You’re sitting in English class reading a book your teacher assigned. You look around and see some students either falling asleep or just bored out of their minds, and you start to wonder, “Why in the world is my teacher making us read this?”
Although some students feel this way and believe teachers have some kind of sadistic need to force students to read boring books, in reality, it’s not that simple. And teachers aren’t as indifferent toward students’ interests as some might think.
“We, as English teachers, try to come up with a literary curriculum by sitting down and talking about which books might interest students,” said Fairmont English teacher Rebecca Templeton-Owens. “We also go to conferences and come back with lists of books that the students might find interesting.”
Before even assigning a book, in fact, most teachers read the books themselves to make sure they find it interesting – if they don’t, they know their students probably won’t either. Other factors involved in choosing a book are whether the literature is aligned to the curriculum for a particular course and how much of a challenge the book poses to students. “I feel that students need to read more challenging literature,” said Templeton-Owens.
The degree to which students find a book interesting also depends on their attitudes toward the assigned reading. “When I have to teach a book that I know my students won’t like, I try to make it as interesting as I can for them,” said Fairmont English teacher Emily Bruzzese. “I get my students to participate by calling on them to answer questions, and I try to get them involved in the class discussion,” she said.
Fairmont English Department Chair Penni Meyer agrees that getting students involved in a class discussion is a great way to push students; however, she notes that it’s not the only way. “Sometimes the grade itself pushes them,” said Meyer.
Students have their opinion on the subject as well. “I feel like some books are bad and some books are good,” said sophomore Brad Steel, an honors English student.
Teachers can’t please everyone
Meyer agrees that students’ reactions depend on the book. “For my AP and IB students, their reaction varies. Some students may like a book, while others may not,” said Meyer. “It’s very rare to get a book that all the students like.”
Templeton-Owens has noticed a similar reaction in her students over the years as they begin to read a new novel. It is impossible, of course, to please everyone. After reading books and plays like Antigone, Oedipus Rex and The Crucible, students often also complain about endings as well. “They often ask me if we’re ever going to read something happy,” she said.
Certain books, though, almost always are a hit with students. Bruzzese explains that several novels draw similar reactions out of her students every year. “Students oftentimes like Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Flies and 1984 the best,” she said.
Sometimes teachers must make adjustments to their curriculum to satisfy requirements beyond their control. “For IB students, the curriculum changes every 4-5 years, so the students get a variety of books instead of always reading the same thing,” said Meyer. IB students have a much more restricted curriculum than the AP and College Prep English students; the IB governing board provides a list of prescribed authors from which IB teachers must pick.
Although the College Board doesn’t prescribe certain authors, it does provide a list of suggested authors for AP English classes.
Change isn’t always easy
College Prep teachers may have the most leeway in choosing what novels to teach, but that doesn’t mean making changes is always simple or possible. Many factors come into play.
“Every few years we revisit our curriculum to decide whether or not there’s something we could change,” said Meyer. “But the department has come together and agree on these changes.”
Teachers consider the literature that is already available in the textbooks the district has purchased. They also factor in what is traditionally studied at various levels of high school English. Then they must consider the cost involved in purchasing new novels; sometimes the money simply isn’t in the budget.
Some teachers have been known to put their own money toward a class set of books. More often, they apply for grants to help pay for them. A grant is a gift of money from organizations outside the school district itself. Getting a grant involves researching costs and options and writing a justification explaining why the books are a good investment.
Fairmont English teacher Jessica Stickel has used grants in the past. “For two or three years in a row, I used a grant to get books for a nonfiction unit I was doing,” she said. “In order to get a grant, I had to fill an application explaining how I was going to use this money and how the money was going to benefit the students.”
Stickel said she’s been able to use those books several times. “But in the next few years, we might apply for a new title,” she said.