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Opinion: The Problem with School Assigned Books

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I love books.

Books have a certain charm that can’t be translated into other mediums of entertainment. While I do enjoy a good read from John Grisham or Marie Lu, why do I, along with so many other students, have such a distaste for books assigned by teachers? The answer lies primarily within both the content of the novel and how it is presented by the teacher.

Consider a well-known novel that ninth graders are required to read: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Set in Alabama during the Great Depression, the story is told through the eyes of the young Scout Finch as she learns that losing innocence is required if she wants to grow up. It is a fine book that teaches a great lesson about racial prejudice and is an important part of the ninth grade curriculum.

But since the novel takes place in the 1930’s, a society with a completely different status quo from our own, it’s difficult for some students to truly understand the gravity of the situations Scout experiences. For example, when one of Scout’s schoolmates, Walter Cunningham Jr., comes over to her house for dinner one night, the reader might agree with Scout that his eating habits odd and disgusting. While a person well-versed in history would understand that the majority of Americans were poor and literally starving during the Great Depression, a regular student might not. If students have trouble understanding certain events, then the teacher has a responsibility to help that student understand the significance of that event. Students do not simply walk into school instantly understanding the dilemmas of societies that strongly differ from their own, and it’s ridiculous to assume that they would.

So instead of throwing an old book about America during the Great Depression at students without warning, teachers should instead take their time and educate their students on the facets of that society relevant to the story. That way, more students will be interested in reading and studying the book. Do not misunderstand my point: To Kill a Mockingbird is not the only book this applies to. It applies to Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, The Count of Monte Cristo, or any book that takes place within a realistic setting.

What I am saying here may sound a bit aggressive towards teachers, but hear me out. I think the teachers at Marquette already do a great job teaching students who are willing to listen, but there is more that can be done for initially uncooperative students. If a student is not currently interested, the reason probably is not just that they are lazy or that they dislike the class, but that they just are not interested in the book itself.

Moral of the story? Not every student is able to understand the problems of other societies, and there’s a simple way for teachers to solve that problem: to teach.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Opinion: The Problem with School Assigned Books”

  1. Rob Durham on March 5th, 2018 8:02 PM

    I appreciate your plea here. I think we try to squeeze some background information into each book, but you’re right, probably not enough. I recall when I taught freshmen here during my first two years, I showed a PPT on Jim Crow laws, played “Strange Fruit” and then some clips from “Hey Boo” (TKAM’s documentary) to prep my students. It’s time consuming, but worth it. I would love to teach more contemporary titles, but until we move to e-books, it just isn’t in the budget right now. Yes, there are independent novel choices, and I assigned that unit earlier this year, but it’s hard to assess those. Still, as a department we’re moving more and more to giving students the choices on their books. We just have to adjust our assessment style which isn’t all that easy. So maybe someone can teach us that? : )

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Opinion: The Problem with School Assigned Books