One of the most important ways a school district can affect a child positively throughout his or her entire life is to instill a love of learning. I believe the best way to do that is by exposing students to a wide range of literature, based largely on timeless works that have inspired generation after generation.
In Clear Creek ISD, secondary students (intermediate and high schoolers) use the Reader’s Workshop model, a departure from the assigned reading lists traditionally used in English and Language Arts classes. The intention behind Reader’s Workshop is admirable: give the children a choice of what they read, and hope that they discover books that resonate with them, and in turn, develop a love of reading. But not having reading lists means they miss out on a lot of classic literature, literature that is without question the foundation for western civilization and our society.
Our children are missing out on so much by not reading these traditional classic works, not to mention many new classics that may not always seem relevant to a secondary school student. Not only do reading lists mean they get to dive into a variety of materials (plays, short stories, novels, memoirs, and poetry), but they also get to explore so many different themes and literary devices that remain relevant today.
I think it’s time to bring back reading lists in some form. Below are some of the specific benefits of reading lists.
Literary Allusions Are Everywhere
We bandy about references like “Jekyll and Hyde” in casual conversation, referring of course to a very unpredictable person, but reading the literature is key to truly understanding where the allusion comes from. Jekyll and Hyde is derived from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In addition to being an enthralling story about a science experiment gone wrong, it offers important lessons about the inner struggle between good and evil that everyone faces.
Even when watching TV or listening to music, we can’t escape classic literature. An episode of The Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror,” referenced Edgar Allen Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven.” Alanis Morrissette, a popular singer in my teen years, alluded to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in “All I Really Want.”
Without reading these texts (Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson were not on my reading list, as even back then, reading lists were shifting away from classic literature), I feel like I missed the full impact of these references. It was only in adulthood that I fully grasped who Estella was and why apathy was used in reference to her.
Critical Thinking Starts with Literature
We all want to build critical thinking skills in our children, and literature is one of the important tools that help teachers broach different viewpoints and expose students to challenging topics and issues. Some of the books that show up frequently on required reading lists are also some of the most controversial, like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which not only shed light on the working conditions of immigrants in Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century, but also the meatpacking industry as a whole. It’s a work of fiction that had a profound impact on the country – and led to an investigation of the meatpacking industry and associated labor practices. And the themes in the novel, including working-class poverty and deeply rooted corruption, are applicable even today.
Reading these books helps educators guide students through complex concepts, start a dialogue, and then use fiction to build on even more complicated issues and realities.
Deepen Historical and Cultural Understanding
For some students, reading a fictional account of a historical period can help them better understand the events and provide context. In some cases, literature can help them see how much things have changed since the work was published – or how much has stayed the same. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is a great example: it viscerally describes the Civil War, and its depictions of the horrors of war ring true today, more than 100 years after its publication.
Similarly, literature can pull back the curtain on different cultures and experiences and foster empathy. I’m eternally grateful to the English teacher who assigned Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Both of these novels challenged me to think differently about the world I live in. They fueled my passion for speaking out against injustice and provided perspective that I just didn’t have before I read them.
As a Trustee, I would want to bring back reading lists in some form. Maybe it’s not the same as it was when I was in school, where we all read the exact same texts, but more of a menu where students choose one book from List A, one book from List B, etc. It would give them options while at the same time introducing them to works they may not have ever considered reading on their own. As much as I disliked some of the assigned reading in high school, as an adult, I’m grateful for the foundation it gave me as I went to college and then started my career. That is the obligation and, in my opinion, the gift we should strive to offer our children today to prepare them for the complicated world that awaits them.