My two oldest children saw the 1993 novel “The Giver” on their school reading lists in fifth through ninth grade. It showed up so often that I began to wonder if the school system earned a percentage of the sales.
In talking about it with a teacher friend, she maintained there’s nothing wrong with students reading a book in multiple classes over the years as they likely gain a more a nuanced understanding with each reading. I countered that it didn’t matter how many more layers students could uncover, there’s a boredom factor in revisiting the same book in several classes.
I wonder how schools set their reading lists and whether teachers compare note. Do middle school and high school teachers confer on reading lists? (I do appreciate that “The Giver” is a current title and that it resonates with young readers.)
I think we lose kids by foisting dusty tomes on them that don’t speak to their world experiences. Here is a story from the Record in Bergen, N.J., — thanks to Peter for pointing it out to me — that addresses how some systems in the country are refreshing their reading lists with new titles:
A boy walked into her English class with a confession. He cried the previous night, cried while reading one of the books Joan Maffetone assigned to her students.
“You usually don’t have teenage boys telling you that,” said Maffetone, an English teacher at Dwight-Englewood School. “And he said it in front of class.”
It takes a powerful book to trigger tears. So what book resonated so deeply with this student – and with so many of Maffetone’s other students?
“The Great Gatsby”? “The Scarlet Letter”? “Of Mice and Men”?
The book that inspired such vibrant emotion is “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Written by Jonathan Safran Foer, published in 2005, it is absent from many of the traditional, prim-and-proper high school reading lists.
Using modern novels as a gateway drug is proving more and more popular. At Clifton High School, this year’s students might read J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” or Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper.” Students at Bergen Catholic will find Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” on their reading lists. At Hackensack High School, it’s Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” At Paramus High School, students read excerpts from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”
“We’re competing with so many things – Facebook, the Internet and sports,” said Evangelia Papamichael, an English teacher at Hackensack. “And we want our students to read.”
Modern novels, Papamichael said, offer different styles. And those styles are inviting to students who struggle with traditional texts. Six years ago she introduced Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.”
“The summer before I taught it, I was reading it on the beach,” Papamichael said. “The principal gave it to me.”
Larson’s 2003 non-fiction work is a little meatier than most beach reads. It weaves together two stories, following an architect and a serial killer, as their paths converge on the World’s Fair in Chicago.
Several North Jersey teachers are fans of O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a collection of fiction set in the heart of the Vietnam War. Sean Adams, a supervisor of secondary education for Paramus public schools, was part of a committee that elected to include O’Brien’s work in the curriculum.
No teachers are giving up on the classics. And Dr. Christopher de Vinck, a supervisor of language arts at Clifton High School, cautions that with many modern adolescent novels, “kids certainly eat them up, but they’re poorly written.”
“We’re very careful about putting in books that are not … very well written and [do not] have things of value,” de Vinck said.