Before I went crazy and decided to be a perfume maker, I taught middle and high school English. That lasted a hot minute and I am one of the people who buckled under the pressure of teaching. I worked with students in the inner cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco and it was one of the most joyous, enlightening, humbling, and heartbreaking (all at once) experiences of my life.
Yesterday, my friend told me about a new book by Sara Benincasa called Great. It’s a YA geared retelling of The Great Gatsby with gender-swapped characters. I haven’t read it yet but I can’t wait, the reviews are pretty stellar and its supposed to be wickedly funny. I bring this up because as I read the description of the novel it reminded me of my biggest failing (but also biggest breakthrough) as a teacher.
Picture it: I was a newly certified teacher taking over for my master teacher who left on maternity leave. The kids knew me in the role of cool teacher helper who had their back, and now I have the audacity to come in and tell them what to do. The first month was hard and I was desperate to re-connect with them and find a piece of literature to bring them back to me. I thought back to my high school days – what was my favorite book to read in English class? Lord of the Flies. It was violent and scary and had all that crazy Freudian/religious stuff going on. Plus, lets tie it into Lost (which was in it’s last season at the time) and do a survivalist, philosophical theme, it will be great! And it was great, they loved it and their minds were blown when they found out Lord of the Flies means “the devil.” But the very first day one of them raised their hand after we were only a few pages in. “Ms. why are we reading a book about a group of British white boys?” My heart sank. In that second it all clicked for me – my upbringing and background were privileged in a way these kids hadn’t seen and instead of finding something that spoke to them, I just rolled out the same “classics of literature” and expected them to react the same way I did.
I’m not saying that the classics shouldn’t be taught or that they aren’t relevant. That’s not the case at all. But so often in high school English (at least from what I saw from my fellow colleagues and what I was guilty of) was an adherence to the old standards with modern supplements strewn in on a limited time budget. Which, again, is fine and at least we’re throwing them a bone by including things they might like, however, the bulk of what they are tested on is the old stuff. Why not start integrating more diverse books and using the classics as the backup? Or have special English classes devoted to modern literature? When I say diverse and modern, I don’t just mean issues of race (in the classroom described above I was the only white person which is problematic for lots of reasons I won’t get into here) but also issues of gender, and one of the most important things I found during my time teaching – having texts that were representative of my students’ neighborhoods/cities. And none of this is a question of whether or not modern students can handle the complexity of classic literature (um they totally can and excel at it) but more a matter of being tired of stories told by predominantly rich, white, privileged characters. Hell, I fall into that group (sans wealth) and I get tired of it.
So here are some ideas for books that we might look to that can speak to modern kids. I’m not adding Great to this list just yet since I still need to read it, but that’s what we need to be going for!
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (I’m going to write most about this because I actually taught it)
Of course today, the day I write this blog post, some school district in Idaho bans this book. I really don’t know why, this book is absolutely amazing and should be required reading for all students. Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel won the National Book Award and is loosely based on his life growing up on a reservation, or “rez” as he calls it in the book. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s about real teenagers. The premise is that a 14 year old Native American boy named Junior, a smarty, a cartoonist, a basketball player, but most important of all, a kid who dreams of breaking the cycle of poverty and making a new life for himself, decides to transfer to an all white school. Junior has to navigate the world of the white people who don’t accept him for his race, as well as his tribe who feels that he has betrayed them. This in addition to dealing with teenage hormones, a disability, death in his family, alcohol abuse, and poverty. The language in this book is accessible and it absolutely killed when I taught this. Before we started I brought in photos of a reservation (I can’t recall which one) but the photo series was from Harper’s Magazine and it was about alcoholism and poverty in the particular tribe it represented. We did a gallery walk and the students looked at the photos and then had to write reactions. This was paired with an excerpt from Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States (more on this below). This unit was poignant and all of my students – African-American, Asian, Hispanic, White (no Native American kids in my classes unfortunately) – connected with the material. Junior is an underdog, an everyman. You root for him. The book is also hilarious. This was my favorite thing to teach.
The Madonnas of Echo Park
I mentioned earlier how important it is for student’s to read books that take place in their neighborhood. When I taught in LA it was for middle school and this book is way too advanced for that; I didn’t pull it out at the high school in San Francisco because the Nor Cal/So Cal rivalry is apparently a real thing and those kids would have killed me if I brought in an LA book. This novel follows a similar format to the movie Crash and features interconnected stories from a cast of characters spanning several decades of Echo Park in Los Angeles. Madonnas, like Crash, explores the different people that comprise the neighborhood but mostly focuses on the plight of Mexican-Americans and how they live between their traditional and “adoptive” worlds. The author’s words are elegant and as someone who lived in the area, it was a completely surreal experience to read about my neighborhood and know exactly what he’s talking about and just nod in agreement with everything. I can’t even imagine what that would be like for a kid who maybe hadn’t shown an interest in reading before – you see yourself on the page.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
This book, a Pulitzer Prize Winner, is slated to be a modern classic. If it’s not being taught already, it will be. Oscar Wao is another hilarious underdog character who is grappling with the realities of life as a member of an immigrant family in America. It’s been a long time since I’ve read this book so it’d be better if you go read a summary (or the book outright!) but like the previous two books mentioned, I love how relatable the character is for young readers (he likes Tolkien and Marvel). This book as well as Madonnas are both more advanced so I’d wait until junior or senior year (or even honors classes).
The Hunger Games
I have mixed feelings about the inclusion of this book because I don’t think it’s the best thing out there, but there are two reasons why I feel that teachers should spend a little time on it. 1. Katniss Everdeen is one of the strongest female characters out there (in the first book, I think the world could have done without her getting coupled up by series end) and we need more strong female characters. The Emmas and Elizabeth Bennets just don’t compute anymore. 2. This book is a phenomenal way to incorporate a unit on media criticism into your class. Most students came to me believing that whatever they see in a newspaper or on TV must be fact because of how it is presented. This book completely puts that idea on it’s head and is perfect for having larger discussions about the role of government, propaganda, how media can spin pretty much anything, and it’s also a great introduction to the fact that girls have grit (you would be amazed at how rampant gendered stereotypes are in a class of 14 year olds). I am also pro-books that have an associated movie because I love using media in the classroom and comparing the two, it adds so much depth. We read some excerpts of this during our Lord of the Flies unit (before the movie came out so many of them weren’t familiar with the story).
A Young People’s History of the United States
This is a supplemental history book but I used it all the time in my English classes. It’s always a good idea to prep your class for the time period they will be encountering when you start a new book. What I love about this one is that it’s not the PG history that students have heard all their life. It’s history from the losing side whose voices are seldom heard and when you are competing for a high schooler’s attention, giving them information that is new and refreshing and interesting, goes a long way. This book is a great supplement to any humanities class and is another way to help students learn to question everything…because the world is not so simple as many history books make it out to be.
I’m all for reading Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Great Gatsby in high school… but let’s add these books too, shall we? If you have more suggestions, let me know below.