The Problem With High School English

I have a real problem with the books that are being taught in high school.

Let me start by being abundantly clear: I do not blame English teachers for this. I am the person that I am today because of the great English teachers that have taught me, have mentored me, have nurtured me. My English teachers were my heroes. My English teachers made me want to become an English teacher, who still lure me toward the profession despite my rocky post-high school career.

That said, for the most part, I hated what we read in class. With only a handful of exceptions, most of the assigned reading was painfully dull and uninteresting. I didn’t want to read it.

And I loved reading! I was much more excited to run off to the library after class, where the librarian (Mr. Rodriguez in middle school and Ms. Erika in high school) had a never-ending stash of something new for me to read. Something that I would want to read.

I was lucky. I knew I was a reader and I had those connections. But, for most of my peers, the assigned reading was their only exposure to the reading life. For many of them, it was all the proof they needed that books had nothing to offer them.

I can’t imagine a life without books. The thought of it is genuinely heartbreaking. I’ve found some of my closest friends through online communities (Sydrian stans forever!). I’ve learned some of the most difficult life lessons through words on pages. I can’t imagine who I’d be without these formative stories.

If my only exposure to the written word was what we read in class, I probably wouldn’t be a reader.

The problem is the antiquated pedagogy. We’re stuck in some high-fallutin’ Classics mindset, one that insists that the most important thing we can possibly do is “culture” our students. And, how do you “culture” students? Insist that they read the “greatest” literature of yesteryear and analyze the prose down to the smallest detail, draining even the smallest drop of joy out of the experience.

It seems like whoever is designing the curriculum is more interested in creating a program that can stand unchanged for decades, a curriculum that relies on stories that are old, arcane, and dull enough to put a pack of crack-addled rabbits to sleep.

It’s not that I have a problem with the classics. I love reading Beowulf and translations of Cynewulf’s poems. Who doesn’t enjoy some good end-times poetry?

The house of torturing shall be opened and revealed
against the oath-breakers; crime-eager men must fill it
with their swart souls. Then as punishment for sins,
the school of the guilty shall become separated,
the humiliated from the holy, in that harmful inferno.
Christ III, 1603b ff.

Of course, none of that interest in the classics is thanks to my schooling. Like most modern folks, I’m a Tolkien convert, thanks to The Professor’s writings and folks like Dr. Corey Olsen, host of The Tolkien Professor podcast.

The gateway to classics is through popular literature, and high schools would be better off trying to make lifelong readers instead of forcing students through antiquated, “cultured” reading lists.The entire art of teaching high school English seems to be infested with a terminal case of argumentum ad antiquitatem: It’s a classic, therefore it’s good and worth teaching.

Bullshit. Instead, teachers need to engage students on their own level, with stories that are directly relevant to them. Make them readers first, spark their interest in the literary world, instead of quashing it out.

And it’s not like teachers have to reinvent the wheel here — there’s an entire machine in the literary industry dedicated to producing novels for young adults, and there has been for around two decades now. Hundreds upon hundreds of books specifically for young adults are released every year, in every genre. There is no dearth of substantively good YA novels worth reading and studying.

Thankfully, we’re beginning to see some change in this area. There are some pioneering educators out there who are questioning the status quo. Teaching YA literature was unheard of when I graduated in 2009, but that’s slowly changing.

Let’s keep the trend going. Let’s make it the norm.

As someone who’s started studying pedagogy, I’m learning just how much of a nightmare writing curriculum is. It’s difficult to change. It’s not meant to change. There’s little motivation and even less time to do this work. But it’s worthwhile. Designing a curriculum around stories that will resonate with students is an act of love and kindness, one that has the potential to bear great fruit.

(He/They) Ninja Writer. Thespian. Queer. Essayist, poet, novelist. “In Search of Sunflowers” available on Kindle now.

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