Some have no YA at all. And some (still with no YA) are using what I consider to be crap adult fiction to try to teach their kids. I’m thinking the kids are more likely to be interested in the crap adult books than the classics, and therefore those choices are more readable. But I applaud the schools who have actual good choices. Like Speak and ‘s Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie and other good, well-written YA fiction. It galls me that so many teachers are too lazy to learn what books are out there NOW for their students.

  12. my opinion

    Well I think kids should learn some classics that are still at least in some way relevant but I think they also need to be taught some of the modern YA lit too. Because now Ya Lit is actually a genre not just books like Sweet Valley High and stuff. There actually are thought provoking Ya books today. I’m majoring in secondary education/English right now.(I’m a second semester sophomore) and I want to teach (if I’m even allowed to pick my own books to teach by then with all these crap laws they are making [see North Carolina]) a mixture of classics and modern Lit. I personally think books like 1984, Animal Farm, and Fahrenheit 451 are important and still relevant to today. I loved 1984 when I read it senior year and Animal Farm when I stole it from my older brother when I was in 6th grade and while Fahrenheit 451 isn’t my favorite book ever I still think it has literary merit and is important. These book especially 1984 and Fahrenheit are book with warnings for the future which we obviously still need. I also loved The Giver although I read that in junior high and the sequel Gathering Blue (I have yet to read the end of the trilogy, The Messenger.)

    But I think it is important to get kids interested in reading first before you expect them to pick it apart (which I usually hate, who really knows what the author meant by whatever they wrote besides the author?) I like Perks of Being a Wallflower because it is a more modern take on The Catcher in the Rye (which I liked) with different kinds of twists. Speak because it brings up important issues and deals with them but not distastefully like some books do. I still love To Kill a Mocking Bird and would consider teaching it (depending on the age level I was placed). I also love The Gospel According to Larry and its sequel Vote for Larry. I think they bring up topics for discussion about what kids can do to help change society and voice their opinions and make their voices be heard and trying to set goals and living out your ideals.

    Some “classics” just have no relevance to kids today. In my Ap English class senior year we read a lot of books and most of them I didn’t care for. I didn’t particularly like The Heart of Darkness (which I thought was more of a boys book) or The Light in August (It had a few too many violent and gross scenes for me and also a little confusing). I did however really like reading the short stories we read one in particular called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. It was a really interesting story. But even the books I didn’t like I learned a lot from because we discussed them. We did this thing my teacher called “Inside Outside” and put us in two circles, an inner circle and an outer circle. Everybody would come up with 3 questions about the book or character or plot and then somebody from the outside circle would read one of their questions and the people on the inside circle would try to answer it and discuss it. Our teacher just watched us and made sure everybody got a chance to say something. I loved it and thought it was a really good way for everyone to understand the books and how to analyze and discuss things in general. Ummmm but wow that was really long and so I think I’ve said all I have to say.
    *steps off soapbox*
    Ryanne

  13. middle ground

    I wonder if there is a middle ground to this seemingly endless debate in education circles. I love both comtemporary fiction and some of the classics. I wonder if we could teach both current ya fiction and some of the classics. As I am training for a dual certification in history and english, I wonder if it would help if we taught the classics while we are dealing with the period of history in which a particular classic was written. This would help in the understanding of these works. Also, I love Shakespeare but he wrote plays that were meant to be watched not read. In his particular case it might be better to watch a play than to try reading it. Just a few ideas.

  14. Learning to Read

    I couldn’t agree with you more regarding your thoughts that high school students must learn to read. I taught a class on World Literature and watched the students check out during the classics section.

    Hopefully when they learn to read and learn to love reading, they will check out why the classics are considered classics. But I agree that to try to start them there is to only cause them to feel even more defeated.

  15. HUZZAH!

    Oh, I agree so heartily. This subject is my fondest speaking topic this year. Why only give kids classics? Isn’t literature about options? Are genres bad? Must an author be dead to be valued? Ridiculous. Man, I could rant for some time…but let me just applaud you.

    Shannon Hale

  16. Oh, so that is why I currently dont like reading Great Expectations. lol…

    I agree with not only because they are frustrating books (I consider myself a pretty good reader) but because they all seem frustratingly stupid.

    Huckleberry Finn is a good example. At the end, after they go through all this trouble to free the slave when Tom knew he was free already? Why does no one smack this kid? I guess the characters seem idiotic because the characters lack education but still…I will forever hate that book.

    Anyways back to your post….my favorite books I have read in school were The Giver, Lord of the Flies, and To Kill A Mockingbird. The Giver was back in 8th Grade but I loved the story and characters and it wasnt too long.

    I happened to have an awesome English teacher my freshman year when I read the other two books. I would have loved the books anyway but he taught us things like symbolism and metaphors and how they are used in book and omg it was like someone had opened a door I didnt even know existed. I know you are supposed to focus on learning how to read when you are younger but I found this so much more fun and interesting then just reading the book and answering questions about it.

  17. As a high school student, I think there are faults in our current way of teaching. I love reading, and can read the classics and get something out of them.

    However, many (if not most) students do not or will not do this. They are turned off by words that are not used anymore, references they can’t connect with, etc.

    I think more current literature should be used in class. Two of the books we read last year in my sophomore literature class were Speak and A Tale of Two Cities. I can tell you a lot more people enjoyed and understood Speak. This is most likely because they could connect with it, and not have to try and figure out what was being said in A Tale of Two Cities.

    While classics are important, I think many teenagers will gain a better love of reading if more current lit is taught in schools.

    Just my thought.

  18. Hmm. I’m a little perplexed by what feels like an either-or attitude here (at least after reading the comments). In my high school, we alternated between classics and contemporary YA lit: Great Expectations, Children of the River, Cyrano de Bergerac, Deathwatch, Les Miserables, After the First Death, Romeo and Juliet. For me (a voracious reader for whom difficulty was rarely the problem), I loved and hated many classics — and loved and hated many contemporary books. Cyrano and To Kill a Mockingbird I wanted to read over and over. After the First Death, with its black and hopeless view of the world (as I read it at the time) instilled a hatred in me of Robert Cormier that took me a decade to overcome. I adored Children of the River and wanted to vomit over Great Expectations.

    I think that making the good-bad distinction between classics and contemporary lit in the way that we seem to be doing here is problematic. A lot of it is a matter of taste. The fact that a book was more recent didn’t make me like it better — why does it make sense to assume I, or any given teenager, would be more able to sympathize with a character like Jerry than with a character like Scout? If I’d had read Speak in ninth grade (or Princess Academy), I’d have absolutely loved it. If I’d read Fallen Angels, I’d have hated it. I often look back and think that some of the authors I disliked — Wharton, Steinbeck, Salinger — I’d appreciate them a lot more if I tried them again now. But the same was true of Cormier.

    I think that sometimes, as others have suggested, the problem is the way things are taught — I had excellent teachers, and they won me over on some books but not others, and how passionate they felt about particular books (since not every teacher had the freedom to choose his or her syllabus) probably had something to do with that. Difficulty had something to do with it, too. In later years, I adored Tale of Two Cities and Pride and Prejudice but got completely bogged down in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, despite the fact that it’s exactly the kind of thing I like, because it was just too hard.

    I think that when it comes to choosing books, there’s a lot more to consider than just the time period it was written. Teachers should be given the freedom to choose books they will teach with passion. The diverse tastes and abilites of individual students should be taken into account, too. The more advanced classes, I think, should be heavier on the classics — I would have done poorly on the AP Lit test and been woefully unprepared for being an English major in college (Cornell, actually — it’s so cool that you spoke there!) if we’d read nothing but contemporary lit. That said, I definitely think my teachers could have made some better choices, in every year of high school.

    I may have hated Cormier and Salinger, but I would never say they shouldn’t be taught in high schools — for too many students, those will the only books they’re going to like. But make up a syllabus totally of books like that, year after year, and I might have been the one who left high school hating to read. (Well, not really. But you get my point.) I agree that the priority for high school teachers should be to get the students to want to read (and to be able to understand and analyze it at a sufficient level of literacy). I just don’t think that making a blanket assertion that throwing out the classics and sticking strictly to contemporary YA lit would magically make that happen. A poor teacher, for instance, can probably make any reader hate any book, and even the best teacher can’t always make a student love a book that she instantly loathed (best you can hope for is grudging respect). The key is picking the right books that can be taught by the right teachers to the right students — a complicated equation, not nearly as simple as “kids love this kind of book” and “kids hate that.”

  19. Summer Reading

    I feel that a combination of contemporary and classic writing should be taught in schools. An option that could be better than mandatory book choices would be to let students choose their own books, possibly from a list with a column of new stuff and a column of old, with the rule you have to pick one from each. Having to read specific books I despised is what really turned me off summer reading, and I love reading. It’s unrealistic to expect a kid to stick with a book they hate. In “real life” if I don’t like a book, I stop reading, and that’s what most do. There’s a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have read, but had to. I want to give commentary on my own reading, if I may, so I’ll do it in list form.

    7th grade: summer: White Fang and The Call of the Wild, by Jack London. I hate dog books and I hate you, Jack London. These books were way too similar to make us read both. Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens. Only self-help book I ever read, and it was because some random administrator wanted us to. I also objected because I was 12 at the time, and therefore not a teen.

    7th grade: school year: Tangerine, by Edward Bloor. Only thing I remember from that year, apart from some Greek mythology. I loved it until my friend told me what happened before I was done reading. Still, a good example of YA fiction.

    8th grade summer: Holes, by Louis Sachar. I’d read it before, but it’s still a good book, way better than the out-of-print historical fiction thing I had to track down.

    OK, this list thing is way tiring and would be really long. I’ll just say that of all the books I’ve read for school, the ones I’ve liked best tended to be the newer ones because they were in the vernacular, and I could relate. I did particularly enjoy To Kill A Mockingbird, The House on Mango Steet, Fahrenheit 451, I Robot, A Prayer For Owen Meany, At Risk, Murder on the Orient Express, and The Sound and the Fury(but this one is thanks to my fabulous teacher; without her I would’ve hated it). I think this shows that what reading lists need is variety. Kids and teens don’t always like one kind of book. Also, don’t force them to read what they hate. Give the choice of a romance novel or a war book; don’t just assign one or the other.

    Another thought (sorry this is so long) Let kids hate a book. Don’t try to make them like it. Teachers can even agree it sucks. During The Scarlet Letter, my teacher declared, “Dimmesdale is a weenie.” And she was right.

    ~Karen
    Sorry for it being so long. Books are just a topic close to my heart.

  20. Classics, etc

    I’m late on this topic, but maybe you’ll read it.

    At my school, which is in New York, we read some YA/kids’ books in junior high, but once we got into ninth grade, we started reading classics, which were way less fun, as you know. According to my writing teacher, who we asked/harassed about this topic, said it was because of the English Regents. On the Regents, there’s a “critical lens” essay where you apply a quote to two books. However, they can’t be any two books; they have to be “books of literary merit” aka classics.

    This all led into a never-ending argument about Harry Potter. Nearly everyone in my class loves Harry. When a friend of mine printed out a 12 page article regarding Dumbledore, it got passed around and read by the whole class. We’d never volunteer to read an essay about, say, Hester Prynne or Huck Finn. However, according to teachers, Harry Potter doesn’t have literary merit, and we can’t write essays about it. This especially enraged me when they said that Lord of the Rings did have literary merit. I guess to have literary merit, it has to be old. I console myself with the thought that in 30 or 50 years, HP will be accepted, and kids will have a book to actually like.

    Ooh! Something I’ve just stumbled upon interests me greatly.
    Backstory: One of the summer reading books I was assigned this year (only one I’ve liked): John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

    From Reuters:

    Two of America’s top authors, John Irving and Stephen King, made a plea to J.K. Rowling on Tuesday not to kill the fictional boy wizard Harry Potter in the final book of the series, but Rowling made no promises.

    “My fingers are crossed for Harry,” Irving said at a joint news conference before a charity reading by the three writers at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

    I feel that justifies Harry Potter (and other popular fiction) as school-worthy.

  21. Speak

    I just wanted to say that I have just finished reading SPEAK and it is really the most emotive and powerful book I’ve ever read. I love reading and writing novels, although I am still only half way through my first one. I have just turned 16 and I have already shown my English teacher at my high school what I have been doing. She says that she knows a very good publisher and that she can give me some contacts when I’m done. I was thrilled. The book that I am working on has a very interesting plot (I thought anyhow) so far, but I still don’t know what’s going to happen next until I write it, and I am stumped when it comes to writing the ending. Is this a bad thing ? I don’t really like high school at the moment and none of my friends care about what I’m writing. I was simply wandering if you could give me any advice about my writing, please ? (As nobody else will…)
    Thanks a million,
    SPEAK lover
    xxx

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