How Should Schools Teach Books and Reading?


My name is danica. I’m a contributing
editor at book riot. And today I wanted to talk about how schools should teach
books and reading. So I am a newly certified high school English teacher.
I have taught in two practicums, I’ve done some substitute teaching. I haven’t had
my own class yet. What I’m really interested in is what we should be
prioritizing in the English classroom. English is one of the few classes that
you take basically the entire run of your education. Most schools I believe
require that you take an English 12 class, that you take an English class
every single year. So what we teach in English classes is what’s being taught
to everybody who’s graduating from high school. So I think it’s an important
question. I also think it’s a really interesting question as someone who is
very interested in books and reading. As this community of readers, of book lovers,
what do we want people to be learning about books and reading when it’s
mandatory? This is interesting too for me because I am teaching in British
Columbia, which has in the last few years changed its curriculum and in high
school English classes there are no required texts. So we have things that
students are supposed to learn, are supposed to be able to do once they have
completed the class but we don’t have any specific text we’re required to teach.
And even the word text in the curriculum can be defined as oral, written, and
visual or digital. So theoretically you could teach an English class in BC and
not teach any books at all and it would technically meet the curriculum. I don’t
think that anyone’s doing that or has done that but technically it could be
done. So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I think is important
to teach an English classroom and I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on
it. One of the big questions is should we teach the classics? Which classics if so?
Do we still teach Shakespeare? Do we need to have a poetry unit? These are all
things that are up to us as individual teachers, in BC at least, to decide. So I
could teach The Hunger Games or I could teach 1984 or I could make it a choice
or do neither. And what it comes down to for me is what is our ultimate goal, what do
we really want students to be getting out of these classes? Do we want them to
appreciate the classics and how good knowledge of them? Do we want them
to have a good understanding of the technicalities of writing? Do we want
them to be able to identify and use things like metaphor and symbolism and
illusion? Is vocabulary a priority? Is the goal to instill a love of reading? Is the
goal just to teach critical thinking and books are just one of the many ways you
can do that? Obviously I’m biased and I would assume most English teachers are. I
love reading and I want to instill that love of reading in my students. People
who do a lot of independent reading have a lot of advantages. It tends to improve
your grades in all your classes. I think we’re all aware that there’s lots of
benefits to reading that can deal with emotion and empathy as well as
intellectual gains. Personally for me, that is something
that I would like to prioritize. It’s also a really difficult thing to do. You
can’t really make someone like reading. You can try to create an environment
where that is more possible but it’s not something like being able to identify a
metaphor that you can evaluate on a test. You can’t really pass or fail someone
based on whether they love reading. Also how do you make it mandatory for someone
to pick up books of their own volition? Because that’s the sort of reading that
really benefits you the most, is when you’re picking it up of your own free
will. So if you’re including that in the curriculum, is it really of your own
free will anymore? Obviously we’re hoping to do a lot of
things in English classes and there’s no reason you can’t teach the classics and
teach grammar and still be trying to instill a love of reading. But sometimes
these goals can clash a little bit. I think we all know people who stopped
reading after a particularly bad assigned reading or who really associate
books with the dry classics that they were forced to read in high school. And I
think that that is such a shame because I’m sure that they learned something
from those classes. They can’t imagine that any benefit that they got from that
class isn’t outweighed by that dislike of reading that they also got from it.
I would much rather a student leaves my class with a love of reading graphic
novels and no understanding of literary allusions then for them to leave with
all of this technical knowledge and have no love of reading or no appreciation
of reading. Some of the other things that are included in the BCELA
curriculum are about books and story as being a way to make connections to others, to
understand the world more and to understand ourselves more. The text in
general are socially, culturally and historically constructed. So really
understanding who made these texts and why, what influenced them. A lot about
critical thinking and questioning what you read in here and then also things
about literary elements and techniques. So all of these things are included in
the curriculum. We should be covering all of them. But one of the things about
having a curriculum that is so open is that it can be interpreted in a lot of
ways. So especially when you’re looking at grade 10 and 11 classes in BC students
have the choice to select different English classes. So they could pick new
media, they could pick spoken language or literary studies. There’s indigenous
versions of basically every one of those. And each of these is going to offer a
different lens to look through. So for something like new media, you can teach —
and I have taught — Twitter, Instagram, you can use YouTube videos, you can use
movies and teach those skills without necessarily relying entirely on the
written word. Or you could have a novel study and require that students do a
fake Facebook page for the characters or create an Instagram account based on the
book or do something entirely different. So teachers have a lot of flexibility
in how they approach the curriculum, which is amazing because you can bring
in your own passion and knowledge, you can respond to what your class needs and
what their interests are. But it’s also so open that it can be really
intimidating because you can teach so many different things. There’s no
guidebook. There’s no kind of road map of what you have to be teaching. It’s
entirely up to you. So different schools might have books that they often teach
in ninth grade but you have no obligation to teach that book. So what I
would like to do is try to incorporate as much free choice into my classes as I
can to really encourage that love of reading. I’d like to have kind of book
club style discussions with students who have all chosen in the same book, maybe
books that have a similar theme, so we can find connections with each other. I’d
like to do a lot of independent reading. My practicum teacher had a system where they did 20 minutes of silent reading
three times a week. And the whole way that they remarked on that was a four-point
system every day of were you on time, did you have your book out and looked like
you’re reading it, did you not have your phone out, were you quiet. That was
basically it. So you didn’t have to write a book
report, you didn’t have to answer a bunch of questions about the book. You just had
to be there reading every day. And I really like that system because
personally my least favorite part in school was having to do this book report.
So I always found it really difficult to try to condense a whole book down to a
paragraph and it made me dislike reading more. Of course there’s lots of ways that
students could kind of manipulate that system but I think it’s important to
give that freedom and create an environment where reading is encouraged.
Personally I don’t imagine I will be teaching Shakespeare unless it’s
something my students really ask for. That’s something that I never really
connected with and I know that there are lots of ways you can make it really
engaging. But because it’s not something I’m passionate about, I think it really
shows when I’m trying to teach it. I would much rather teach something that I
really enjoy myself and can bring that enthusiasm. So for me at this point at my
teaching career, I don’t see myself bringing in a lot of classics. I’m also
kind of on the fence about the poetry unit. I think if I’m bringing in poetry
in my class, I’d rather kind of sprinkle it throughout. I think the standard
structure for an English class, which is usually a short story unit, your whole
class novel study, your Shakespeare unit, etc. I think that can be a little bit dry
for both teaching and learning. I would rather mix it up a little bit and maybe
have poetry once a week, grammar lessons once a week, and not have it just be a
lot of the same thing all the time. But I know that I’ll be doing a lot of
experimenting. I know that I will be learning a lot as I try to structure my
own classes. I have a whole semester to myself, which I haven’t done before. The
longest I’ve taught in a row is eight weeks. So it’s gonna be really different
designing it from scratch. But I’m also really excited to have that freedom and
to try to bring in my own priority as my own enthusiasm into classes. And I’m
really interested to hear what you think about this. What do you think English
classes should be doing in school? Particularly my interest
in high school and also because learning to read is obviously a priority in the
younger grades. But I’d really love to hear any feedback you have of what you
think is important to teach in classes and why. If you could structure the high
school English curriculum, what would you put on it? Do you think the classics and
Shakespeare’s should still be taught as a mandatory thing in schools? Do you
think there are any mandatory texts that everyone should teach? Let me know in the
comments and thank you for watching.

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4 thoughts on “How Should Schools Teach Books and Reading?”

  1. Vintage Beauty says:

    I love your idea of doing a book club style class where groups are together based on the books they have chosen!!!
    I think instilling a love of reading should be a priority. Whenever I hear someone say they dislike reading, my first thought is always that they haven't read the right book.
    I think people often learn correct grammar and punctuation and some of the English basics through reading without even realizing it… Good luck to you!

  2. Richard Dominguez says:

    whilr i agree with your ideas, I feel that what students should learn is reading skills, understanding and critical thinking about what they are reading, reading is the most important skill a person can learn, to be proficient in reading makes other skills easier to learn i.e. math, science, writing, etc … Reading skills help in all aspects of life, especially on the job, where poor reading skills can hinder advancements … when i was in 7th grade i refused to do the class reading assignment (reading was so boring, i thought). the techer sent a letter home (thanks to that teacher). my mother talked to the teacher and assured her i would read the book. Needless to say I read the book and have never stopped reading since, the book was "Animal Farm". Love of reading is a wonderful thing, but certain "reading skills" have to be in place to get the full benefit and potential that reading can offer and sadly those are the skills that the education system spends little if any time on … Once again an interesting topic and thanks for sharing

  3. Brenda Wash says:

    I’m in the U. S. The classics are still important. Anytime independent reading along with including required elements is included that always made reading fun for me.

  4. LucieReads says:

    I think it's best when english classes use a combination of classics and modern literature. The classics can be used as a base and help students really dissect literature and get those skills then modern books can be used to instill more of a love of reading. For example when I read The Hunger Games in 7th or 8th grade I then became incredibly interested in dystopian fiction. I of course read all the YA dystopians that came out to ride the hype train, but also 1984 and Brave New World. I wanted to see where these ideas really came from. Of course I was a nerd and did all that on my own, but I think something like that would be really nice in a classroom setting

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