Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

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beacon22
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Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by beacon22 » September 22nd, 2011, 2:34 pm

I'd love to hear your thoughts about a blog post I just wrote. It's a pretty heated debate among educators, so it would be interesting to hear what non-educators have to say!

Here's a copy of the post....

I teach American Literature. Usually that means the classics (Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, The House on Mango Street, The Great Gatsby...).

Young Adult novels have always been meant for independent reading time (which I try to do each day for twenty minutes at the start of my 90 minute class). The kids love their independent reading books. They complain if I try to take away some of the 20 minutes. The English department have had other teachers bring up the issue of kids reading their independent books in their class (yay!). So while my students read and most often like the classic books, they are also clammering for YA fiction.

There has always been the idea that you teach the classics in school and read for fun outside of school. Many people believe that the two should be separate and the high school curriculum should only focus on the classics. In fact, my former agent didn't think YA should be the focus on a high school English classroom. While I understand the importance of having kids read from the literary canon, I also know how amazing YA books can be in helping to teach the course objectives.

That's why I'm a strong supporter for integrating both.

Last year was my department's review and revise year and we were able to discuss, analyze and consider new literature for the classroom. I chose three current YA novels for my course that can be taught in a whole group setting or in small reading circles based on student interests and abilities. They are The Absoluetly True Diary of a Part Time Indian (Alexie), Things a Brother Knows (Reinhardt) and Stolen (Christopher).

I introduced these books to my students at the start of the year because I always talk about what we'll be reading.

Well...I've noticed that a bunch of them (at least 8-10) have checked the copies of these books out from my school library. They are reading the books before they have to read them!

Really, how amazing is that!?! On one hand, I want to tell them to stop reading these books because they're class novels, but on the other hand, how can I tell them to stop reading! It's crazy, funny and exciting. I can't wait to teach them in the classroom.

What about you? What are your thoughts on teaching both YA literature and the classics in school? Should it be done? Or should teachers just stick to the classics?
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GingerWrite
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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by GingerWrite » September 22nd, 2011, 3:21 pm

I definitely thing it should be both classics and contemporary fiction. So many books that I read while in high school were classics, and because I had to read them in class, did not enjoy them. If a student is expecting only staid novels where you can only look forward to dissecting prose, they will tend to not like the book before even opening it.
I think that if modern books are added to the curriculum students will be excited about reading. My school read The Absoluetly True Diary of a Part Time Indian and the students loved it, even passed it around talking about passages.
Let's face it, one day modern literature will become old literature, and who knows, future generations may be dissecting it then and we don't want to be ignorant of our current culture. Plus, if you read contemporary literature in class, it will stop those bibliophiles who read their own book under the desk while the teacher talks about Moby Dick (guilty!).
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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by Cookie » October 2nd, 2011, 2:24 pm

GingerWrite wrote:So many books that I read while in high school were classics, and because I had to read them in class, did not enjoy them.
I think this is the reason why contemporary fiction should be taught in school alongside the classics. I know many people who feel this way, and it might deter people from picking up other books. While I think the classics are great, they are not always the best introduction to books for some people.

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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by Sommer Leigh » October 3rd, 2011, 1:22 pm

My husband is a high school english teacher (he teaches seniors, but has taught sophomores in the past.) We have this discussion often, as you can imagine.

This is my take on the matter - many of the classics are so far removed from the lives of teenagers now that they can't concentrate on them for even a short period of time. It's like having them read a book about aliens, except less interesting. Some try to drag through the books, but the grand majority won't even bother picking the book up. He works with a demographic of students whose cultural backgrounds do not consider college a reasonable expectation after high school. They are expected by their parents to finish school and get a job. Half of them have parents in jail or missing completely and half of those kids are already junior league gang members. Several of his students have full time jobs after school to pay rent, one of them supports him and his sister because dad is so constantly in and out of jail on drug charges. So reading The Great Gatsby doesn't mean anything to them. And if most of them won't bother reading it anyway, then it doesn't matter if the book was written in gold, they don't care. These are not kids who value higher education because higher education isn't going to keep them fed and housed. Few of them can even imagine figuring out how to pay for it anyway, even if they were interested.

However, he has a couple of more modern YA books that they can't WAIT to read. Even his non-readers, particularly his boys, will read it. Last year in his sophomore class, one of the boys, who ultimately failed, did not do a single piece of homework all semester long EXCEPT read and test well on Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson.

We talk about what, exactly, reading classic books gives students that modern YA can't. Classics are often harder to read, using outdated language and referencing events and political climates that are so far removed from the current texting, trendy high schoolers. Some of them are enjoyable, some of them are not. I have a degree in English and I can't stand a word Charles Dickens ever wrote, I still can't bring myself to finish Moby Dick, and I'm not really sure that I ever enjoyed any Hemingway I read. I adore Gatsby but didn't until I was in college. I personally believe the power and the knowledge is in the reading, not in WHAT you are reading, necessarily. There are great books being written right now that are just as good or better than the "classics" and my husband's reluctant readers are actually willing to pick them up. Right now the favorites amongst the boys are The Ranger's Apprentice series and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series. They read these for their independant reading, but my husband can't keep them on his classroom library shelves.

A book can't be valuable unless it is read. And a good teacher can take a popular, modern YA and teach the exact same lessons that they would have taught from the classics and actually reach the students.
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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by Cookie » October 3rd, 2011, 1:32 pm

Sommer always manages to say it so much more eloquently than I.

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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by MattLarkin » October 4th, 2011, 9:17 am

I liked Hemmingway, okay. Some of those classics might be better saved for college, if only because then the English majors reading them want to be. On the other hand, if you don't read them in High School, how do you know you want to major in English?
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Rachel Ventura
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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by Rachel Ventura » October 6th, 2011, 8:07 am

I wrote about my dislike of English class in another post. My experience has been the books I had to read in school I will either never read again, or maybe someday but a long time away. I think English teachers kill reading by making it a chore, an assignment that needs to get done by a specific date. No fun. I mean, I consider myself pretty smart, but you don't think a bunch of high schoolers are going to think a book called Moby Dick is the most hilarious title in the world? Ranks right up there with Captain Underpants, right? :lol:

Then you go and read Old Man and the Sea and you seriously just want to drown. This must've been the dick that wrote all this stuff...right? ;)

I think research papers should go the way of the "pedagogical" slush pile. I didn't learn anything from those papers but how to write papers. I didn't gain any appreciation for the book because it felt so painful to even open it up. I think English courses should be discussion-based and those damn papers, they should just do away with. Eventually the YA books that I find to be a lot of fun, and so do a lot of people my age, those will be considered a chore that you have to do for school too. Imagine "oh, crap, do we have to read Potter?" or even "Twilight sucks!!!"

It saddens me that Catcher in the Rye (obviously one of my favorites, if not THE favorite), which is really considered the first-ever true "YA" novel, is one of those "classics" that you learn in school. Get beat over the head with like Holden's idiot roommate punched him in the face. I remember reading it for the first time on my own in junior high (oh I was precocious!), and y'know, I not only felt really bad for the guy but I kind of got a little book-crush on him. :oops: Like girls do today with Eddie Cullen, I guess. But I so hated English class because you had to write about it, and not just write your opinion, like a book review, you had to look up all these "primary sources" to support your argument. My argument was I LIKED THE BOOK. Do I really have to justify why with all these studies on adolescent psychology? :?

I don't think YA books should be "taught" in class. I think there should be recommendations and stuff, and like at the end of class an open forum for kids to talk about whatever they're reading otherwise but not for a grade. And teachers need to be more accepting and understanding of kids' choices and their level of comprehension, whatever it may be. Just like in the seminal literary work, The Puppy Who Lost His Way. :lol:

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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by Doug Pardee » October 6th, 2011, 9:24 am

I'm far, far removed from high-school years. But I still remember how unpleasant the assigned classics were to read, and every time I look at a classic I get a strong "negative vibe". If you make the students hate the classics as I learned to hate them, how is that a Good Thing?

I'm no educator. But speaking as a literate person and a reader, I have to say: don't force subject matter. Just because books are "classics" doesn't mean that the students will enjoy them, and it sure doesn't mean that they'll "get" them. Teenagers have a very limited life context, and much of that context is unlike anything that was common when the classics were written.

Does 1984 have the same impact now that TV shows and movies have detectives pulling video from a dozen surveillance cameras at a crime scene? We all spend every day under the eyes of TV cameras — and these aren't just real-time cameras but have recordings, too — and we don't give it a thought. High school kids post every detail of their lives on FaceBook, so what's the big deal about privacy anyway?

It's all about relevancy. If you can teach a classic in a way that the students get something from it, great. But don't just assign classics because "they should be well-read in the classics." And some current works can also be taught in a way that the students get something from it.

Added: "Books that deserve to be banned" at Salon.
Last edited by Doug Pardee on October 6th, 2011, 2:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by Hillsy » October 6th, 2011, 10:06 am

Subject matter is a major, major issue as well.

When I was young my Dad, who was by no means heavily literate, used to read to me and my brother from a HG Well's and John Wyndham compendium he had (Ah I remember that book. Thick enough to stop a Tactical Missle....had 10 full novels in it!!!!). And of course we got the Hobbit thrown in along with some modern (at the time) Greg Bear. My Dad loved this type of sci-fi and, because we were about 8, we loved with it too. What 8 year old wouldn't be enthralled by a food that could make you 40 feet high?!?!?!?!?! As such, around 12-14 I was reading King and Koontz when studying the 'classics' rolled around in my English GCSE first year....

.....I got Silas Marner..............?

Day of the Triffids = Man eating, semi-sentient plants.
Carrie & Firestarter = Crazy-ass telekenetic and pyrokinetic teeneagers
Forge of God = 4 Dimensional starship hidden inside Ayers Rock intent on devouring the planet
......but of course none of them can possibly hold a candle TO......SILAS MARNER!!!!!!!
Silas Marner = Hermit Weaver has to bring up a child.

.........I'm sure I'm not the only one who sees why I used to get into shouting matches with my teacher about what books should be on the cirriculum. I mean SILAS MARNER!!!! A book so agonizingly dull it could be used in warfare!

Anyways - Matching up content kids will be interested in is probably just as, if not more, important than making it modern and or relevant to the real world. A novel about any Hermit suddenly having to rear a child is going to be unappealling whether it's a weaver or a particle physicist. Whereas semi-sentient, flesh eating plants are always served with awesome sauce.

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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by Sommer Leigh » October 6th, 2011, 5:36 pm

Cookie wrote:Sommer always manages to say it so much more eloquently than I.
*blush!!* Thank you for the compliment :-)
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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by Moni12 » October 6th, 2011, 5:50 pm

I'm a senior in college, Literature major and am taking a class called English and American Novel. This is taught by a professor who says "we could spend twenty years on this stuff", but if he was given that long he'd say "we could spend forty years on this stuff".

I think what would be interesting is combining classic with contemporary. Take a classic, have the class read it and then it's contemporary equivalent. For example, we're reading Portrait of a Lady and I compared it to Twilight while talking to some classmates. I think it'd be interesting to compare the two and see how the writing, story, values, society, etc. changed and stayed the same.

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Re: Classics vs. YA/Current Fiction in the HS English Classroom

Post by Rachel Ventura » October 8th, 2011, 1:56 am

Doug Pardee wrote:Added: "Books that deserve to be banned" at Salon.
OT: Salon's new paywall-ish redesign sucks. Either you pay $45/year for a subscription that gets you a $h!tload of magazines and other unnecessary stuff, or make a "comments-only" account on which you have to use a Google/Gmail or FB. Not even OpenID or a blog, if you have it, or like on the Bransforums, a "Name/URL" ID.

This sucks Mr. Garrison's ugly bunch of coconuts big time, because I would love to comment on this article but can't since I don't have a Google or a Facebook and don't want either of them. :x Salon needs to have a Salon account proper rather than everything having to link to social media or get charged exorbitant prices. Same goes for Huffpost although FWIW their login options are a little more flexible.

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