How Does A Teacher Choose What To Read In Class?

Do you think that the books read in school are boring? Are parents really worried about what their kids are reading in school? I can imagine that some parents don’t want their kids reading certain books because of language, or inappropriate scenes. How often does that happen? How often do teachers push their own agenda in the classroom? I don’t think it happens in elementary school or middle school. It might happen in high school, and more than likely happens at university. However, by the time our kids get to be adults attending college, shouldn’t they be capable of analyzing what others say, and deciding for themselves?

My Experience

I’ve worked in two different school districts, both of which are populated by fairly conservative families. When teachers talk about what they’re teaching, they’re limited to a list of books approved for a specific grade, or lexile level. The books that are available to use in class aren’t always physically available in the school. So, as they say, beggars can’t be choosers. In most cases, teachers teach from books that are approved, and that have been purchased by a teacher and administration consensus.

When I write, “books that are approved”, I mean books that have been submitted for review by a teacher who would like to use it. A committee of teachers, librarians, and community members read the book and decide if it has literary value, anything that might be seen as inappropriate, and if it fits the grade level of the students being taught.

In my experience, most books are classics. They’re older and have some historic and cultural value. Books that will probably be around forever like To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, and nearly everything by William Shakespeare.

My Philosophy

Obviously young kids shouldn’t be exposed to books that have foul language, or excessive violence. Sometimes adult books will have kids versions that are significantly modified. I think that’s fine, but there are so many things to read that it isn’t necessary. I don’t know how it happens exactly, but kids get to middle school, and they start to hate school. They might like to read, but then they’re told what to read and when to finish and it becomes a chore. I would much rather have kids read something they like on their own time, or even during class time so they don’t lose that interest.

When I taught 8th grade we read Ender’s Game in class. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books. It’s interesting, it’s unusual, it’s violent, has some foul language, and is on the approved list. When reading out loud, I usually replace the words to something silly, which helps kids keep reading along. They giggle when I change something which causes the bored kids to wonder what’s up. We can talk about cause and effect. We can talk about what they would do if they were there. We can identify what is appropriate according to our cultural norms, and what is inappropriate. It is a great community learning experience.

What about Shakespeare. When was the last time you read Shakespeare? High school? College? Did you really read it, or did your teacher simplify things for you? Go back to the famous “love story” Romeo and Juliet. It’s not really about love. It’s a story of infatuation between two teens over a three day period. The opening scene between Gregory and Sampson is typical of Shakespeare’s punning; talking about maidenhead and salted fish. Seriously, parents complain about things, but not Shakespeare. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Shakespeare. I think he was the most clever writer of drama in the English language. Do parents remember reading Shakespeare? Do they really care what their students are reading, or does Shakespeare get a pass just because his writing is old and everyone reads it?

Why Read Together In Class?

When everyone in class has experienced the same story at the same time, it’s easy to have a conversation. It’s easy to address social or environmental concerns. Kids can ask questions and hear what multiple people have to say about it. As a teacher, I can guide the conversation. I can act like I don’t understand what students are talking about, forcing them to think about what they really think and explain more specifically. I can put kids into pairs or groups to help those who are shy or timid communicate in a less stressful environment. I can then provide other whole class experiences that force the kids to band together.

Standing Up For Who We Are

When we read about Anne Frank and World War Two, students had a hard time understanding why it was so difficult for Jews to stand up for themselves. They didn’t understand the community pressure to report traitors to the German government. I tried to give students a feeling of this during class. I started class in a very stern, almost angry way. I told students that we had a lot of things to do during class, and that we didn’t have a lot of time to waste. I divided students into groups to read picture books about The Holocaust, but I didn’t give them enough time to do it. I had them switch to the next book before they could finish. Students started to complain that they weren’t finished, so I sent them to the hall. The first few students to complain were really scared. Usually they were the on task students who never got into trouble. They couldn’t understand why I was in such a bad mood. Eventually six or seven kids were sent out into the hall, and kids still in class were totally silent, totally on task.

Time To Process

After 10 minutes or so, I called the students in the hall back to class. Everyone was silent. I asked them what they experienced as they tried to read the assigned picture books. I had them take out a piece of paper to write down their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and anything else they thought about the activity. Their eyes got bigger, and some smiled as they started to understand the connection. They wrote about their fear and frustration. Eventually, we could talk about why it was so difficult to stand up against Hitler’s government. They were much more sympathetic to the situation and realized how easy it can be to give someone else power.

Reading can be a powerful experience whether individually, or in a class of 30 other people. Sometimes we read to escape, and sometimes we read to understand others. Teachers try to choose books that they are confident will help students. Teachers try to help students become thoughtful, sympathetic, empathetic, caring, and patient.

I don’t know how, but I missed reading a lot of books that others read in middle and high school. I’ve read many of them as an adult, and for the most part loved the experience each book offered. Some are still not great, but that’s a matter of personal opinion and I’m OK with that.

What did you read in middle school or high school? How did those stories change your perspective on life?

 

Read on!

-Dave

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