March 24, 2016

Ten Texts That Will Keep Your Readers On The Path To Relevance (The High School Edition)

Or...Ten Titles That Are Not Necessarily Required High School Reading, But Should Be... here's a scary thought: our students are going to have jobs that do not currently exist, solving problems that we do not currently know are problems, using skills we do not currently know how to teach and technology that does not yet exist. For the past several years, I have wondered about how the students I teach are going to find a way to do that using the knowledge of Moby Dick they have obtained from my classroom. This leads me to forever consider the idea of relevance. Is everything I am teaching in my classroom relevant? Is at least MOST of what I am teaching relevant? How can I take the things I know I need to teach...Shakespeare...Edgar Allen Poe...and MAKE them relevant to our kids? And what new things taking the world by storm should they know about (besides Hamilton. Is there ANYTHING besides Hamilton? I'm not sure)?

There are so many posts to be written about the topic of relevance in the ELA classroom, but since one of the toughest things about being an ELA teacher is hooking your students and making them love to read, I will start with this:

Disclaimer: Some of these books are old or "classics". Many of these books are newer. Some I use as novel studies, some I just have to hand to students when the spirit moves me.

The Chosen (Chaim Potok):
This one is a Chaim Potok classic. Published in 1967, The Chosen is a story about two Jewish boys, Reuven, a modern Orthodox Jew with an intelligent, Zionist father, and Danny, a brilliant boy and heir to a Hasidic temple. It seems to be anything but relevant. This story, however, exposes students to one of the world's oldest, still existing cultures, while also speaking to issues that still exist in our society today, such as father/son expectations and managing friendships among teenager from conflicting backgrounds.

Novel Study or Independent Read?
Novel study...DEFINITELY novel study.
Bonus: The movie (which came out sometime in the 1980's) is amazing, and you can find it on Hulu.

Winger (Andrew Smith and Sam Bosma):
OH. MY. GOSH. THIS. IS. MY. FAVORITE!!! Sigh...I always have to get that out of my system when I talk about Winger. I just love this book and its sequel, Stand-Off to pieces! The book's main character, Ryan Dean West, is a fourteen-year-old junior at Pine Mountain Academy, a boarding school in Oregon. He is in the dorm for "bad kids", his gorgeous best friend, Annie Altman (also a junior, but an "age appropriate" junior) thinks Ryan Dean is "adorable", and he gets his ball sack trounced playing rugby (you will cringe so hard that, as your mother warned you, your face will actually stay like that).

Novel Study or Independent Read?
I have been desperately searching for ways in which to use this book in my classroom. Considering the fact that there is a decent amount of focus placed on ball sacks and how large a Gatorade bottle needs to be in order to serve as a middle-of-the night urinal, to say I have struggled with connecting this book to our current curriculum would be an understatement. If you have reluctant readers in your classroom (especially boys), give this as an independent read. Problem solved.
Bonus: There's a sequel.

Stand-Off (Andrew Smith and Sam Bosma):
While Stand-Off is a sequel to Winger, it deserves its own mention. Ryan Dean West is back at Pine Mountain Academy for his senior year. Stand-Off is just as good, if not better than Winger, but in a different way. Ryan Dean is struggling with a major bugaboo from the previous book, and is having trouble holding everything together. He decides to start drawing again, and lo and behold, Stand-Off takes on a graphic novel element that was not present in Winger. As Ryan Dean deals with tragedy, readers who have experienced their own will be able to relate to him in a non-threatening way. Oh yeah, and Ryan Dean gets a new roommate. Sam Abernathy. Who happens to be a twelve-year-old freshman. Ryan Dean's descriptions of "The Abernathy" all soccer-jammied up and ready for bed in his Super Mario Brothers sheets is pretty much the funniest thing ever.

Novel Study or Independent Read?
Well, that depends. I would say independent read. But then again, if you're a health teacher, definitely go for it. You'll be able to tie the testicle self exam and Ten Commandments of the Penis references into your curriculum much more smoothly than I ever could.
Bonus: Both books have fantastic vocabulary and model tolerance when discussing issues such as homosexuality. Also, while these books fall into the category of "coming of age novels" (sex, relationships, friendships, death of a friend), the authors take very mature and responsible stances on these issues.

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Kahled Hosseini):
When I say A Thousand Splendid Suns, I actually mean, please be sure your students read every book Kahled Hosseini has ever written, and then have them wage a writing campaign to persuade him to churn out at least another book per month. I am assuming that most schools have The Kite Runner on their reading lists at some point. Our students read it as their summer reading book when going from eighth to ninth grade. This is good, because it is a book that students might actually commit to reading at a time when of the year when they struggle to commit to finishing a soda, but it is bad, because as a teacher, you don't get to do much with it. I have read The Kite Runner with my ninth graders (before it was on the summer reading list), and I have read And the Mountains Echoed with my eleventh and twelfth grade literature class. Many of my students in both classes have gone on to read A Thousand Splendid Suns and have said that it was Hosseini's best story.

Novel Study or Independent Read?
Yes, please.
Bonus: Well, not really a bonus, just something I forgot to mention, Hosseini paints pictures of Afghanistan your students won't get anywhere else. We need to make global citizens out of our students. That's relevance.

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams):
First of all, you should be reading plays in your ELA class. Second of all, you should be reading lots of plays in your ELA class. Third of all, whatever the number of plays you are currently reading with your ELA's not enough. Why do I feel so strongly about literature of the theater? Well...for lots of reasons. Practically, you can spend less time on a play, so you can give your students lots of little slices of heaven all year long. They are fun to read in class, and they naturally promote class participations. Students who don't normally like to read in class, surprisingly, enjoy it when they are playing a character. The most important reason, however, is reading comprehension. You will likely have students in your class who have struggled with reading comprehension since first grade. This gives those students an opportunity to create a movie in their mind - a strategy that is enormously helpful, but much more difficult when reading a lengthier text. Why The Glass Menagerie? It flies by, it has a limited number of characters, and the characters are rich with background stories and development. Your students will have a lot to say about these characters, trust me.

Novel Study or Independent Read?
Never miss the opportunity to read plays in class. They create some of the best classroom bonding moments ever.
Bonus: Great movie, and there are usually regional productions of this play that you can find. Field trips are my spirit animal.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Benjamin Alire Saenz):
Identity. When you look at teenage angst, the process of coming of age, and all that which causes your students to drag their weary souls into your classroom, scowl at you, and then proceed to ignore you for the next 45-50 minutes because they are feeling the feeliest feels any feeler can feel (and let's be real, there's just no room for you in there), most of it boils down to identity. Aristotle and Dante explores the idea of identity on many levels. The author drives home the importance of identity by juxtaposing a character who is completely secure in his identity with one who is completely lost.

Novel Study or Independent Read?
That's a tough one. This book has enough draw for a reluctant reader to get sucked in, but the writing and character development are so superb, you may want to hand the tots a John Greene novel instead (which is not to say that John Greene's characters are any less developed...we'll get to that later).
Bonus: It won a fafillion different awards...just saying...

Hamlet (William Shakespeare):
There's melodrama. (500 year old spoiler alert) Just about everyone dies. You know how I feel about reading plays in the classroom. Please, please, please read this dusty old thing with your students and then have them "stage" some of the scenes. It's riotously fun

Novel Study or Independent Read?
If you can get your students to read Hamlet on their own...just for fun? I'll want to be you for Halloween.
Bonus: They have had 500 years to make a good movie, and Something Rotten (on Broadway) is amazing if you can swing it (hey, I've explained to you how I feel about field trips, and touring companies are going to get on that any day now). If not, the soundtrack is lots of fun.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie):
Oh....I feel so strongly about this one. I almost didn't teach it. I read it. Like everyone else, I loved it. But I almost didn't teach it, and this is why...the year it was on the syllabus, there was a mother in my class who threw a FIT over The Kite Runner. While I am staunchly against ever censoring anything for my students, I had HAD it by the time we were supposed to read "The Absolutely True Diary". When the students asked me, eagerly, when we would start reading (one student had already read and loved it), I told them, point-blank that if there were parents who had a problem with The Kite Runner, I just didn't want to tackle "The Absolutely True Diary". The student who had read it very astutely said, "If you're talking about the chapter about masturbation, we're fifteen-year-old boys, and frankly, there's nothing we know MORE about". Good point.

Novel Study or Independent Read?
Novel Study. It will hook your reluctant readers for sure, but you need to read it in the classroom. Why? Because we don't know enough about or talk enough about Native American culture or what life looks like on Native American reservations, and we need to. Your student may leave high school knowing almost nothing about Native American life as it is today. Don't let that happen.
Bonus: Sherman Alexie has written so much about the Native American experience that you can use to supplement this unit. All of it will blow your students away.

Anything by John Greene:
Have you ever watched the Crash Course videos on YouTube? What makes them so appealing (besides the fact that history is cool) is his language and the way he can say so much in so little time. His books are exactly like this. His language and vocabulary is just...overwhelming.

Novel Study or Independent Read?
Independent Read. Give these books to your students so they know what it's like to finish a book in one sitting.
Bonus: The movies are coming so now you can feel all the feels in multimedia.

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi):
This memoir/graphic novel about a girl coming of age in Iran during the Islamic Revolution is such a crowd pleaser. The book tells the story of the overthrow of Shah's regime and the devastating effects of the war with Iraq through the eyes of the narrator from ages six to fourteen. Much like The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And The Mountains Echoed, your students need to read this in order to see something greater than their own tiny microcosm.

Novel Study or Independent Read?
Ooooh...that's a tough one. I've used it successfully as both.
Bonus: There's a sequel.

We'll close with a true confession. I was going to add Lin-Manuel Miranda's juggernaut, Hamilton to this list, but first of all, that would give me eleven titles, and I promised you ten, and I feel strongly about keeping my promises, but also, because while I feel it is important to give musicals their due diligence in the classroom (I will write another post on the language of the musical and how richly it can add to your classroom experience), Hamilton is a post unto itself.

Now go ahead, read all ten.
Really. It's a long weekend. You can do it.