Jo Talks Books: On Required Reading In Schools and Why It Needs To Change

Hi everyone! I know it’s been absolutely ages since I last did one of these, I’m sorry about that, it’s exam time at the moment so I have been crazy busy revising (it will all be over next week thankfully!) and haven’t had time to sit down and write one of these, but I’m finally getting around to it. This week’s topic was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend of mine about the books that we were forced to read at school & it got me thinking about required reading for exams.

We all remember the books that we were made to read for our exams, if you’re like me, it will be with less than fond memories, though I’m sure there are people out there who enjoyed them! Still if you’ve done your GCSE’s in the past few years, you probably know the formula: Shakespeare, 2 19th/20th century novels, usually by old white men, a modern play & poetry. All this sounds perfectly fine, until you talk to your parents and their friends and realise that the texts that you’re studying are almost exactly the same as they did when they were at school.

Now whilst I’m sure it makes sense to exam boards and the government to be assigning things that have been tried and tested and proven to get good results over the years, by sticking to the same old body of literature for exams, we’re missing out on introducing teens to a wealth of equally amazing contemporary literature. The assigned reading for GCSE’s also tends to be very Western focused, on British and American literature mostly, and I find that rather sad when there’s a world of great books out there for different cultures that we only stick to the one that’s most familiar to us.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with classic literature. It’s not to my personal taste, but clearly there is something about it that has resonated with people in order for it to last so long, & it does make sense to want to teach teenagers about issues of the past through these kinds of books. But teenagers nowadays face different issues, and it would definitely be worthwhile to offer them some contemporary choices, that they might be able to relate to more. It’s not as if there aren’t contemporary books on the same themes as some of the books already assigned for English Literature, teens could always be given the same books currently on the syllabus, but alongside more contemporary options, exploring the same themes, and compare and contrast, as an example, Lord of The Flies and Beauty Queens, books that pretty much explore the same situation, just gender flipped and that might make the tedium of reading Lord of The Flies a little more fun!

I also think that getting the opportunity to study more contemporary books, might engage students who are more reluctant readers. I mean, I love books and yet I hated English Literature, so I can’t imagine that long, stuffy classics would necessarily appeal to those who aren’t as keen on reading. It seems a shame that teens could get put off reading because they are assigned stuff that isn’t engaging.

There are also so many retellings of classics nowadays, which is an area I don’t think is explored often enough at school, I mean you can find a retelling of basically any classic book if you look hard enough and comparing and contrasting the original to it’s retellings would definitely add something new to simply studying the same old classic over and over again.

And whilst I certainly understand why we are made to study Shakespeare, I didn’t exactly find studying Macbeth thrilling, and I’m sure that a lot of teens probably feel the same way. But again, there are many modern retellings of Shakespeare, movies like She’s The Man & Ten Things I Hate About You for one, and even books that are modern retellings of his plays, like Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (a modern Romeo and Juliet), there’s no reason why Shakespeare can’t be updated for a modern teenage audience.

There’s such a push for diversity in books for teens at the moment, which is great and absolutely necessary, but shouldn’t there be a push for diversity in the authors, playwrights and poets whose work we assign teens for exams as well? We didn’t read anything from any non-white authors for GCSE, & only the one woman, there was nothing by anyone with a disability or a mental illness and aside from To Kill A Mockingbird, there was nothing with any POC characters (even then, TKAM is still a white centred story). We want to make sure that our teens are reading diverse books and yet their exam syllabus is anything but diverse? That just seems wrong to me, we should get as much diversity as possible into our exam syllabuses. It might not be possible to represent every single marginalised person, but it would be great if at least some more diversity was shown in the choices for exam reading.

I also hate that there’s such a snobbery surrounding classic literature. Like that’s what assigned because it’s seen as somehow “better” than contemporary fiction. Sure there are some great classic books out there, but just because these books are old, doesn’t instantly make them better than contemporary books, in the same way that being new doesn’t make those books automatically better. There are both great classics and great newer fiction and it would be great if the fact that there are socially relevant and engaging books for teens out there was acknowledged in exam syllabuses.

Obviously, it’s not possible for all teens’ reading tastes to be taken into account when the syllabus is being set, and it’s not likely that you’ll love everything that you’ll read in school, but you would think that it would be possible to offer teens some choice, so that they read something they are interested in for their exam, after all, you’ll do a lot better writing about a book you love than a book you hate!

I have outlined just a few different ways that the current English Literature syllabus could be modified in order to include more contemporary literature alongside the classics which are already studied. It’s probably not likely that it will change anytime soon, given how long they’ve had the same syllabus for, but you have to hope that one day, contemporary literature will be incorporated into English Literature exams, or else I pity the poor students of 20 years time who will still be studying Lord of The Flies! In an ever changing world of literature, it seems awful that our literature GCSE has remained somewhat stagnant. There’s so many wonderful books out there to experience, let’s hope that someday, someone chooses to take a step outside the same old structured box and try something new!

What do you think? Do you think more contemporary fiction should be required reading for exams? Did you enjoy your English GCSE? What did you have to study for it? What do you think is the best way to get teens engaged in reading? Let me know in the comments!

I will have a new Jo Talks post up at some point in May (I totally meant to do more than one April one, but I just ran out of time!), although I have no idea what it will be about, so I can’t tell you! If there’s anything you would like me to talk about, then please let me know. In the meantime, I’m hoping to have a new review up in the next few days of my most recent read Paper and Fire, so stay tuned for that!

 

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10 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: On Required Reading In Schools and Why It Needs To Change

  1. Briana April 29, 2017 / 11:01 pm

    I actually have a post about why we should still have required reading of classics scheduled for Monday. :p

    I do think that literature classes are in fact changing, and that even if people are teaching books from the nineteenth century, they’re not actually just teaching white men anymore; there are women and POC writers from different time periods, and they are making it into the curriculum

    As someone who studied English literature in college and grad school, I also see it as a field of study. Yes, we read Shakespeare because a well-educated person will actually know something about Shakespeare. Specifically,., Or about Jane Austen or Milton, etc. specifically. These authors influenced the artists, writers, thinkers. etc. who came after them and it’s important to know the content of the canon. Many people think of English class as being about reading comprehension/literacy skills/love of reading, etc. and not as a subject that has actual content one might need to be familiar with. I wouldn’t teach an art history course without introducing important, influential paintings, so I wouldn’t teach an English course without introducing influential books, plays, and poems.

    I’m not against YA or contemporary adult fiction in the classroom, and many teachers actually are incorporating it. I just don’t think we should ignore the classics because they’re “boring” or “hard.” Honestly, some people find Harry Potter or The Hunger Games boring when they’re “forced” to read and analyze it for school. And we teach things like Shakespeare because they’re hard. A teacher doesn’t necessarily need to cover The Fault in Our Stars if half the class is reading it, enjoying it, and discussing it in their free time. But Shakespeare can take some expert guidance from a teacher.

    • Briana April 29, 2017 / 11:02 pm

      Though I should say I have no experience with the GCSE and am talking from what I know about US schools in general.

      • iloveheartlandx April 30, 2017 / 1:20 pm

        I think the English system is slightly different, we don’t have as wide an array of required reading.

    • iloveheartlandx April 30, 2017 / 1:20 pm

      Ha ha fair enough. I don’t think we should necessarily stop teaching classics in schools, I just think there needs to be a little more variety. That is a fair enough point, and like I said, I’m not necessarily saying that the classics should be done away with, just that there needs to be more variety. And I would argue that whilst of course there is content that needs to be taught, if you’re not inspiring a love of reading in your students then you’re doing something wrong. I’m not saying that we should ignore the classics, I’m saying that there are ways to make them more accessible to teens. Yes, I’m aware of that, honestly anything you have to analyze for school becomes boring, so there’s probably no way to win, but at least books like that are more accessible for teens. I’m not disputing that, but if a class is reading and discussing something in their free time, surely it shows that they are engaged and interested with that particular book and it might be worth discussing in class? After all we do want learning to be fun as well as instructional!

  2. Emma April 30, 2017 / 10:19 pm

    I completely agree with you. As someone who is currently going through the schooling system there have been a lot of horrible books or books I just don’t really care for that I have had to read. A lot of people I know have just not read the book, and I think having a book that they might actually enjoy would really help encourage kids to keep reading. Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed some classics, reading Pride and Prejudice was a joy (although that might have been more due to my teacher that year who was awesome) but not all books that are considered classics are necessarily good to study.

    I am currently doing a topic in english called “writing in the margins” which is about post colonial literature and how so many books have a eurocentric view. In this topic my teacher is making us think about why so much of the literature we are forced to read is so old and written by white authors. We even did a task where we had to make up a syllabus of books for students to read and then looked at what percentage of those books where racially diverse. I think it is really important for teens to be able to understand other cultures and experiences and one of the main ways to do this is to get them reading diverse books.

    • iloveheartlandx May 2, 2017 / 7:16 pm

      Thanks! Yes there were definitely a lot of books that I didn’t care for that I was forced to read at school as well. The same thing happened when I was at school, a lot of people in our class would just not read the book because it was so boring! I do think it’s a shame that kids get put off and like you said, if they were given more engaging books to read, they might enjoy them more. I’m not so keen on classics, I’ve enjoyed very few of them, but I get your point, there’s definitely some that are better for study than others. Wow that sounds like an excellent project! It is definitely very important for teens to understand other cultures and I agree, giving them diverse books to read is important to this.

  3. bibliopathictendencies May 1, 2017 / 2:52 pm

    Interesting thoughts. I actually agree with a lot of them. I had a teacher in high school and we would read classics and then watch teen adaptations. So after we read Emma, we watched Clueless. And after we read Twelfth Night, we watched She’s the Man. Then we compared them and talked about how these stories and plots are still relevant and interesting to modern audiences.

    I do think classics are important. I do think work by 18th century white men is important. Even if Shakespeare is an old, dead white guy, he did a lot for literature. Personally, I think Lord of the Flies is a GREAT book. I also loved Paradise Lost even though most people in my class were rolling their eyes. But I agree that things can change. We can still read these classics and work in both modern and diverse literature. We can work in more women. We can work in more POC.

    Not to mention I was an English major in college and there were entire classes devoted to varied reading. Yes, I had to take early English literature. Yes, everything was by white men. But I also took a class devoted to South African literature, I took a women and literature class. There were classes for black literature, East Asian literature, South American literature. So at least it’s out there at college level. We just have to work our way to high school level too.

    • iloveheartlandx May 2, 2017 / 7:11 pm

      Thanks! That sounds like a great teacher, I would have loved to have done something like that at school. It’s so important to show the relevance of these kinds of texts to teenagers. I’m not saying they’re not, just that more variety should be worked in alongside them. Oh yes, definitely, Shakespeare did do a lot for literature, I just think there are ways of making Shakespeare more accessible and entertaining. Ha ha fair enough, it just wasn’t for me. Exactly! It’s not about getting rid of what we currently have, just about working in more variety. Well that’s fantastic, I’m glad to hear that you get more variety at higher levels of education, but we definitely need to get it down to lower levels as well, since if you get put off literature at that level then you won’t get to degree level literature.

  4. Mary May 13, 2017 / 3:55 pm

    What a great post! I definitely agree that required reading books need to be a mix of traditional classics and more modern novels. LOVE the idea of contrasting Lord of the Flies and Beauty Queens, which is one of my favorites, as well as Shakespeare with various novel/play/film adaptations and retellings. Your point about needing more inclusive reading lists in regards to diversity is spot-on, and I do think that lit scholars need to redefine what makes a classic a classic because so far that definition weights too heavily in favor of mid-life crisis laden writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, etc, and that’s not entirely relevant to readers today.

    • iloveheartlandx May 14, 2017 / 10:13 am

      Thanks! Exactly, it’s not about one or the other being better, it’s about finding ways to engage teens with reading whilst still including the books that it is felt they “need” to read. Precisely, I think there needs to be a rethink in that department, because what was relevant to readers 30 years ago, is not the same as what is relevant now.

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