High schools add to reading lists

You'd probably recognize many of the offerings students are required to read in high school English classes. After all, "Romeo and Juliet," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and other literary classics are still a part of high school.

But local teachers are increasingly adding other offerings — books students choose themselves and discuss with classmates.

At Centennial High in Champaign, freshmen and sophomores are required to read one core book each quarter, and then they choose from a list of books.

At the Champaign school district's alternative high school, the Academic Academy, every student reads the same book every year and students can discuss books over breakfast at a weekly book club.

And at University Laboratory High School in Urbana, teacher Suzanne Linder has students read books of their choosing and tell their classmates about them.

This social aspect of reading is crucial to turning today's high schoolers into readers, said Carol Jago, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, whether that means teachers providing easy access to books or students discussing amongst themselves.

At a time when studies show kids are consuming 7.5 hours of entertainment a day, the quest to develop readers is an important one.

"It's so much about relationships," Jago said. "It's not about, 'Take this, it's good for you. You'll hate it now but thank me later.' It's about developing enthusiasm and energy. Kids are going to have to choose to read over choosing to play 'Grand Theft Auto.' ... You help them to make those choices by demonstrating again and again how intellectually satisfying reading a great book is."

She also advises that teachers give students some choices when it comes to reading for class, but to require it.

"Kids are kids. If you don't require reading, it's not going to happen," she said. "Give them choice within control. If you don't, they won't make the progress. Summer reading should be required. We have all this data about how students, children regress over the summer. One way to fight that summer slump is to make sure they're reading."

She said that should be true of all students, not just those in honors or Advanced Placement classes.

Choosing their own books

Joanne Nielsen, the content area chairwoman for the English department at Centennial High School, said the school this year updated its freshman and sophomore curriculum. The framework it uses has a group of teachers setting goals for students, and then choosing the books that will help students achieve those goals.

The system allows students to choose from a range of books on a common theme.

For example, in freshman English classes at Centennial, quarters are divided into units on how the topics of family, race, gender and class affect identity, said freshman English teacher Ryan Carlson.

Each of those units has one core book or text, and then students can choose from a broad list of other books that vary by topic and reading level, as well. They may choose between eight and 15 books, depending on the topic, Carlson said.

They have time to read independently in class and get together with other students reading the same books, where they develop questions to ask each other, Carlson said. Those are used in a larger class discussion the next day, he said.

"They're so excited to have that choice and have that authority" to choose their own books, he said. "They've formed a community of independent readers."

As they leave his classroom, he said, he often hears students asking each other what page they're on or if they've gotten to a certain part of a book.

Nielsen said students gave feedback showing they enjoyed being able to choose their books and hearing thoughts from their classmates also reading those books.

On the same page

Champaign's Academic Academy has students reading socially in two ways, said Principal Rhonda Howard.

Each year, students get a copy of the same book and they have time to read it on Fridays, as well as participate in discussions and projects.

"It's a common book we can all talk about," Howard said.

This year's book is "Always Running," by Luis Rodriguez.

"They don't even realize how much they're working" when they read and participate in activities relating to the all-building book, Howard said.

Students at the academy can also participate in a breakfast book club, led by Christine Harrington, a former English teacher who wanted to volunteer.

Students choose that book, she said, and they've read things like "The Help" and books from the "Twilight" series.

"It's a discussion on character, plot (and other literary aspects of the book) in a very social way," Howard said.

Academy English teacher Ryan O'Connor said the books he requires in class vary, because some books work better with larger groups.

His selections must also fit with Common Core state standards, he said, which focus on making sure students are prepared for college and careers after high school.

He said he chooses books to push students academically and reach them intellectually.

His senior students read books such as "Hamlet," "Hiroshima," by John Hersey and "Slaughterhouse-Five," by Kurt Vonnegut. Juniors read books such as Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," and "Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High," by Melba Pattillo Beals.

"The biggest thing I strive for is just ... getting the kids to know that there's a world outside of Champaign-Urbana," he said.

He tries to tailor the class' selections to things he believes will pique their interests.

For example, if he has a class with many young men, he'll have them read "Hamlet."

"It's a book about revenge," he said. "It's conducive to their taste. They might not know it yet, but it is."

His students also read silently during class and write in journals about what they're reading, which O'Connor said is sometimes a struggle.

He tries to ease that by working hard to help students find books they can read independently.

"A lot of these kids have never read a book by themselves, have never taken the time," O'Connor said. "There's a teaching process involved, of how do I choose a book that interests me. My job is to teach them how to peruse a book a little bit."

Independent reading

In Suzanne Linder's sophomore English class at Uni High School in Urbana, students have time each week to read independently a book of their choosing.

Her only rule is, they can't be reading a book for another class during that time, and they keep a weekly reading journal. Once a quarter, they give a talk to the class about the book.

"It's one of the things that I consistently get really positive feedback about," Linder said. "I think Uni students are often kids who have enjoyed reading on their own in the past, and the homework load makes them feel like they don't have time for pleasure reading."

She finds that if one student gives a talk on a certain book, soon three or four more students will be reading it. Students often trade books with one another.

As for required reading, Linder teaches British literature with books of her choice.

"I feel like it's part of my job to convince them they can engage with this literature, even though it's old," Linder said. "I do my best to make it interesting and relevant."

She said she doesn't expect students to love the materials they study in class, and she often finds the ones who strongly dislike a book "enjoy having something to rail against."

"I don't expect they're going to love everything we read," Linder said. "I think there is still value in the works that we have included in the curriculum."

Staying contemporary

Teri Lesesne, executive secretary of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of National Council of Teachers of English, said that along with what she calls the canon of classic literature that students read in class, they should also be exposed to contemporary literature in class.

"Is (classic literature) harmful to kids? No," Lesesne said. "Does it make them want to read? No. Except for the people who go on to be English teachers."

Lesesne is a professor of library science at Sam Houston University in Huntsville, Texas, and teaches children's and young adult literature. She believes that students should see Shakespeare performed as intended, rather than read, and they should be able to choose some of the items they read in class. She also believes they shouldn't read the same things in high school and college.

Sticking to the classics isn't bad for students' education, she said, but teachers should be showing them newer books that they can relate to better.

"All kids should be exposed to great literature," Lesesne said. "I don't have an argument with that at all. (But) if they're going to want continue to read literature, it also needs to be literature that has access points to their life."

Teachers can be crucial in helping students figure out what they love to read.

"There's so much richness out there," Lesesne said. "Unless there's a teacher in the classroom, saying, 'Here are some cool new books,' we're really not keeping kids excited about books and reading."

This story appeared in print on Feb. 12.

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vcponsardin wrote on February 19, 2012 at 11:02 am
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Yikes.  Enough of the novels already.  How about some Pulitzer Prize-winning histories?  Seems high school kids read plenty of fiction.  They're just not prepared to handle complex ideas once they get into college.  Reading more history, philosophy and critical theory might prepare them better for advanced learning than reading yet another novel.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on February 19, 2012 at 11:02 am
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I hope I'll live to see the day when school districts stop imposing Shakespeare on children.  

 

It's only tradition (and England's tradition at that) that keeps this archaic stuff -- nearly incomprehensible to the modern child -- in the cirriculum.

Allison F. wrote on February 19, 2012 at 11:02 am

I totally agree with the importance of introducing high school students to contemporary literature. One of my high school English teachers had us read The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, and that sparked my interest in this author, who is still one of my favorites.

Ceryle Alcyon wrote on February 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Yeah, kids these days shouldn't have to read anything more complex or challenging or sophisticated than Twilight or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  They couldn't possibly be able to relate to a literary style that involves words with more than three syllables, let alone iambic pentameter. Rob, you sound like the kind of guy who would put vinyl siding on a nineteenth-century Victorian and glue wall-to-wall shag carpeting and linoleum over the original oak floors.  So much more comfy and modern!

Teaching Shakespeare in high schools isn't simply a matter of "tradition."  Shakespeare is part of our heritage as Americans and speakers of the English language, whether we were born to it or learn it as a second language.  And whether or not we have a drop of English blood in us, Shakespeare belongs to the entire world.  Hamlet is taught in schools in Germany, India, Japan, and Brazil.  Children in some Chinese schools are reading Shakespeare as early as the fifth grade, for crying out loud!  

If a solid grounding in Western culture doesn't carry any weight with you, maybe the thought of some of our current and future rival economic powers besting us educationally in yet another subject might just give you pause.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 19, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Is Monarch Notes still in business?  I agree that history, and literature are necessary for required reading.  I would like to see emphasis on American History, and American authors initially.  Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis would be good starts.  History seems to be jumbled now due to revisionist writers with personal causes.  That coupled with "co-writers" as shown with Newt Gingerich's style of history.  I recently had a 30 some year old tell me that the Korean War followed the Vietnam War.  When I asked if the Spanish-American War was before the Mexican-American War, he was puzzled.  He admitted that he was unaware of the Spanish-American War.  I never bothered explaining Manifest Destiny.

EL YATIRI wrote on February 20, 2012 at 5:02 am
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manifest destiny is so old fashioned

the modern term is "American Exceptionalism"

EMShaffer wrote on February 23, 2012 at 9:02 am

I feel that it is important to expose children to all types of literature--so often we have them read just the classics...but there has been much research done into expanding the cannon by including more diverse voices.  We need to also include more modern voices, and non-traditional texts in order to expose students to a variety of literature.  This way, they may be encouraged to read more frequently, and will have more exposure to different styles of writing.