[Bloggers in the Attic] Teatime: Required Reading

I’m super excited to finally publish my first discussion post for Bloggers in the Attic! This month we’re bringing you twelve different takes on required reading — and in my post today, I’d like to take some time and consider the teacher’s perspective.


The Bloggers in the Attic is a discussion chain. And what is a discussion chain? Well, it’s pretty simple.

Me and other eleven bloggers united together to discuss a common topic, covering the whole arc of February, and sharing our unique perspective. Camilla @ Reader in the Attic created the initiative with the wish to create a discussion space that could explore a normal topic for different parts of the world.

The rules to participate are pretty simple. So, if you ever wish to take part in future discussions, just comment under this introduction and first post. Topics will be discussed bi-monthly, so the next round will be up in April. There’s plenty of time to join in, but the best option is always to enter early.

Don’t forget to check out the aforementioned introductory post by Camilla @ The Reader In the Attic (which also includes links to everyone in the chain!), the previous post by Lara @ Naija Book Bae, and the next post by Fictionally Sam!


My Education Background

I’m a survivor of the U.S. public school system, and (perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who now runs a book blog and spends large amounts of time voluntarily reading and writing) English/Literature/Language Arts have always been my favorite subjects — in large part because I was privileged enough to have parents who would read with me and take me to the library often, and because I learn well under the traditional public-school teaching models. (I graduated high school before the infamous Common Core curriculum was really implemented, so all I can say on that front is that even after a year and a half working with elementary (primary) schoolers I still don’t understand it.)

I was also a Teacher’s Assistant for a freshman English class during my senior year of high school, and I’m going into my fourth semester working with academically-behind first through fourth graders (ages 6-10). Starting next week we’re actually implementing a new, more structured reading program — Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI), in case anyone is wondering — and these experiences in particular inspired my approach to this post.

Today’s Topic

As you might expect, a lot of book bloggers have been or still are students, which means there’s already quite a few posts on this topic. Which is not to imply that it’s a “tired” topic, because everyone has valid opinions and unique experiences to bring to the discussion! However, I wanted to look at a less-explored side of the issue: the teacher’s perspective. So I reached out to some of the English teachers at my high school, and several kindly took the time to write back about their relationship with required reading. 

The first responses I got actually asked me to clarify whether I meant a specific type of required reading, since the term could refer to summer reading lists, free-choice Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) time in class, small-group discussions (i.e., mini book clubs), whole-class-reads-the-same-book-at-the-same-time, etc. Just so everyone is on the same page — pun totally intended — today’s post focuses on the last two in the above list. The others absolutely have their own merits in the classroom, but in the interest of brevity and coherence we won’t go into them right now.

In the rest of this post I’ll be synthesizing their responses, indicated with quotation marks (but no citation, in the interest of relative anonymity / Internet safety — both theirs and mine), and my own understanding and research to explain some of what goes on behind the scenes, and hopefully give you all some food for thought.

Practical Considerations

It’s quite possible that in an ideal world we wouldn’t have required reading at all, but we don’t live in an ideal world — and teachers are only human, with only so many hours in the day and so many resources.

Having students read one (or one of a select few) books is therefore economical, both in terms of bulk-rate purchases [of the physical books], teacher time (prepping the piece), and teacher-monitored discussions (common understanding of the material allowing for the full class to work on the same issues).” In other words, it’s more efficient, allowing teachers to focus on making the curriculum as effective as possible.

This doesn’t make lesson planning easy, though. Teachers still have to get students to “care about this text from another era by some long-dead writer written in a style they may not be used to” — sometimes even when they themselves don’t really like the book! They also have to comply with all the different requirements from the state, school district, and their department.

And we haven’t even started to talk about all the work that goes into creating, and then grading, assignments and assessments that ensure students actually pick up the knowledge and skills they’re trying to impart. (On a related note: have you thanked your teachers recently?)

What Students (Hopefully) Gain In the Long Term

Reading certain books, often written by the infamous “old dead white men,” contributes to a cultural literacy that allows students to participate in the “ongoing conversation about Western [civilization] and our place in it” and fully appreciate contemporary references to Literary Canon. It’s no fun being excluded from an inside joke; similarly, students who never read these “foundational” texts will never be able to contribute to the broader societal conversation on equal footing with everyone else. As one teacher put it, “How will you understand that Superman is just a re-telling of the magical, super-powered orphan found in the Bible and in Greek mythology if you weren’t exposed to those stories in the first place?” This is something I experienced firsthand when I finally read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a philosophy & pop culture seminar: ever since, I’ve noticed references in so many books and movies, some more subtle than others of course.

Additionally, reading is an intensely interpersonal process. Science has shown that readers are more empathetic, which makes sense when you realize that “understanding characters and characterization is really about understanding what drives people, what motivates them, what frustrates them.” During “this universal rite of passage we call the teen years” (and at any other period, but especially this self-absorbed one), reading reminds us that other people exist and matter, and that we are not alone in our struggles — crises of identity and ethics and relationships date back to Shakespeare’s time, and even earlier. 

Whether a student is reading the same book as the rest of the class or just the rest of their small group within the class, the text serves as a “common medium for discussion of analysis” of the aforementioned ideas, and of other texts too. And they do say that no two persons ever read the same book — so in-class discussion, focused through the lens of a specific literary context and colored with individual interpretation, facilitates critical thinking and communication. (Both of these are also skills used in writing book reviews and blog posts!)

Sometimes all this even leads to memorable moments, the kind you’ll remember years later and reminisce over with former classmates and/or teachers at your hometown Starbucks: 

… a deep, long, and sustained conversation that wraps up too quickly before we’re ready for it to be over … occasional laughter … one or two “light bulb” moments … a feeling that what we’re doing or discussing is pushing us to think in a deeper way or a newer way, that it doesn’t feel like busy work.

Postscript

In the process of writing this post, I ended up with a lot of interesting ideas that I want to look into further; I actually plan on revisiting this topic in a few months when I’ll have more of my own teaching experiences to add, and I’ll likely to reach out to more teachers at other schools and levels of education (i.e., elementary / middle / college) to get a broader picture.

Let me know if you’d like to contribute to or collaborate with me on this project, whether through contacting — or, with their consent, providing me with contact information for — your own teachers, sharing your teaching-related experiences, or forwarding links to articles / research that have already been published. 


Thank you for sticking with me all the way to the end! I’d love to hear about your own experiences with required reading, and I invite you to come up with your “ideal” reading curriculum: the titles you’d choose, the themes you’d discuss, the types of activities/assignments you’d include.

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35 thoughts on “[Bloggers in the Attic] Teatime: Required Reading

  1. I hadn’t ever thought about this from the perspective of a teacher before or considered the challenges of getting people to read/care about these books. They have an incredibly important job which will echo throughout the rest of their students’ lives.

    Do you know if part of the interest for teaching older books and classics is that their copyright has expired and they’ll be able to get them more cheaply for schools?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad this post achieved its goal of getting people to consider another aspect of the issue! 💕

      you make an interesting point – I think it depends in part on the specific edition that the school/teacher buy. for example, my high school is in a higher-income community so we have funding for more expensive editions (eg, annotated hardcover versions of Shakespearean plays), though I’ve also had teachers who will get more books if you want your own copy to mark up and keep. (you still pay if you order one, but they get a discount for the bulk order and possibly as educators.) but for less privileged schools, that might be a factor!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the only time where I really thought about the required reading before these discussion posts started coming out was in university when my prof put his own book in there as required reading, haha.

        Ooh, cool. Thinking about it, I was probably in a higher-income school as well, but we were always struggling to get new books. It may be a difference in the funding between US and Canadian schools, but most of us go to public school here. And Catholic schools are where you’re going to get the more upscale education.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. interesting! access to books is an angle I hadn’t considered, so I’ll definitely have to do some more research about it for the follow-up posts. thanks for bringing it up 💕

        and I always find it sketchy when profs make you buy their book — especially if you barely (or never) end up actually using it!

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  2. This an extremely interesting and eye opening post. As students, we only think of how annoying some books are how we don’t want to read them but never see how hard teachers have to work to make us read them. Great post! XX

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah! That was such an interesting read.

    Of course I was young at the time, so I could only see the « i dont care/dont understand this.. so fuck it im not reading it » and haven’t thought of it from the teacher’s POV. Nor have I thought on the « why’s » they would do such things either

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s always interesting to hear others talk about required reading. Back in high school it was just the set books and then if you wanted the extra credit you could turn in book reports and then that was sort of it. If you read books other than those reasons, that was your own choice.
    I loved reading this post! It’s interesting to think of it from the teachers’ point of view – they’ve maybe had to cover the same book 2 or maybe even 3 years in a row, but they still manage to make it interesting? Honestly, teachers deserve way much more credit than what they’re given (and then some pay rises too).

    I agree Shakespeare does has his merits, but I’d rather choose a collection of his poems to focus on. And then definitely a recent novel – there should be a recent novel in the mix. And then something that I always wanted to cover as a set book but was never given to us in my year – fantasy books! It doesn’t have to be a series, the school could choose a standalone or even the first book of a series and then the students could read further into the series if they wish.

    Character development is definitely something I love discussing. The students should be able to understand the difference between the character at the beginning and end of the novel – as that is what happens with characters – they do tend to change and develop over the duration of the novel.
    One of the reasons why I would add a fantasy novel (or could even be a sci-fi or a paranormal) would be to talk about the world-building! It’s super important, especially when the author creates a world and they have to create rules and then keep those rules and then they have so much room to play in!
    And as for assignments or activities, give them really cool prompts (I can’t think of anything now but I know I know) and then just let them go write. As in no word limitations – me as a student who always had to cut at least 200 extra words for nearly every writing assignment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “teachers deserve way much more credit than what they’re given (and then some pay rises too)” they really do!! so much work goes into teaching, for relatively little reward.

      I love your idea about introducing a fantasy series! it would definitely be a great natural hook into reading more, for the students who do find that they like it – and it would help legitimize genre fiction too.

      and I totally relate – I was that student whose first question about a new assignment was always “I know you just said the minimum was 3 pages, but is there a maximum?” 😅

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right? I think a lot of times why students don’t want to read is because they’re mostly introduced to classics through the required reading. So if they introduce some genre fiction – like fantasy or a sci-fi – the students will maybe be interested in books!

        Me too! And then going to my English teacher and saying “so I know you said we can go over 300 words, so is 600 okay?”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. We talked a lot about this in the young adult literature class I took in college, which was geared mostly toward educators (with a few literature majors sprinkled in, like me). One of the things we talked the most about was pairing young adult books with classics because there’s so many re-tellings that exist now in YA books from what would be considered classics. So interesting to think about what we’re required to read in school. Thanks for the great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Aaaaah this was such a good angle to take Izzy! I think reading the classics can certainly help us spot the subtle nods and mentions of them, in later texts. Of course, there’s still the fact that required reading isn’t always effective when you have some students who point blank refuse to read the book. Or you know, they pretend they’ve read it. (remembers her Eng Lit class)

    As for my own reading curriculum, I’d probably include one classic, and it’d prbably be either something from Shakespeare or A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (ahem also because I really want to read it, so I can understand references in TID). And then I’d probably try and include a few diverse books and backlist books. Honestly…I’m just sick of the classics and the books not changing, or if they change what books we read, it’s like not even a worthwhile change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks Clo! 💖 I’ve definitely added a ton of books to my TBR because they were name-dropped in more recent books I was reading 😅 and absolutely agree, the curriculum needs meaningful updating to include more diversity and better reflect current events.

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  7. Yup. I can see the point of it and I’m glad just for the cultural literacy viewpoint if nothing else, but for me it largely depended on the age and the teacher. Before high school, it largely sucked. In high school, I went through 3-4 teachers because of circumstances, with wildly different approaches, but generally they let us pick between 2-3 books from the list for the era we were learning about, which was loads better. I have always liked discussion as well.

    And it really helped one of those teachers was genuinely awesome, mostly because she knew we were likely to be bored with at least some of the standard curriculum list and tried to alleviate that whenever she could, I still think I learned the most when she was teaching. Bribed us with reading a certain poet’s apochrypal (read: raunchy) poetry after we were done with reading his more commonly known poems if we behaved for example. Even straight up went “well, to be honest I found x boring and won’t force you to read it for the essay, you can if you want to, but I advise you to choose between y and z classics instead” for some book, which was refreshing. Most teachers would treat those canon books as holy, as if no criticism is permitted, as if one can’t have a personal opinion on them, so I think my jaw actually dropped when we had one who did.

    (I should probably also explain the general approach where I live: most classics are learned about with the help of a textbook with excerpts, only a few are actually read – which ones from a certain era to pick for the essay mostly seemed like the teacher’s choice, since friends from other classes sometimes wrote their essays on completely different books.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. that teacher sounds amazing! I absolutely agree, they can make or break the required-reading experience – which is how this post came about, lol 😉

      that’s an interesting setup, too. in younger grades we also do excerpts in anthology textbooks (for example, we only read parts of The Odyssey) and middle school teachers seem to get to pick (so my class read The Hobbit while others read The Giver or Johnny Tremaine), but high school was pretty standardized. I love hearing about how everyone else’s school does it though, so thank you for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Isabelle this post is EVERYTHING! I loved that you approached the topic from the perspective of the teacher because I definitely have no expertise on this front. I am all for the “have everyone read the same book at the same time,” I think it definitely helps streamline the workload a bit for the teachers and the opportunity to discuss with others is paramount (and something I love about book blogging).

    My question is how do these books get chosen? Is it because that is what has been taught for decades? Withstood the test of time? I am sure that cost plays a bit part in the classics (pre-1960) vs. contemporary debate, but I wish there was a bit more diversity in the reading lists.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ah thanks Kal! 💕 that’s definitely an interesting question, and one I want to dig into further – but my understanding from what I’ve heard back (and been told at the time by teachers) so far is that it has a lot to do with specific curriculum requirements set by the school district/department and the state, e.g. certain formats (short stories/epics/novellas/plays/etc) and certain time periods and themes that are being covered, and I imagine some teachers stick to the same titles because the materials and resources already exist.

      but of course, it’s so important to keep in mind works that are more contemporary and/or diverse, and I’m not an expert on the subject either 😅

      Like

  9. I am an english lit and creative writing student so I kind of chose the required reading life for myself. I actually really am all for required reading. I see it from the teacher’s perspective as you have shown us and it makes sense. It’s also awesome for authors who get to see their books selected for study. I just think we need a mix of classic and modern texts to be studied – kind of what I have at university now!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. It’s really interesting to see this topic from this perspective! Thanks for doing it!!
    I think how well the kids respond to required reading depends a lot on how the teachers act about it. I know it varied greatly for me from subject to subject. We had one teacher who basically didn’t want to have a discussion because we could only say what he thought to be true. No place for own thoughts, other interpretations and unique perspectives. On the other hand, we had one fantastic English teacher, I only had her for half a year, but I still remember her so much. She actually rekindled my love for that subject! And she really wanted to know what we thought. We could never guess what she wanted us to say (like we basically did in all the other courses) and that was very uncomfortable at first, but we quickly realized how great it is and how fun the discussions can be, when you are actually allowed, encouraged, to speak your own mind. To disagree with others and state why.
    I learned so much from her (and you could tell she had the best time being a teacher!)

    I’d love to see a follow-up post on this topic!!

    Liked by 1 person

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