One of the most common concerns I’ve heard from fellow English teachers is the unending question of which books to pick. You have to find a happy medium between books that are relevant to the subject and stories that will hold your students’ interest through a semester or unit. It’s also a battle against your own personal taste. You like A Tale of Two Cities, but none of the 13-14 year olds can keep their eyes open. So what in the world are you supposed to do?
Find books they will hate.
My biggest struggle this year was finding material for an 11th grade on-level class. Junior English is meant to have a concentration in American Literature, and I studied mostly British in college. They thought Poe was weird, didn’t really appreciate Kate Chopin quite as much as I thought they ought, and one of them literally slept during Sleepy Hollow.
So when we reached the end of the year, I knew I had to find something pretty spectacular. After a grueling thought process in which I dug down into my very core to find something written by an American that I had both read recently enough to teach and actually enjoyed, I settled on The Princess Bride by William Goldman. It felt like such a cop-out. If we had a school newspaper, the headline would read: “TEACHER REACHES END OF ROPE. PICKS SATIRIC FANTASY NOVEL AS FILLER.”
As an apology, I bought the books for them. They gave me suspicious looks and eyed the cover with no small amount of disdain. Books. Princess books. Great.
They hated it even more as we began reading. There were complaints about the characters, complaints about the plot, accusations that the author was lying to them….
“Westley’s not really dead, is he? Goldman’s just lying to us again. He can’t be dead, right? This is a stupid book.”
Stupid book. It got to the point where I couldn’t help but grin every time I heard those words. “Stupid book.” “I hate this book.” “Why did you make us read this?” Every despairing phrase followed by a dramatic, teenaged sigh and an immediate return of attention to the page. It really made their lives so much harder than any of us had anticipated. Some side effects of their suffering:
* I went to New York during the middle of one week, and there was a note from the sub saying that my usually well-behaved class had refused to follow directions and read silently, and instead elected one of their own to read out loud and do all the voices.
* A passionate debate about who was more of a jerk to the other, Westley or Buttercup, erupted during the middle of one lesson. Tensions rose. Friendships were splintered. It was brutal.
* They disregarded manners and literally yelled at me when I forgot we hadn’t learned Fezzik’s name yet and referred to him with that title instead of just “the giant” or “the Turk” as he’s initially introduced.
* Some of them found the book online and read ahead, even though I expressly told them not to.
Suffice it to say, the entire Princess Bride unit gave them no end of bother. But it also reinforced for me the important lesson that students—and readers in general—need to be exposed to books they will hate. Books they will frown at, scream at, chunk across the room in pure Hulk-out anger.
To any teachers or parents out there who are looking for ways to hook a kid into reading, I would suggest this. Go through your mental catalogue of books that you hated. Pick one you think they might hate too. Enjoy the little looks of frustration, the exasperated sighs, and the occasional huff. And when they ask the inevitable question, “Why did you make us read this?” you can smile and truthfully say, “Because I wanted to see you suffer.”