If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Guest Post: Five Books Every Student Should Read in High School

Of all the previous posts on this blog, Five Books Every Student Should Read has generated the most conversation--if not actual comments--from my friends and acquaintances who make up the majority of the readership at this point. It has now inspired the first guest post on this blog. Besides being one of my wife's oldest and best friends, and a bridesmaid in our wedding, Georgia is an instructor for Academic Approach in Boston. Next fall, she will begin her first year of graduate school in Human Rights Law. She and I have had many conversations about our favorite books, so I am honored to have her include her thoughts on this subject.

Given I only get five book choices (and lament leaving out 1984and Night), but as I go through the endless list of literary options, I wonder if there is a difference between books I think every kid should read and books I think every kid should be taught. In thinking about "filling holes" in a student's education and thus enabling him/her to participate in the world of academia, these are my five:

1. The Odyssey– I could not agree with you more. As a quintessential part of the Western cannon, a student who misses out on Homer is also missing out on the deeper meanings of and references to some of their favorite stories (The Matrix, O Brother, Where Art Thou? to name a couple). But reading Homer is not only a tool to understanding our favorites, but also a means of arming us against thinking that cinematic atrocities like Warner Brothers' Troyis actually a good action flick...or worse, the actual story of Troy!

2. Harry Potter - I would never have imagined that my belief that we should absolutely be teaching Harry Potter in high school would be controversial, but as several towns in America have banned the series and some communities have even burned it, apparently I am indeed being controversial. Beyond being a great way to get students to admit they enjoy reading (although the movies have not helped my cause - "Why should I read it? I'll just watch the movie."), and besides the multiple lessons that come from exploring the plethora of mythology and folklore J.K. Rowling borrowed from, Harry Potter is about genocide. Voldemort, our half-blood villain, has declared that the wizarding world will be better off once they rid themselves of the "mud-bloods" and establish themselves, the "pure-bloods", as the master race. I would love to see this explored in more classrooms. Lastly, Harry Potter wonderfully lends itself as an introduction to Joseph Campbell's Hero Journey that students almost always find fascinating and want to discuss and apply to their favorite adventure stories. Together Rowling and Campbell offer teachers an attractive and easy platform to do what should be done at least once a year: open the classroom for creative writing.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird- I suppose this one is obvious and can be left to speak for itself.

4. Song of Solomon- In the 21st Century no student should leave high school without a sound dose of Toni Morrison, and Beloved is one of my all-time favorites. However, as a bi-racial student in the New York City public school system during the Giuliani Administration with countless and repetitive African-American curricula and lesson plans behind me, Song of Solomon was the first African-American book to move me and resonate with me. Thus, I mention it here as more of a personal plea. (I would teach this book in conjunction with Jacqueline Woodson's Behind You- the greatest piece of fiction I have read in a long time. I cried for hours and now pray the book, and its author, will become a household name.)

5. Much Ado About Nothing- Shakespeare was funny. Let's prove it and bring Kenneth Brannagh in to help.

Last point: as I was thinking about this question I discovered I was categorizing, or blatantly choosing from pre-established genres, and thus thinking "inside the box." Although the challenge of "filling gaps" in preparation for understanding our Western world demands we focus on our classics, there is something to be said for the old adage: moving beyond the cannon, moving beyond the genre, moving beyond ethno-centricity.

Thanks again to Georgia for putting together this post. If anyone else out there wants to put in their choices, or their ideas on any subject, just send me an email, and I will happily include your post on this blog.

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