Book Discussions: Required Reading in Schools

Hey guys! Sorry for the minimal posting recently, I’ve been pretty busy and also seem to be going through a bit of a writer’s block. I couldn’t think of anything good enough to post! But this idea has been jumping around in my mind for a while, and I think I’ve finally refined it enough to write about it. Required reading is a hot topic for me, because I’m still in school and therefore still subject to required reading. It has both it’s pros and cons, and I can honestly say I still haven’t made up my mind to whether I agree with it or not.

Required reading can come in many forms, but usually it’s in English class. They assign a book to you that you may or may not be interested in, and you have to read it by a certain time and be ready to discuss it. Now, I don’t know about you, but even though I obviously love books and reading, once a book is assigned to me, I suddenly dread reading it. It doesn’t even matter if I’m interested in the book or not. For my History class, one of our assignments was to choose a historical book from a list our teacher provided. I chose The Sunflower, which discusses the Holocaust, a subject I’m both very connected to and very interested in. So it wasn’t like I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book. I was. But when the time came to read it, I kept pushing it off, even though I enjoyed it while reading the book. The same goes for The Handmaid’s Tale in my English class. I was genuinely interested in the book, so I chose it, but ended up reading most of it the night before it was due.

Why do I do this? As evident by the fact that I have a book blog, it isn’t that I don’t like books. I even enjoy these books when I’m reading it, it’s just I have no motivation or desire to read it the minute it’s assigned to me. I have a couple theories for why this exists.

  • The over justification effect: I learned about this in Psych last year, and the example they actually used was reading. Basically, it’s when we get external rewards for something we already intrinsically enjoy, our internal motivation to perform this activity starts to disappear. When a book is assigned to you, it is given external motivation as well: grades, desire to please teacher, etc. So even though I enjoy reading, that works against me, because that internal motivation disappears. It doesn’t seem to be for all reading, though, just required reading. I still read multiple books for pleasure during the time I was supposed to be reading my required reading.
  • The way books are taught in school: This could have an entire discussion post to itself, but it also fits into this required reading post. At least in my school, I think most books are taught in ways that completely suck the enjoyment out of reading. Particularly, my English teacher last year would completely drain me of any enjoyment I had while reading the book. Why? Because we had to read passages at home, and then come into class and read those exact same passages out loud. Also, as a quote I read once described (which ironically I read in an English class), teachers tend to dissect the book to it’s bare parts until it loses all the magic it possessed. A book that once seemed complex, engaging, alluring, becomes a jumble of sentences and organization tools and symbolism and metaphors. It is an example, I believe, of the sum being greater than the whole of its parts. A book is not just words on paper placed there with deliberate thought to create a certain effect. It is, for lack of a better word, magic, when all parts are combined. But teachers dissect it until we just look at the bare bones of the book, and focus so much on the word choice and diction that we ignore the plot, characters, setting, and everything we all review because that it what makes the book for us.
  • The books chosen: This one kind of flows from the previous bullet, but the books chosen to teach tend to decrease my motivation to read them. I know, this contradicts my earlier statements that I actually enjoy the books I read for school. But it’s more that I enjoy the books for what they are. I do not enjoy them enough to create a personal connection to them and love them the way I love my own books. Also, teachers tend to choose books or discuss certain aspects of the books that aren’t relevant or interesting to me. For example, when we read The Great Gatsby this year, our main focus was on the economy. How did it impact people’s action, what role did materialism play, those type of focuses. We did not focus on what I found interesting, which was the romances between all the characters, the friendships formed, the characters and their personalities. So this depreciated my enjoyment for the book, because we focused so little on the parts that I found important and relevant to my life. The points where I actually had opinions.

That being said, there are pros to required reading. It forces students to read who wouldn’t normally read. It introduces you to books you wouldn’t normally read and expands your horizons. And sometimes I actually do enjoy picking apart the book, at least minimally, because some of the symbolism or word choice my teacher reveals actually adds to the magic of the book.

But is required reading “worth it” for schools? Does it achieve its desired effect? Are there ways to reform it so it is more effective? I don’t know the answer to these questions. As I mentioned in the beginning, the pros and cons of required reading are both numerous, and complicated.

What do you think? Should reading be required in school? How else could teachers teach books in a way that preserves the magic of books? Is there a way to reform the required reading system in school?

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19 thoughts on “Book Discussions: Required Reading in Schools

  1. Krysta says:

    I’m not sure how schools could remove required reading entirely. An English class without books assigned would be like a math class without equations assigned for homework or a science class that didn’t include labs. Some students may not like some books just as some students will not like geometry or some students will not enjoy learning history, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile to do these things or that schools should be dictated by what students want to do rather than what they may need to learn to be successful later in life. The required books are literally the work of the course.

    I think that choosing from a list of books is a great option because it does allow students to try to find a book they would like to read. Teachers need to be familiar with the content of the books to provide productive guidance and feedback, so it’s not necessarily ideal to have thirty students reading thirty books the instructor has never heard of or read.

    I think, too, that it’s easy to forget that many people enjoy literary analysis. Gerald Graff has a great essay on how he didn’t enjoy reading until he read literary criticism on Huck Finn and then he realized there were a lot of interesting things happening in the text that he could talk about. The idea of an unmediated reading experience where students just enjoy a book because they read it is only true for some people. I know there are plenty of books I didn’t enjoy until instructors broke them down for me and I could see how complex and intricate they are!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sydney @ Fire and Rain Books says:

      Yes I agree with your first point. Books are essential to English class, but I think the way they are taught suck the life out of them. I know personally that reading the same passage the night before class and in class makes the book boring, and doesn’t add anything to our knowledge. It also makes the book drag on, because it takes months to finish it. We spent an entire month last year reading a 200 page novel because each day we would read it out loud and then read the same passage that night.

      I think there is a fine line between teaching literary analysis correctly or taking away from the book while trying to analyze it. There are times when I’ve read a book and enjoyed it more when it was broken down for me. For example, we read Life of Pi in our English class two years ago and my teacher pointed out a lot of symbolism and layers to the book I had missed reading it independently. That certainly added to my enjoyment of the book. But the way it was taught is that she was very open and free in our discourse. I think it’s when teachers try to control the discussion too much to push the “right answer” and force the conversation to topics that the students aren’t passionate about that the literary analysis becomes not beneficial. She left a lot of things up to our own interpretation, and let us come to conclusions ourselves, which I think helps the students become more engaged in what their reading as well and make inferences and analyze the text with more ease.

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      • Krysta says:

        It’s true that some teachers are less effective than others. I had a teacher in high school who would routinely offer interpretations of the book not supported by the text. She would also refuse to admit that anyone else might have a valid interpretation, even though conflicting interpretations are possible as long as both are supported by the text. I think she just didn’t understand the discipline she was teaching, frankly. However, I recognized that she was simply a poor teacher and lived in hope of getting a new one who knew what they were talking about.

        Reading the passage aloud in class together is often a key component of literary studies because each time you make a claim you have to demonstrate how it is supported by the text. It’s the evidence you are presenting to everyone else, kind of like showing the class the steps of a math proof or citing statistics to support your argument in a political science class. I don’t take claims about literature very seriously if the person can’t point to a passage in the text. Indeed, I am too often aware that if the person had tried to find a passage in the text to support their claim, they wouldn’t have been able to. If only they had tried to find evidence before speaking, they might have saved themselves from an awkward moment. Rather like my infamous high school teacher who once spent a class talking about a moment in the book that literally doesn’t happen. Not that I informed her. Because she wouldn’t have cared. :/

        Of course, some teachers don’t use the text effectively. I have seen classes where they read the whole chapter aloud together again because the teacher assumes that the students either didn’t read it themselves or that they didn’t understand what they read. Teachers have to get everyone on the same page, so often they cover material that a few students in the class comprehended immediately, but that the other 80% of the class didn’t comprehend. Unfortunately, it sounds like you are ahead of the bulk of your class and have to wait for them to catch up.

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      • Sydney @ Fire and Rain Books says:

        Your third point is what I was talking about. We would just read the entire chapter together, the same chapter that was assigned to us to read the night before. I’m in a special advanced program at my school that specializes in humanities, so my other classmates are skilled readers and keep up with their homework. It was more that my teacher didn’t teach books well at all and thought that reading it twice within 24 hours with minimal relevant commentary would further our understanding. However, I know my classmates and I understood the text the first time we read it, so the second time only served to bore us and decrease our enjoyment of the book.

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      • Krysta says:

        I’ve been in similar courses. It was painful at the time but I did a lot of reading outside school on my own including literary criticism so I think I ended up with a better understanding of most of the texts than my teachers had. Unfortunately, there’s not always a lot of oversight in classrooms. Being observed once and awhile isn’t really an impetus to change your teaching style, especially if you are accustomed to one that gives you less work. Reading the book aloud again is certainly low prep.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sydney @ Fire and Rain Books says:

        I agree. I read literary criticisms often to understand text for class, and if English teachers taught the books in that way, I would enjoy the class reading much more than I do now. I think in general if the class was more of a discussion format and less of a teacher telling you the “correct answer” format, the book would be more engaging in general, because it allows for intelligent discourse about the content of the novel and lets students share their interpretations, which just excites students in general. I for one always love our class discussions we do for books, but sadly they only happen once every book, for only one class period, even though I think all the students get a lot more out of them than we do when the teacher just talks at us.

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  2. Briana says:

    I do think some teachers are better at teaching than others, but that’s not necessarily a problem inherent to required reading; it’s just a problem with the individual teacher. I did have some poor teachers in high school, and I did read some books I didn’t like. However, I’ve come to think that English classes are oddly the one place where we seem to think there should be no required content. I’ve never complained that a chemistry class made me learn specific chemistry topics or that an American history class made me read about the American Civil War. We take for granted that there’s specific content to be learned in other classes, even if we don’t enjoy it, and yet we seem to think English classes are simply about enjoying reading or improving literacy skills. I actually do think it’s important to read classics and authors like Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, etc. because that’s the content of English courses.

    I also point this out on every post about required reading, so maybe I’m just repeating myself at this point, but one very practical consideration about required reading is that it’s so, so true that the teacher needs to have read the book and be familiar with it and that the students in the class have to all have read the same book. (I can envision one independent project where everyone chooses a different book to present on, but for the bulk of the course, the people in the class have to be reading the same material, or there will be nothing for the teacher to lecture on or for the class to discuss as a group.) Also, the teacher really needs to have read the book to be able to discuss it and to thoughtfully grade essays on the book. You can’t say “I think the scene on page 34 would nuance your argument and you should take it into account when you revise” if you haven’t read the book yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sydney @ Fire and Rain Books says:

      I think that’s where our disagreement comes in. I view English class not as a class to learn content, but to learn skills. I don’t think it’s as important to know Shakespeare and know Melville and being able to talk about a certain quote in that book as much as it’s important to learn how to read critically and write clearly and enjoy reading, and I think whatever book teaches that the best is fit to be taught in class. That’s why I disagree with the books we read in school or how required reading is practiced, because I think the curriculum is flexible as long as certain skills are taught, and the books used for that are flexible as well. However, I do think it’s important as you said for the teacher to be comfortable and familiar with the book.

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      • Briana says:

        Well, part of it is that literature doesn’t occur in a vacuum, so in a lot of cases you have to know about influential authors to understand how later texts are drawing on their work. I’d say one of the most obvious cases of this is that you can’t really understand Western literature if you don’t have some familiarity with the Bible. I’ve been in a lot of classes where someone offered some interpretation of, say, a line of poetry that was interesting but really off-base…because the student didn’t realize that the author was referencing something from Scripture. Another good example would be mythology. A lot of older texts reference Greek and Roman mythology, and if you don’t know the content, you’re not fully going to understand what the author was trying to say.

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      • Krysta says:

        I think it’s also useful to point out that learning to write is actually a different discipline from literary studies. That’s the content of rhetoric and composition. You have to write in every single subject and you have to write differently in every single subject. What counts as an argument or a thesis in literary studies isn’t the same as what counts as an argument or thesis in history or political science or biomedical ethics. We do students a disservice when we pretend that learning to write an essay on Hamlet is going to prepare them to write in general or that they can take the structure of a literary essay and apply it in their biology or math or history class.

        I would prefer to see students take rhet-comp and have English classes teach literary studies. That way, students would have a better idea of what it means to write in various disciplines and in various situations. And literary studies wouldn’t be automatically conflated with writing, grammar, and reading comprehension. All those things are required in any other course but no one dismisses history classes by saying “Why are we learning about WWII instead of learning the necessary vocabulary and grammar to understand the letters from the homefront that we’re reading?” Content is not devalued in other courses to the extent that it seems devalued in English.

        And it’s true that some knowledge of the canon is useful for understanding other disciplines and I guess just to present one’s self as knowledgeable and cultured (if anyone still has that has a goal). I once spent twenty minutes of an art history class watching the other students offer increasingly bizarre interpretations of a painting that was just Jesus multiplying the loaves. If they’d covered the Bible in a literature course, that would have been a non-issue.

        Plus it’s helpful to have a general timeline of literature and its influences so that you have an understanding of who is responding to whom or who is influenced by whom. It’s kind of like knowing the influences and periods in art or music.

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      • Sydney @ Fire and Rain Books says:

        I think it’s an interesting point that english classes and composition classes should be different disciplines. Maybe if it was this wouldn’t be an issue, but my English classes always seem to combine teaching about books and teaching how to write into one discipline. This leads to us reading books to learn how to write, and not reading books to learn how to read or delve into the topic of the book. If they were separated, then perhaps the teaching of required reading would be better and more insightful and engaging.

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      • Sydney @ Fire and Rain Books says:

        That is true. What some of my teachers do which I enjoy and appreciate is make a quick little “cheat sheet” of any sort of allusions the text makes, or they would decide to analyze that reference in class to enlighten us. I appreciate when teachers do that with our required reading, because it adds value and insight to my knowledge, but too often I feel like I am being taught books by focusing on minute details and dissecting books into Q+As. As an article in the Washington Post by Nanch Schnog wrote, teachers take “living, breathing works of art and transform them into desiccated lab specimens fit for dissection”. I’ve gotten questions on quizzes asking me which character said a certain unimportant quote. It doesn’t require me to think deeply about the book or apply some of my own insight, but rather pick apart the book for random details. That’s where the problem comes in, in my opinion. It’s when books are taught as lab specimens, where each part should be analyzed and broken apart. Maybe it’s just personal preference, but I think it’s better to make inferences about the text, apply it to our own world, and connect to the story than to be able to name five metaphors the author used or quote parallel structure from the novel, which is how I’m being taught. I think the former type of teaching is the type that gets teens interested in reading and motivates them to read for pleasure.

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  3. delphinespublications says:

    Likewise, even as a university student I feel the drain that comes along with the dreaded “Required Reading List”. I do feel as though Professors tend to dissect certain passages to their bare minimum and superimpose thematic elements into books beyond their capacity or perhaps what the writer may or may not have had in mind.
    I love reading. I’m graduating as a Comparative Literature major, but whenever, Professors assign. just like you, I always wait till the very last minute and instead will find myself reading some other book instead. I think, if I was able to read The Great Gatsby or A Moveable Feast on my own, without having to read it in order to pass a class or write a term paper about that would satisfy my professor’s ideology, I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more and would have experienced and observed the magic of the classic writing, but with required readings, what we experience as part of reading is always skewed and for that reason, I am completely and utterly against the notion of “Required Texts”.
    Thanks for this lovely discussion post!
    Happy reading ! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sydney @ Fire and Rain Books says:

      Yes I agree with a lot of what you said! I love reading, but dread required reading books, and while some analysis does enhance my experience, others drag it down. I think it is because it is always in the back of my mind that I need to read this book for class, and therefore I can’t enjoy the book completely.

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