Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wednesday Words: What High Schoolers Read

Last week, NPR put up an article (click here to read it) commenting on on what high school students today are reading and highlighted two main points. First, they claimed that students are reading books intended for much younger people based on the Accelerated Reader system, and secondly they reported that except for Shakespeare, classics are being abandoned in our classrooms in favor of more accessible reads that are less challenging.

I was unaware of this article until yesterday when booktuber (someone who talks about books on YouTube) Rincey of Rincey Reads posted a video discussing it. She makes some understandable points in her video, but there were two general, seemingly innocent questions that left me thinking. For one, there's the mentality of 'shouldn't we just be glad that people are reading?' and 'why can't teachers find a balance between classics and more accessible reads (such as YA)?'

They seem like simple questions, but they're actually incredibly complicated. But this is what I spent four years in college and another two years in grad school for. It's why I became a librarian. Because this is a serious issue that is often misunderstood. It's why I scrapped my plans for yesterday so I could instead write a script, film a video, edit it, and upload it so I could throw in my two cents. (If you're interested, it's at the end of this post - what I'm about to talk about may make more sense if you watch it first.)

To take on the first question of shouldn't we just be glad that people are reading, in a general sense the answer is yes. I fully support recreational reading at all ages. However, in schools, it's not that simple because there's accountability. There are bench marks and standards that must be met, and in some cases funding could be on the line should students not perform adequately.

There's also the point of college and life readiness. True, not everyone goes to college, but studies show time and again that the strongest predictor we currently have of people's future success (and yes, that's a broad statement) is their ability to read. Reading never goes away, it is a skill needed no matter where this life takes you. While US education in the last few decades - especially since the Space Race - focuses heavily on math and science, it is my firm belief that constant pushing for more engineers won't matter if none of them can read. I come from a family of math and science people as are many of my friends, and while I'm a lone bibliophile among them, they will all tell you that being able to read is an integral part of what they do in the lab, in design, as computer science, electrical, mechanical, and bio engineers.

That doesn't mean everyone needs to take AP English classes in high school to succeed, but reading challenging texts critically does actually provide people with transferable skills. This brings us to the second point of what is being read in English classes. First of all, this varies across the country. Every school, district, city, state, region has their own way of doing things, but in my experience to say that Shakespeare is the only classic being taught in schools anymore is false. Classics from centuries long past as well as modern classics whose authors are still with us today are very much still a part of English classrooms. Are these texts always easily accessible to students? No. They're usually challenging in terms of content, language, vocabulary, and structure. As one teen mentioned in the comment section of my video, he just wants to be entertained by a story and liked the book 1984 until his teacher started to 'brainwash' the class and analyze it to death. I know it can feel tedious and obnoxious, like teachers are trying to suck all the fun out of reading, but that's not the case. Studying literature is about digging deeper, asking questions that go further than mere plot. It's not always fun - believe me, I know. I have an English degree - but again, those critical thinking skills can be used beyond classrooms.

So if students have to analyze text, can more modern literature and even YA be an option? Absolutely! Why isn't it happening more in classrooms? Because developing curriculum isn't just up to a teacher - there are a lot of people who get input and make those decisions. Also, money. There are lots of great new titles out there, but who is going to pay for them? For the library, I can buy one or two copies, but not an entire class set.

It's a lot to think over, especially to teachers and students over summer vacation, but these questions never go away. I'm passionate about finding a solution, that's why I'm a teacher and librarian, but it's a long and winding road ahead of us.

What do you all think? Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading!


  1. This is such a great post! My English teacher friends are struggling with this daily. One suggestion, which came out of a BEA session actually, was the teach a classic and pair it with a modern YA novel with similar themes.

    1. Thank you! And I love that idea of pairing YAs with classics - that's a pet project I actually worked on this past year at my school and hope to expand on in the future =) Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Fantastic post! Yes, teach the classics, but I think it's critical that young adults also have the opportunity to read current novels. Just because they're new doesn't mean that they're not well written etc. One such novel that has been hailed as a modern day classic that is starting to hit classrooms is ALICE BLISS by Laura Harrington. Personally, I think it's brilliant and exactly what SHOULD be taught because it will engage YA of today. Thanks for the post! Liza

    1. Right now, I feel like the best we can do considering the budgetary constraints of public schools across the country is do the best we can to make sure books like Alice Bliss are at the very least in libraries so students can access them there. I'd absolutely love if we could have more accessible books that also utilize critical thinking and analysis schools in classes in addition to the classics, but again, a lot of it comes down to money and who will be paying for it. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Thx great questions. As a high school librarian in Canada for 16 years and a teacher K-12 for 17 more, Id have to say that the tale is a paradox. While we have libraries being closed and some claiming we only need Google we also have more powerful school library programs and librarians than ever. We also have more dynamic English teaching practices and I say more passionate teen readers too. The rub? Is we also have major gaps of equity and access and too many kids not reading at grade. We have too many kids not ready in kindergarten when they arrive in school.