Should school reading be bound by the book?

By Megan Tsang

The Wildcat Tribune (San Ramon, California)

It’s a familiar sight at Dougherty: a long line of students disappearing into the abyss of the textbook room. An AP Literature class is picking up the next mark on their list, “Wuthering Heights.”

“This looks boring,” says a girl, with a roll of her eyes. Other students nod in agreement.

This moment captures a larger issue at hand: students have become disillusioned with their English classes. This is evident in the mere 21.7 percent of Dougherty students who wanted to pursue a career in humanities, according to a 2016 Tribune survey; and it’s why SparkNotes is now worth millions (Crunchbase). Part of the reason why could be that students lack interest in the books they read.

“The books I’ve read — some were impactful, but most of them were extremely boring,” says junior Aavinit Kaur.

To be sure, the weathered pages and diminutive fonts that tire students are not chosen without reason. From the flowing prose of “The Great Gatsby” to the vivid imagery in “The Call of the Wild,” classics are classics for a reason. But, are these antiquated books the only ones that can “reflect a pluralistic, multicultural society composed of unique individuals?” This is the objective outlined in the California Department of Education Standards for Evaluating Instructional Materials for Social Content. Students and policy-makers don’t seem to be on the same page about what books best achieve this goal.

In all of the interviews I conducted, a common demand that students had was to be exposed to more contemporary texts.

When asked what she’d change about the reading list, sophomore Ada Zhong shares, “I’d like to see books with less esoteric language. I’d say the majority of students are unsatisfied in the books they read because they don’t relate to problems we go through.”

Modern novels can have just as much literary merit as traditional classics. The social critique presented in “Between the World and Me” can contend with that of “Lord of the Flies,” “The Bell Jar” carries an emotional depth as intense as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Never Let Me Go” is just as lauded as “Of Mice and Men.” These contemporary novels can not only keep pace with the mainstays of the past, but they also have a leg up: broader perspectives and the ability to resonate with students in a more accessible, tangible way.

Students have also called for a wider range of genres and authors. With a greater knowledge reservoir to draw from, students can more easily create interdisciplinary connections, synthesize information and think abstractly, encouraging them to be more flexible and look beyond the world that they know. But, in order to get to that point, the fundamental issue must be addressed.

Throughout the nation, there is a conspicuous lack of diverse voices in literature.
The exposure books give students to other points of view is essential for cultivating tolerance and mental adaptability. Thus, the fact that an overwhelming majority of the books being read in American high schools were written by white male authors before the Civil Rights Movement had even begun should be cause for concern (Renaissance Learning).

Junior Desiree Lei commented on this issue, saying, “If I could change something, I would add on authors of different backgrounds so it’s not always ‘white dead men’ books.”

In light of this, Dougherty teachers are trying to find ways to modernize their offerings — from establishing literary circles that encourage students to take initiative in their reading choices to incorporating more modern texts.

“I was thinking about a novel that was one, current, and two, written by somebody that wasn’t white,” states Ashley DeGrano, who’s in her second year of teaching English at DVHS. This school year, her class will be reading the 2007 Y.A. novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

And, DeGrano has gone even further in her experimental approach. Books are just one small shard that fit into a larger mosaic.

“I use project-based learning as the primary mode of curriculum,” she explains. “I don’t necessarily think that the love of reading, in general, is going to come from something that’s forced. I think it’s going to be trying to find where you fit in, whether that’s articles, podcasts, books, short stories or whatever but make a connection.”

In a typical day in DeGrano’s classroom, students can be seen debating current events, dissecting a newspaper article from one perspective, then analyzing a video from another. They delve into deeper thematic and philosophical questions. Then, they apply this dynamic discussion to static texts. Last year, for example, students studied the role of propaganda in society, drawing parallels between “All Quiet on the Western Front” and the 2016 election.

Photo Credit: Nicole Mays

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