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High school reading assignments..... - Input Junkie
February 19th, 2011
10:04 am


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High school reading assignments.....
I'm currently hacking my way through the comments to a post about The Fountainhead being assigned in a high school honors class, and as might be expected, there's plenty of complaints about the books people hated having to read in high school.

So, are there any assigned books which people liked in high school? Hated but now believe it was a good thing you read those books then? Books you'd recommend as part of a high school curriculum?

Offhand, I'd recommend Westerfeld's Uglies. Readable, and plenty to discuss.

ETA:A comment by inge
Good point. I always got the impression that the creators of curriculae and textbooks tended to overestimate teenagers' understanding of human nature, yet consistently underestimated their ability to make sense of a tale. I found that the books which went over best in school were the ones where the students could relate to the character's motivation. Having adventure, defying authority, saving the world, fighting for what's yours, gain understanding of the world and of yourself, all fine. Deal with complicated nets of responsibility, retain your social standing, get grind down by society, cope with futility, have sex with your daughter, not so much.

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Date:February 19th, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC)
We had Wilfred Owen's poems set for "O" level. I've loved them ever since. We also covered a fair bit of Orwell, certainly Homage to Catalonia, which is a tremendous book and an object lesson in how to write English prose. We got lots of the other usual stuff including, of course, Lord of the Flies which may just be Golding's least interesting novel.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
I loved Les Miserables, assigned in tenth grade.

Later I came to appreciate having been assigned the Poetics, and those Greek plays that we studied closely, even if they were tough going at the time.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
A turning point in my life was when "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock" was assigned. Despite being an advance reader in prose all my life, my concept of metaphor and allusion was so limited it seemed incomprehensible, almost a foreign language. Once we deciphered the meanings and references, it was like I had finally learned to read. Whole vistas opened up to me.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 03:48 pm (UTC)
I would say that Uglies is actually inappropriate for a high school honours class - which is not to say I didn't enjoy it, but it's not really literature. It's appropriate for school for grades 7 and 8.

(speaking of such things, I was once scolded by a teacher for reading a book 'far below your reading level' when, at age 11, I did a book report on 'Bambi: A Life in the Woods'. I remembering arguing, pretty passionately, that anyone who thought that was a fool who obviously hadn't read the book. While the movie is total pablum, the book was actually pretty terrifying for an 11 year old. Wikipedia notes:
"The Wall Street Journal's James P. Sterba also considered it an "antifascist allegory" and sarcastically notes that "you'll find it in the children's section at the library, a perfect place for this 293-page volume, packed as it is with blood-and-guts action, sexual conquest and betrayal" and "a forest full of cutthroats and miscreants. I count at least six murderers (including three child-killers) among Bambi's associates."
)Anyways, one of the things that always bothered me is that in Canada, a frequently read in grade 11 and 12 honours lit was Fifth Business. Don't get me wrong, I love the book pretty passionately. But it really doesn't say much to most teenagers. Davie earlier novel from the 50s, A Mixture of Frailties, which is really the book where he moved from a Stephen Leacock/Garrison Keillor storyteller to a serious author who needed to be paid attention to, is far more compelling for people under the age of 20.

(Mixture of Frailties, while published when he was 45, was apparently written while he was in his 30s. Its a classic in the tradition of The Great Gatsby. Davies captures the insecurity of a fairly innocent 21 year old woman coming of age as she studies music in England admirably, without it tending to trite coming-of-age novel tropes)
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Date:February 19th, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC)
The real Bambi is definitely VERY different from the Disney story. I came at it after first reading its sequel, Bambi's Children--and yeah, both novels were filled with all kinds of intense adventure.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 04:08 pm (UTC)
I liked To Kill a Mockingbird. I loathed reading Shakespeare in school, but enjoy it now. I think having students read aloud went a long way toward the loathing. Also, I think at the time I felt pressured to understand every word, but now I'm OK with missing a few details due to language barrier as long as I get the gist. That makes Shakespeare bog down *far* less.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 04:32 pm (UTC)
I appreciated the Shakespeare far more than George Eliot myself - I agree with the comment about individual action vs social nets and their costs.

High school was also just about my only exposure to poetry. Funny, considering how interesting I found the actual poems.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 04:34 pm (UTC)
Well, I've taught high school english. So I've been told why certain books were assigned in certain grades in our area. Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade because the behavior of the Montagues and Capulets is a lot like the behavior of the Nortenos and Surenos and they're hoping that the kids will draw a parallel and get the story better and also be appalled at what their cousins and neighbors are doing and not want to do it. Of Mice and Men because it has such lyrical descriptions of our area, and the men are migrant farmworkers much like a lot of the families locally. The Lord of the Flies -- no, I didn't get that one, much less why my daughter was required to read the damned thing four times. Bless Me, Ultima and The Milagro Bean Field War also because their cultural and political issues are similar to local ones. Hamlet because it's developmentally appropriate. Macbeth and Julius Caesar because -- I forget, but it was convincing at the time.

High school students are not all alike. I mostly taught the kind of kids who would graduate by the skin of my (that is not a typo) teeth if at all, and what I noticed about them is that they were not comfortable with the concept of written fiction. It bothered them that what they were reading wasn't true. They could handle fantasy and untruth in film, but they said they didn't really pay much attention to the plots of movies anyway. They would get mad at the author when a character said or did something stupid or mean, even if that person was supposed to be a villain or an idiot -- they felt that the author must be endorsing everything they wrote. They could understand and use irony and sarcasm in speech and oral story-telling, but written, no.

On the other hand, there are high school students who are not only capable of reading the most complex, layered and obscure material, they're capable of producing it. So if you want these different sorts of people to have some amount of common cultural background, you're going to have to be really clever in producing a curriculum and teaching methods that can make literature accessible to the first group without boring and condescending to (and therefore making the material inaccessible to) the second group. Hence the weird sorts of projects high school teachers come up with sometimes. They're meant to give the first group something solid and chunky to anchor their thinking about literature while allowing the second group some room to expand their thinking. Sometimes thois works, and sometimes it's just dumb.

Edited at 2011-02-19 04:34 pm (UTC)
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Date:February 19th, 2011 04:46 pm (UTC)
I have too much to say about this apparently. To KIll a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books for teens. Some of the "second group" gets impatient with its simple structure and language and moral stance, but it's so thick in context and rich in culture that they can be brought in anyway. (one of the local bookstores is selling bumper stickers that say "What would Atticus do?" and "What would Scout do?" I think that's so cool) But it should really be read along with Meridian which nobody ever reads. Huckleberry FinnBeloved</i>.

My brother hated Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I loved all of Hardy but I didn't read him till I was in my thirties. My brother loved Catch-22 but I didn't get that in high school.

Something that is successful a lot of the time is assigning the biggest, fattest, fanciest book that's currently wildly popular among children and teenagers -- they were assigning Harry POtter in some elementary and middle school classes and kids who might otgherwise fall into my first group were gobbling it up. I don't know how zeitgeist helps to overcome that alienatiuon from literary convention, but I'm all for it.

In my own high school era, I remember really vividly being drawn into heated discussions about The Scarlet Letter. But that was the teacher more than anything, I think.

Such a bias towards American literature -- I wonder if that's me or my school experience?
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Date:February 19th, 2011 04:55 pm (UTC)
I loved Oedipus Rex, assigned in tenth grade, as well as Moby Dick in eleventh grade. But I was really enjoyed Crime and Punishment in my senior year. My classmates either hated it or picked every little symbol apart in it (I remember our teacher informing us that the translation of Svidrigailov's name hinted at his essential nature). I wish I'd kept my notes; I had pages of what every character's name referenced and all the issues of the day in St. Petersburg.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC)
I and my all-male prep school class hated Pride & Prejudice. I reread it years later and recognized how good it is. We also hated The Last of the Mohicans, and we were right about that; it is everything Mark Twain said about it, plus racist and sexist. We also read a lot of good stuff that I appreciated at the time: Tom Jones, Vanity Fair, The Sun Also Rises…And we were spared Silas Marner, which everyone was supposed to suffer through. I may have enjoyed Middlemarch even more when I finally got around to it because I didn't have to forgive the author.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 05:12 pm (UTC)
First story I can remember reading in school and thinking "wow, that was awesome" was "The Most Dangerous Game"; I also have had a long-term appreciation of The Gift of Fire by Richard Mitchell, which I was assigned junior year, would probably never have read otherwise, and have probably reread an average of once every two years or so since.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 07:42 pm (UTC)
I actually liked most of what I was assigned to read in high school. The only thing I can recall actively disliking was Mrs. Bridge, which I loved when I reread it twenty years later. Go figure...
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Date:February 19th, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC)
I remember liking the Shakespeare we got; it probably helped that we had the Folger editions with obsolete words quietly glossed at the bottom of the page, no need to turn to the back or get a dictionary. But that's partly me: I liked The Canterbury Tales in tenth grade, and for that we were given an interlinear translation, middle English text on one line, modern English on the next. I didn't like Jane Austen; having gone back to her much later, that's one I really was just too young for.

I suspect that if I was handed a long list of books, I could identify a lot of the ones I read during high school, but not always which were assigned in English class: a 45-60 minute commute by subway each way meant a lot of reading time. I did almost all my English class reading on the subway (they gave us paperbacks; the social studies texts were mostly too heavy to carry back and forth, or read while using one hand to hold on to a subway strap or pole). And I was still stopping at the library weekly for more books to read on the train.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
Oo, Uglies would be a good choice.

I loved To Kill A Mockingbird, detested The Black Pearl (still do; one of the most boring and pointless books I've ever read). I don't really remember being forced to read anything else, but then since I generally read a few books a week, and have since I learned to read, there could be others I was assigned and had either already read or planned to so it didn't stick as 'homework'.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 08:58 pm (UTC)
I liked To Kill a Mockingbird, better indeed than I like it now. I liked Shakespeare, so much so that high-school class was not my first encounter with him.

Some books hit me in the gut. Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm. Memorable, but I'm not sure if "like" would be an appropriate term.

The canonic novel I read during my high-school years that I liked best, and still do, was not on any class curriculum I had. Huck Finn.
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Date:February 19th, 2011 09:23 pm (UTC)
I read like a demon, and had books confiscated because they were inappropriate.
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