My old boss used to say, “We don’t teach texts; we teach students.” Good point, there. Still, as an English teacher, I do use texts as a way of teaching students. Some of these texts are home-runs, and some… well, some get assaulted by the fans on their way to the plate and never even reach the batters’ box. But today, I wanted to highlight a few of the home-runs, those texts that students– across the board, regardless of their general interest in reading– always seem to enjoy:
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien: Students really take to Tim O’Brien’s memoir about Vietnam– which is neither a memoir nor “about” Vietnam. First of all, even though it’s set in Vietnam, the book is really about story-telling, about using stories to find the “truth” of an experience. Secondly, even though O’Brien did fight in Vietnam, most of this account is fictional. Even the narrator, a veteran-turned-writer Tim O’Brien with a precious daughter named Kathleen, is a fictionalized version of the “real” veteran-turned-writer Tim O’Brien (who doesn’t have a precious daughter named Kathleen). All this pretty much blows the kids’ minds, which is fun to watch.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: Don’t show off, respect other people’s privacy, and most importantly, consider things from other people’s perspective– these are just a few of the “life lessons” that Atticus Finch teaches young adults. And they don’t mind learning them, either. A perennial favorite for the past fifty years, this near-flawless novel continues to delight.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: I know, I know… you’re grandmother probably read this in high school. But if it’s not broke, right? Students still enjoy this classic, for all the right reasons: they get enraged with Daisy; they feel appropriately mixed about Gatsby; they love the language (including that killer last line); and the fact that the novel’s surprisingly short isn’t unappealing either. And I still enjoy it too; in fact, the longer I teach it, the more I see in it.
The Odyssey, Homer: Ah, I was testing you. The fact is, the ones that slog through it (and don’t flee to SparkNotes) hate it. Just hate it. Which is unfortunate and paradoxical– unfortunate, because it’s really a great story, and paradoxical, because kids in general really like mythology. They just can’t get on board with jolly ol’ Captain Odysseus.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins: “What?” you ask. “You mean you actually teach books that aren’t fifty years old in high school?” We do, indeed. In fact, a few summers ago, I decided to teach this in summer school (after phasing out decidedly non-fan-favorites such as A Separate Peace and– sad to say– Huckleberry Finn). Not surprisingly, the kids loved it– and summer school students aren’t necessarily the most rabid readers out there. And from my point of view, it’s not just a gripping story; there’s actually some literary stuff in there to teach. (For example, what’s up with all the “flower” imagery?) Now the only “problem” with teaching this in school– if you can even call it a problem– is that it’s TOO popular; too many kids have actually read it on their own.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie: You know you hit upon a great book when you tell kids to read the first twenty pages, and they come back the next day saying they’ve read the whole thing. I’ve had that experience so many times with Part-Time Indian, Alexie’s vaguely fictionalized memoir about his decision, when he was fourteen, to leave his Spokane Indian Reservation and go to an all-white public school. The thing is, when I first read it, I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t sure if the kids would take anything away from it. Yikes, was I wrong. Just goes to show: as a teacher, sometimes you have to learn NOT to trust your own judgment.