Archives For books

In keeping my classroom libraries filled with books, the trends I notice are not necessarily trends in book buying, but trends in book discarding. After exams, midterms or finals, assigned titles are discarded to make room on a bookshelf or in a school locker for new required reading. Following trends means knowing that three to four months after the curriculum unit ended, an assigned title begins to crowd its way onto the bookshelves of thrift stores such as Goodwill or St. Vincent’s or the Salvation Army.

Three copies of "The Scarlet Letter" on the shelf at Goodwill. All new; never opened!

Three copies of “The Scarlet Letter” on the shelf at Goodwill this past week. All new; never opened, bearing their $1.00 each price tags.

Since Puritans are usually up for discussion in September in American History coursework, many English departments turn to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter for their Advanced Placement or college bound students as a complementary read. Therefore, I was not surprised when, during this last week of January, copies of The Scarlet Letter began appearing, not in single copies, but in droves. I expected as much. The Scarlet Letter represents the “not keeping” trend. While a student may hesitate for a millisecond before placing The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye in the “throw away” pile, I imagine there is universal delight in discarding The Scarlet Letter, a delight only exacerbated by discarding its equally loathed curriculum companion, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

The mention of The Scarlet Letter may set off groans. Woe to the teacher who attempts this book without the iron cast-backbone or the determination of an evangelist. Readers of The Scarlet Letter will need to be converted, and it is only the fear and damnation of another scarlet letter that keeps them plodding on, the scarlet “F”!

The tone of the book is set immediately with the opening line:

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

Looking further down the page for some relief from the gloom, the reader should notice that he or she is being directly addressed, as if from a pulpit delivering a parable or allegory:

Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

Yes, Hawthorne will be delivering this sermon for 192 pages in the Dover Thrift Edition ($3.15).

Students are aware that this classic will improve SAT scores with the challenging vocabulary and complex structures of 19th Century prose, but they still seek help beyond the classroom. There are Sparknotes, Schmoop notes, E-Notes, Cliff Notes, and Bookrags available for this text, so as a result, the paperback text on the thrift store shelf may never have been opened. The copies available at thrift stores are generally pristine copies. I imagine they were purchased by parents who dutifully picked up the book because of a syllabus of some sort. Maybe this was a summer reading choice, a particularly deadening assignment. Actually, the effort in purchasing this text could have been avoided, because the text itself is online at no less than six places:

And there are free audio versions at:

But we still teach The Scarlet Letter, and our paperback collection of The Scarlet Letter distributed in class is comprised of at least 10 different editions. No student is on the same page number when the text is read aloud in class in order to share the conflicts between Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Chillingsworth. Interestingly, what seems initially complex to the student is eventually understood as a really a ripping good love triangle of sex, intrigue, and irony. Once they see Hawthorne laying out hypocrisies of the Puritan society, they are more genuinely engaged. Plus, there is the lovely child Pearl, and they grow to sympathize for her.

In order to engage students in assessments, our Grade 11 teacher has organized “self-directed” projects for students to choose  and some of these have included:

  • Create a song telling the ballad of Hester Pyrnne.  You may compose the song, or write new words for an existing melody.  Share the song with the class either live or via audio or videotape.
  • Think of a sin associated with Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.  Create a badge that uses a letter or other symbol to represent the sin.  In addition, use art, needlework, or some other craft to make the badge reveal something about the man’s character, interests, or profession.  Write an explanatory caption or paragraph to accompany the badge.
  • Choose music to be the score for a film version of the novel.  Choose music for at least five major scenes.  Write explanatory notes for each selection

The harvesting of The Scarlet Letter texts from thrift store shelves is best from January-March. I can add as many as 10-12 copies during these months. Competition for the title grows during the summer, and the books are often more dog-earred by then.

But with all the negativity, why teach The Scarlet Letter? Because Hawthorne provides a bridge from this historical period to ours by using the empathy that is generated in fiction. Our brains are wired for stories more than facts, and reading The Scarlet Letter helps our students identify with characters in order to understand the politics and policies of this turbulent time when our nation was still in its infancy. Additionally, his story serves as a springboard for other stories. According to Canadian author Margaret Atwood, “The roots of totalitarianism in America are found, I discovered, in the theocracy of the 17th Century. The Scarlet Letter is not that far behind [the novel] The Handmaid’s Tale, my take on American Puritanism.”

Oh, and yes. We also assign The Handmaid’s Tale.

tragedy“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

That is the opening sentence from Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A monk who witnesses the fall of those travelers searches for answers as to whether the accident was simply chance or an act of the Divine. In writing The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder was addressing the genre of tragedy which was defined by Aristotle in his Poetics as “an imitation of a serious act” in literature. The purpose of tragedy is to provide the reader, or viewer in the case of drama, an experience of loss without having to suffer what a fictional character suffers. Through his literature, Wilder, like the authors and playwrights before him, provided the experience and language to us to respond when there is a tragedy. Great literature does this well which may be why the literature taught in high school classrooms is, more often than not, tragedy.

Of course, tragedy is not always a popular curriculum choice. I am always being confronted by students,  “Why do we have to read such depressing books?” or “Why does every book we read in English have to be so sad?” Predictably, when I hand out a book for a whole class read, student will examine the cover, the length of the text, and ask, “So, who dies?” Through literature, students learn a number of different approaches or definitions of  tragedy. In grades 9-12, students are taught about Greek tragedy (Oedipus, Antigone, Medea) where fate or Nemesis cannot be avoided. They learn about catharsis, the purging of pity and fear, and pathos, the empathy one has for the tragic hero. Students are taught about how the Shakespearean tragedy (King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III) centers on the willful downfall of a character who brings about the destruction of others. We have also included a modern interpretation of tragedy by Otto Reinherdt as students read contemporary works of literature (Death of a Salesman, The Road):

“Tragic Man demands that an imperfect world conform to his notions of right and good, and he is defeated because discord, injustice, pain, and moral evil are the world’s warp and woof. The final paradox is man in his tragic vision saying, ‘I do not believe in the invincibility of evil but in the inevitability of defeat’.. . . But in the absoluteness of his commitment, the tragic hero triumphs in the very inevitability of his defeat.”

The indoctrination to tragedy as a “serious action imitated” begins early in the student’s educational career. In grade 5, whole class reads can be The Giver, a dystopian novel that features the euthanasia of a small child. In grade 6, students may read The Devil’s Arithmetic, a book that brings students closer to an authentic understanding of the Holocaust and the deaths of six million Jews. In young adult (YA) literature, there are so many stories about the deaths of pet dogs  (Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Love that Dog) that author Gordon Korman fought back against that literary trope with his  YA novel, No More Dead Dogs. Our 7th grade reads that book as an opening bonding experience in September, but they also read Pearl Buck’s short story “The Big Wave” about a tsunami that wipes out a small coastal village in Japan. The recent tsunami in Japan gave our young readers a new appreciation for the tragedy caused by nature.

In high school curriculums everywhere, students decry the death of a character, “Why does the author make us like him and then kill him?” They rail against the death of Johnny in The Outsiders (grade 8); the death of Lenny in Of Mice and Men (grade 9); the death of Kat in All Quiet on the Western Front (Grade 10); the death of John Proctor in The Crucible  (Grade 11); and the death of Hamlet (Grade 12). They claim to want a happy ending.

But do English teachers force an unwanted genre on students? Do students hate tragedy? Not really. Look at the two most popular series of books students chose to read independently. The Harry Potter series began with two deaths, the sacrifice of Lily and James Potter for their infant son, Harry. Seven books later,  JR Rowling had bumped off over 50 characters, and one beloved owl Hedwig (although, admittedly the death of Bellatrix Lestrange was satisfying). Student loved these novels. In Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games trilogy, killing and death is a form of entertainment, an entertainment made even more horrific when teenagers are the assassins. In the first book, eleven “tributes” are killed on the first day of the games. The protagonist Katniss kills four tributes herself before she “wins” this round of games with Peeta; the deaths pile up as the series continues with Collins disposing of major characters at a furious clip. I cannot keep these books on my classroom shelf.

Ultimately, tragedy in literature prepares a reader for the experience of tragedy in life. My own first experience with death was from Louisa May Alcott in Little Women when the sickly Beth March finally succumbed to illness:

“As Beth had hoped, the `tide went out easily’, and in the dark hour before dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh.”

I remember reading and re-reading that passage over and over and thinking: “Had I read correctly? Were there only three March sisters left? How could Alcott do this to me?” Well, she did this to me and millions of other readers because in real life people die. Nice people. Good people. Young people. Beth’s death was not a tragedy in the literary sense, but the hole left by her death for the fictional family was “a serious act imitated in literature” like the many real deaths that leave holes in the lives of real families.

Our society confronts news that is tragic everyday.  The recent death of 20 schoolchildren and six teachers in a school shooting not far from where I teach just before the Christmas holiday season is a tragedy so horrific that many have been left speechless; I hear, “There are no words.” But there are words, words in great literature written to prepare us, from a young age through high school and beyond, for exactly this experience. Thornton Wilder’s fictional story of The Bridge of San Luis Rey concludes with a paragraph that offers his response to a tragedy. Through literature, Wilder provides a language for readers to respond to a tragedy such as the one in Newtown, Connecticut, and other heartbreaking events:

“We ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

As the first semester begins to draw to a close, I need to check in and see what progress the 9th grade students are making with Silent Sustained Reading (SSR). Our school’s move to a block schedule (A/B) days of 83 minute classes has given us the opportunity to provide students with 10-20 minutes of SSR every English class period. I try very hard not to put any restriction on what students read, although I still urge them to try and “read up” to more complicated texts. I wrote about the rationale for this program in a previous post, “Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet…We’re Reading”.

To facilitate the SSR program, there are two carts in the room with books I have purchased through the secondary market, mostly thrift stores and public library book sales (hence the title of the blog “Used Books in Class”). Each cart holds about 150 books; at $1-$2 a book, I have spent about $500 on the 300 books available for SSR.

A wide selection

A wide selection

The most popular titles in circulation these past few months have been:

Lauren Myracle’s TTFN and TTYL
John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice (any one in the series)
Catherine Gilbert Murdock ‘s Dairy Queen
Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones
Patricia McCormack’s Cut
Carl Deuker’s Gym Candy
S. A. Bodeen’s The Compound
Sarah Dressen’s  Dreamland
Nicholas Sparks’s Dear John
Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Trilogy (pick any one of these; they are on EVERYONE’S shelf)

The students are keeping their responses to the books they read on the Shelfari website this year. This is a commercial site tied to the retail giant Amazon, but there are ways to lock down the private groups we have established for each class. Last year, we used Blogger, but there were some glitches with Internet Explorer and Blogger; unless we used a browser like Firefox, the pages kept jumping and commenting was impossible. When students are on the Shelfari site, they can see what other students in the class are reading, and posting titles they have read or plan on reading is really easy. In addition, there are already reviews of the books, so students are forced to add something original to a review of the book. They can read recommendations (for and against the text) and they can participate in a discussion.

This morning I posted the following discussion prompt on Shelfari:

You have had 16 weeks of SSR in class-most of the time with your choice of reading materials.
Tell me how you are progressing as a reader. Are you finding enough materials to read? Have you read at least ONE good book? Are you a better reader now that you were in September? Why or why not?

Some of the responses made my teacher’s heart pound proudly:

Over the past 16 weeks of SSR, I’ve probably read 5 or 6 books. Some of them were short, but some were a reasonable length. I’ve really been enjoying the SSR time we’ve been getting because the quiet period of time we get is really beneficial to my reading skills.

I am progressing in my reading. So far I have read three books this year. I am finding plenty to read. I have found many good books, including “Prom & Prejudice” and “Awkward”. I feel I am a better reader than I was in September because I am reading more difficult books than I was before and in September.

Yes I am better reader because last year I read even slower than I do now and I understand more because of the vocabulary words. I am finding enough materials to read. A good book I read this year was Miracle on 49th Street, this was good because it was a very suspenseful book.

But then, there are the honest appraisals that make me concerned about how students select books and a student’s ability to stay focused in a class for 10-20 minutes:

I’m an average speed reader, but I tend to get distracted. I’ve read a lot of good books, but they were in a lot of different genres. It’s hard for me to find books that interest me lately. I feel that my reading skills have changed a little, I’ve been able to understand things a little more.

During the past 16 weeks of SSR I haven’t really improved very much with my reading. I have only finished one book and I am working on another the first was a pretty good length and didn’t take long to read and the other is pretty long. I am a slow reader and I also just never find the time to sit down and read my book. Also, I get distracted while reading my book sometimes, so I haven’t progressed very much in the weeks of SSR.

And then, there are the even more painfully honest appraisals:

I’m a really really slow reader, and tend to get very distracted while reading, so I have a hard time making lots of progress in books. Books that are available to me don’t interest me. There was only one book that I’ve read and liked in my whole life; but there are no sequels. No I’m not a better reader, my reading skills never change, I’m always a slow and easily distracted reader.

The quiet time in SSR may not be “quiet” enough for some students, so I need to think about the physical space being more reader friendly. Apparently, I also need to have some students develop an understanding of what they like to read, and see how I can get those books onto my book carts.

Success with SSR is monitored through student self-appraisal, so I will be checking back in a few months to see if students note any changes in how they are reading. If nothing else, I know that there is power in the shared quiet reading experience we have twice or three times a week. When their heads are bent down in a book, I can feel them read.