With the whole “Book Opinion” thing on Twitter last month (if you were on near the holidays, you know what I mean), there’s been a lot of hot takes on classics and the classroom and how they apply to modern teens.
And so, I’m here to bring a little perspective as a modern high schooler in the American education system.
Some things to note before we begin:
- I am very privileged compared to some of my peers, and I attend a largely white upper/middle class magnet school
(public school with specialized courses that attract students from multiple zones).
- Said school has also taught me throughout middle school.
- What I note has worked for me and my peers may very well not work for other teens from different schools and backgrounds. Still, I’ll try to make this as applicable as possible.
- (United States, btw. This is about the US education system and how screwed up it is.)
I think there’s always a lot of discussion about classics and teaching them in high school. I mean, we all know what it’s like in high school English classes. (spoiler alert: it ain’t good)
Students either (1) read the Spark Notes, (2) don’t read anything, (3) read the classic and do not understand any of it.
I am a goody-two-shoes and I’ve read every book assigned to me, except for Zadig (if my 11th grade English teacher is reading this, know that I’m sorry. I was busy that week.).
This doesn’t mean I understood them a lot (though, I tried), but I am a “good” student and tried to do what they wanted me to do.
But for the majority of my peers, they have learned early on in middle school to follow the culture of reading the online Spark Notes and then trying to pass the class on that. (Which works for a lot of teachers . . . sometimes better than reading the actual book?)
I know kids who haven’t read a single school book since 8th grade, and we’ve “read” a lot of books since then. I know kids who try to read the book, but give up halfway because it was too hard to understand. I know kids who try to read the book, but eventually give up because they don’t have enough time to sit down and work through the language.
And with these widespread responses to classics in high school, I’ve seen some radical hot takes like
Classics shouldn’t be taught in high school at all.
And as much as some of my peers wish this was true, it’s frankly unrealistic, especially for anyone looking to take AP Lit during high school (which is basically a given for lots of top-acheiving students hoping to improve their resume to get the holy grail: college).
So even though I would love for all high school lit to be just YA, I also know that if that was the case, I might not have gotten accepted into college. (!!!)
To create an education system not dependent on a specific set of classics and the use of classic literature extends far beyond what my mind can imagine–because you have to change not only the schools and Common Core, but you also have to change the College Board and how colleges as a whole work, which, frankly, seems impossible to me.
So maybe classics shouldn’t be taught in high school. But I’m not going to think about what ifs when faced with something as daunting as altering the college admissions process, especially when I will probably never be able to do something meaningful about it.
Instead, I’m going to talk about wielding classics in high school classrooms effectively.
Let’s go way way back to where my story begins. Middle school is a time where kids are learning that they’re going to actually have to work a lot harder to succeed in life and they start realizing that the big COLLEGE is in their future–but only if they do well.
And middle school is frankly where the bad habits kick in, at least in my school. At the end of this post, I list the English (not Spanish) reading I’ve had since 6th grade that I remember, but back to my point.
Kids start getting busy in middle school. Kids start learning that school isn’t just arts and crafts and playtime (WHY NOT, THO?) and the pieces start to fall to show what type of student you are.
And honestly, the idea of reading classics is inherently skewed against people from low income families, which are historically more POC. There, I said it.
Kids from low income families generally have less time to work on homework (i.e. they live farther and the commute is bad, their family is busier working). Especially in high school when they could work to support their family.
And sitting down for 2-7 hours to read a stuffy classic novel is honestly not in the works for a lot for these kids. (We’re not even going to start talking about tutoring.)
And so they’re already behind because kids stop reading in middle school because the books are boring and the teachers don’t try and connect it with the students (also, To Kill a Mockingbird is NOT great black rep stop saying that) and none of the books ACTUALLY represent a lot of kids, especially ones who get behind.
So the problem starts early.
And as the students go to high school, they’ve already learned “Eh, I’ll just Spark Notes it.”
It just kind of snowballs from there for so many kids. I can tell you that more than half of my class (and I’m in a rich, upper middle class white high school) still have not finished The Scarlet Letter. And they’ve actually got the resources to do so.
The way classics are taught in school largely consists of giving you the book, not giving any background, and expecting you to have fully formed thoughts on the first X chapters the next day.
Which is SO TOUGH. I try. I really do. But sometimes the book flies over my head. Sometimes I need more background on the author/situation/summary before reading (usually I do).
These books are, from face value, nothing like what we read today. It’s not clear and straightforward and the language is more figurative and obviously different + more antiquated. (Thematically, some of them are pretty relatable. But when looking at just like, the words and the language? It’s hard for teens to relate to.)
And when you don’t give us much information when starting, we’re already getting off to a bad start when reading.
You know what reading YA is like. You read the book, and if you don’t like it, you DNF it. But here? You’re not supposed to DNF it, but many do. Because they don’t like how it’s starting out because they don’t know anything about it and it’s all just a bad mess + you’re getting off on the wrong foot with this book.
So teaching classics by giving us books with little to know background/summary/info and expecting us to know what’s happening and to understand the symbolism and have fully formed thoughts when we don’t get half the words is absurd.
It’s like expecting a fifth grader to look at a differential equation and solve it when they only know how to add.
This isn’t entirely teachers’ faults. When one or two students don’t read it? Yeah, it’s probably not the teacher or the education system doing a bad job (although it could be that the teacher/education system is a bad fit for the kid).
But when more than half the class is not reading the books? This is an actual, serious problem. It could be the teaching, or what’s pressuring the teachers to teach this way *cough the education system cough*.
Teachers are amazing people, and this is largely an issue that snowballs over multiple teachers and multiple years when kids just stop reading the books.
It’s an issue that stems from not learning the critical skills early in the game on how to approach these kinds of books.
And I’m not talking about How to Read 101 or using accountable talk stems or close reading, I’m talking about learning to love literature and want to give it a chance and want to approach it and try.
You don’t have to read classics to be a good reader. But being a good reader can help you read classics.
Which is where YA comes in. It’s obvious that we can’t really teach YA in upper level classes. I might have managed to squeeze in two YA novels over my high school career (one I wrote about in my AP Lang essay last year and I still got my 5!!!), but a literary syllabus of only YA is, as we said before, not good for the students’ future according to colleges.
But YA could still help. YA helped me fall in love with reading again. It helped me be passionate enough to put effort into the classics I read this year. It helped me understand themes (Emma is basically just a tropey romance I totally called who she married from the start of the novel) and plot better (I knew there was something going on between Billy & Claggart!!! The gays did not fail me.).
YA is great for helping students learn the skills and have the passion to properly face classics in high school and college.
I’m not saying classics are good books, nor are they bad. They just are and we have to accept that they’re part of education. Which classics are good and which classics are bad is such a contentious topic and we’re never going to be able to answer that. On Twitter, one person said that The Catcher in the Rye was the best classic, others said it was bad & shouldn’t be taught. Safe to say, deciding what classics are good is a problem for another day and a different post.
YA, in my opinion, does have a place in the classroom in helping American teens. (And more opinions that you didn’t need to hear: I do think some YA novels are better than some classics, although that’s spicy tea for another day.)
So what do we do?
I mean, this is a huge thing that spans schools across America and obviously hits students from low-income backgrounds harder, unfortunately. And calssics are very hard to relate to, on a surface level and for the fact that it’s dominated by mostly dead white men and featuring characters that only appeal to a certain group of people.
The solution is complicated and hard and obviously involves combating stigma against YA novels as quality literature and reforming its place in peoples’ minds.
But what I’d recommend is to start getting kids to love books in middle school. Give them books that represent them, give them books (and graphic novels) that they love, give them things that they’re interested in and teach them to love books and be patient with them.
Reading classics is a huge monster and if we just start giving kids books they don’t really understand and expect them to do well with them from the get go, we’re not approaching this right.
Help them love books. Help them make time for books from an early age, in the classroom. Tell them about what they’re going to read and help them before, during, and after the process of reading a classic (not just after) and tell them that it will be a little hard, but they can do it and that you’re here to help.
Don’t throw them off the deep end. I’d rather be spoiled for a classic than not understand it at all.
In the end, teaching classic novels is tough, and anyone who even tries is admirable for that. We can’t cut classics from high school syllabuses currently. Nor can we replace them with YA. But we can use YA to help students understand classics better and love reading.
It’s a tough problem, and one that will continue to plague teens in schools until the education system changes. But I hope this has helped provide insight into what it’s lke to be a teen and go through modern American high school English.
Assigned Reading Over the Years
I go to a school where it’s elementary to high, so part of my preparation for APs and college started in middle school and I included the books I remember from that time period! If I bolded it, it means that was an independent reading that I had to do, so I chose my own book within their guidelines.
6th: As You Like It, some Poe poems, and more I don’t remember.
7th: Anne Frank, Animal Farm, Taming of the Shrew, some classes read The Jungle but mine did not, and more I don’t remember.
8th: To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men or The Pearl or some Helen Keller book or Fahrenheit 451, Anthem, Lord of the Flies
9th: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (*rolls eyes that this still hasn’t been taken off the syllabus*), How to Read Literature Like a Professor, The Odyssey, Things Fall Apart, Antigone, and then more modern works of your choosing (I did A Step Towards Falling by Cammie McGovern, The Book Thief, I Am the Messenger, and I Am Malala)
10th: Their Eyes Were Watching God (my favorite assigned book ever), Romeo & Juliet, A Modest Proposal, Young Goodman Brown, The Great Gatsby, Into the Wild, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Sun Also Rises, The Crucible
11th (AP Language): Othello, Beloved, Emma, Sense & Sensibility, Zadig (I didn’t read), Candide, Ready Player One (I wrote about this during my exam), + various short stories (mostly Twain + Thoreau)
12th (AP Literature): Brave New World, 1984, The Scarlet Letter, Frankenstein, Macbeth or Hamlet, The Stranger, Billy Budd, Benito Cereno, Medea, A Doll’s House, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Greenleaf, The Child by Tiger, A Rose for Emily, The Minister’s Black Veil, Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, The Hunger Artist, A Worn Path, Hunters in the Snow, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, some read The Handmaid’s Tale instead of a billion short stories but my class did not, and more to come?
and somewhere along the way, some students read The Kite Runner and Cat’s Cradle and The Giver, but I never did. I also read A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream sometime?