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By Ayush Kumar (April 2012)
Quote of the Month:
“A classic is a book which people praise and don’t read.”
It was a little disheartening to read last month’s Sagamore article about not all students doing their assigned reading for English classes. According to our survey, 74 percent read 80 to 100 percent of their assigned reading. Just going by that, a quarter of the kids in your English class won’t know what is going on during class today.
I’m no literary scholar myself, but as a quiet kid who practically lived in books back in the day, I know reading has helped me develop many reading comprehension skills needed in high school and on standardized tests.
I don’t believe that nobody today reads, but I think the problem lies in what students are being forced to read rather than why they aren’t reading. It’s time to revamp English class so that students discover a passion for literature instead of just deciding books aren’t for them.
Why are we in school stuck on Shakespeare, when people of all ages are enthusiastically devouring books like The Hunger Games? What makes a novel “better” than another in the literary sense?
Looking back upon English classes’ required reading, I have discovered some fantastic works such as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Joyce’s Dubliners. There have also been some real stinkers, like Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
Now, choosing class reading based on students’ choices would be futile, seeing as opinions would differ too greatly across the board. In addition, there are some books which no sane person in their right mind would touch but are important to master because they genuinely help our ability to process literature and give us insight into relevant issues.
A great example of this would be Dante’s Inferno, which I read this year. Although it was a pain trying to get through such old text, it brought about some very insightful conversations about sin during class. These conversations should be common in an ideal thought-provoking English class.
So what is Ayush’s grand proposal to the English department that will without a doubt see an increase in reading?
For one, the divisions between “American” and “world” literature during sophomore and junior year don’t make much sense. Not only does splitting literature by area of origin diminish potential student interest for a whole year, American literature simply does not warrant a whole year to itself because it starts to run thin after a semester. (Willa Cather has changed nobody’s life, and if I really wanted to read some Henry James, I would combine the sentences in any given book to make them unnecessarily long).
There is a lot of potential interest lost due to the fact that students only get to choose their English class once in the duration of their four years: 12th grade. Condensing the first three years into two and then offering a choice to juniors too would not only see an increase in reading but would make stressed out juniors definitely a bit happier.
Also, I’ve noticed when teachers assign independent reading, students perk up immediately. There’s something awesome about having the choice to read what you want, but we simply do not receive this privilege enough.
Independent reading made my junior paper last year and my current senior paper much more bearable. Out of a gigantic list, I chose to analyze Coetzee’s Disgrace and Nabokov’s Lolita. Choosing my own books to analyze made the process of writing about the books much more interesting. Increasing the amount of independent reading is absolutely the way to go.
To ensure that people don’t choose Twilight as schoolwork, teachers can make large lists of acceptable choices, and they may keep adding to the list every time a student discovers something new.
Lastly, the required reading books should be put through this all-too-simple test: Will the helpfulness of this book, both at a literary and thematic level, tremendously exceed the boredom and hatred it will cause amongst students?
When the answer is “no,” drop that book and introduce something new. It’s better that students dig into their favorite genres than SparkNote the heck out of their Shakespeare assignment every night.