Should school reading be bound by the book?

Megan Tsang, Features Editor

It’s a familiar sight at Dougherty Valley High School: a long line of students disappearing into the abyss of the textbook room. An AP Literature class is picking up the next mark on their list, “Wuthering Heights.”

“This looks boring,” says a girl, with a roll of her eyes. Other students nod in agreement.

This moment captures a larger issue at hand: students have become disillusioned with their English classes. This is evident in the mere 21.7 percent of Dougherty students who wanted to pursue a career in humanities, according to a Tribune survey from 2016; and, it’s why SparkNotes is now worth millions (Crunchbase). Part of the reason why could be that students lack interest in the books they read.

“The books I’ve read — some were impactful, but most of them were extremely boring,” says junior Aavinit Kaour.

However, the weathered pages and diminutive text that tire students are not chosen without reason.

“This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s good we read the books we read,” says sophomore Ada Zhong. “They all offer insights or important messages that we might not normally acknowledge.”

Ms. Erin Holzer — who teaches English 9, English 11 and AP Literature — explains: “The argument is that, well students need to read [classics] at some point and why assign books that students are going to read on their own? … My preference, personally, is kind of the opposite.”

From the flowing prose of “The Great Gatsby” to the vivid imagery in “The Call of the Wild,” classics are classics for a reason. But, are these antiquated artifacts the only ones that can “reflect a pluralistic, multicultural society composed of unique individuals?” This is the objective outlined in the California Department of Education Standards for Evaluating Instructional Materials for Social Content. Students and policy-makers don’t seem to be on the same page about what books best achieve this goal.

In all of the interviews I conducted, a common demand that students had was to be exposed to more contemporary texts.

When asked what she’d change about the reading list, Zhong shares, “I’d like to see books with less esoteric language. I’d say the majority of students are unsatisfied in the books they read because they [the books] don’t relate to problems we go through … I think a lot of more modern books can offer a lot of symbolism to analyze, which would still be useful in English classes.”

Modern novels have just as much literary merit as traditional classics. The social critique presented in “The Handmaid’s Tale” can contend with that of “Lord of the Flies,” “I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing” carries the same emotional depth as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Never Let Me Go” is just as lauded as “Of Mice and Men.” These contemporary novels can not only keep pace with the mainstays of the past, but they also have a leg up: broader perspectives and the ability to resonate with students in a more accessible, tangible way.

Students also called for a wider range of genres, from nonfiction to science fiction. With a greater bank of knowledge to draw from, students can more easily create interdisciplinary connections, synthesize information and think abstractly. It encourages students to be more flexible and to look beyond the world that they know. But, in order to get to that point, the fundamental issue must be addressed.

Throughout the nation, there is a conspicuous lack of diverse voices in literature.

As BJ Epstein of Newsweek phrased it, “We know that children’s books can act like both mirrors and windows on the world. Mirrors in that they can reflect on children’s own lives, and windows in that they can give children a chance to learn about someone else’s life.”

A child’s mind is plastic — easily molded and built to last into the future. Books are one of the greatest tools we use to shape them. The exposure they give students to other points of view is essential for cultivating tolerance and mental adaptability. The fact that an overwhelming majority of the books being read in American high schools were written by white male authors before the Civil Rights Movement had even begun should be cause for concern (Renaissance Learning).

Junior Desiree Lei commented on this issue, saying, “If I could change something, I would add on authors of different backgrounds so it’s not always ‘white dead men’ books.”

But, teachers do emphasize with the problems students face, and they too share their frustrations.

“The district isn’t willing to spend much money on new books,” Holzer shares.

Despite the limitations placed on them, Dougherty teachers are trying to find ways to modernize their offerings. Across all grades, they’ve established literary circles that encourage students to take more initiative in their reading choice. Dougherty also offers an array of English classes for senior students that cover more diverse topics, such as science fiction and social justice. 

“I was thinking about a novel that was one, current, and two, written by somebody that wasn’t white,” states Ashley DeGrano, who’s in her second year of teaching English at Dougherty. This school year, her class will be reading the 2007 Y.A. novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

And, DeGrano has gone even further in her experimental approach. Books are just one small shard that fit into a larger mosaic.

“I use project-based learning as the primary mode of curriculum,” she explains. “I don’t necessarily think that the love of reading, in general, is going to come from something that’s forced. I think it’s going to be trying to find where you fit in, whether that’s articles, podcasts, books, short stories or whatever but make a connection.”

In a typical day in room 9101, students can be seen debating current events, dissecting a newspaper article from one perspective then analyzing a video from another. They start to delve into deeper thematic and philosophical questions. Then, they apply this dynamic discussion to static texts. Last year, for example, students studied the role of propaganda in society, drawing parallels between “All Quiet on the Western Front” and the 2016 election.

Yet, these efforts still fall short. These markers of progress are few and far between.

While literary circles help to provide a more inclusive experience for students, “it’s still kind of limited,” Holzer says. “It’s difficult to expose students to more recent and relevant literature when the options … simply aren’t available.”

Some class offerings may incorporate more culturally responsive and current literature, but they are limited in who they reach. And, although Ms. DeGrano’s classroom has taken steps to bridge the gap between past and present, it is an exception — an outlier rather than a trend.

In order for change to actually occur, a case must be made beyond a single classroom or even a single high school. Students, teachers and parents must come together to participate in the discussion. We need to reexamine and redefine what makes a book worthy enough to make it into the hands of students. Human horizons have continued to expand with each new decade, so perhaps we should have our curriculum reflect this growth and turn the page.