Required reading.  Evil enemy, necessary evil, or antiquated teaching mechanisms?

Thinking back on my time in high school, I will be honest, there was very little required reading.  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne was perhaps the one book that I vividly remember reading.  I enjoyed deciphering that book and looking at the injustice portrayed within the pages.  A change in staff my senior year, put most of the required reading aside and I honestly don’t remember reading one book that year.

scarlet letter



That being said, I have mixed feelings about required reading.  While I tend to think that most students need to be exposed to Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Orwell, I wonder if these selections turn students off to reading rather than creating or nurturing a desire to read.  When I researched the role of required reading in high school, I found very little evidence to support it.  According to an article on, How Do We Select Books Students MUST Read, it states we need to cover skills and content (agreed), and also expose students to certain classics so they don’t go to college thinking “who’s Shakespeare.”  While I wholeheartedly agree, we must cover skills and content.  Can’t skills and content be covered in student-selected novels or books?  I also agree that a certain “exposure” to the classics is necessary, but how far to we delve into these classics so that we create excitement rather than dread?

romeo and juliet

While I do see value in the classics and teaching the classics, I think it’s our approach to them that needs to be adjusted.  How can we make them more interesting to today’s youth?  Currently, I am trudging through Romeo and Juliet with my freshman class.  We are working on comparing and contrasting.  We are reading and discussing the text, then we are watching the same scenes from two different versions of the movie.  Mind you, I didn’t start this unit this way, but after the moaning and groaning, I transitioned my students to this format.  They are enjoying it more and getting more out of it.  This approach has brought about many interesting discussions about thing that may never have been discussed such as the mafia (not one of my students knew what that was).  It is appropriate and useful for students to read these books, but our approach can be a deal maker or a deal breaker.  

book love

Penny Kittle’s video connected with me because it was like listening to my own students.  I knew in my heart (and head) that many weren’t doing the required reading, the problem was, what to do about it.  Prior to reading Book Love, I required students to read a certain amount of pages in a quarter and complete a book reflection on the book.  The book reflection included a summary and answering four questions about the book.  The questions also required students to think about how the answer applied to them and include that in their answer.  


After reading Book Love, I felt encouraged.  I’ve always felt that it’s important to get students reading no matter what it is.  I wanted to create a fun atmosphere instead of an assignment of dread.  According to Penny Kittle, “The amount of reading does matter.”  I’ve incorporated choice into my classroom and “replaced” the dreaded book reflection.  I created a nine square bingo card with suggestions ranging from “Read a Pulitzer Prize Winning Book” to “Read a Graphic Novel.”  In addition, I’ve given students twenty choices on how they can reflect on that book, including making a book trailer and tweeting the author.  Some of the students seem excited about the change.  I have two tubs at the front of my classroom now that contain different prize winners and graphic novels.  Any of these books would count towards a “square” on their bingo card.  Three of my most resistant readers grabbed books this morning.  I also discussed with them the “Readers Rights.”  I told one of those hesitant readers, “if you read a chapter and you don’t like it, bring it back and pick something different.”  She looked truly relieved.  I had another student, one who doesn’t struggle with reading, say she just wasn’t getting into her book.  I told her, “give yourself the right to quit on it and get something different.”  She looked confused.  
If we truly want to create a love of reading, we have to put something on the student’s shoulders.  They are responsible for doing the work, but they have some choices to make in how they do it or what book they choose.  I’m excited about the positive changes that I’ve made this week.


11 thoughts on “Required reading.  Evil enemy, necessary evil, or antiquated teaching mechanisms?

  1. I am greatly encouraged by what you are doing with your own class. I will admit that I was puzzled by how to approach the issue of required reading and how to move away from it in my own future classroom, but you have given me many great ideas.


  2. Romeo and Juliet is a struggle because of the language, no matter the age (just took Shakespeare last semester). The film comparisons are a great way to make the play “come alive” so they’re not struggling with trying to make a mental image out of a one-to-two sentence scene introduction. There’s also a short film with unlikely love as the them titled “No Love Lost” that I think would be interesting to show in a classroom. (Link:


  3. I love how you are empowering your students to stop reading something they don’t like. I wish I had had a teacher to tell me that that was ok. Instead, I felt guilty, like “a quitter” and failure. Teens have enough self-conscious concerns and books shouldn’t be added to their pile.


  4. From reading haters every where :”THANK YOU” I can’t imaging how my school years would have been different if I had been the opportunities you give your students. Film is such a good way to expose students to classics. As an adult, I have sought out several books to read because I was introduced to it in the film.


  5. I really liked how you talked about changing the approach. You have taken a square peg and shaved off the edges to make it fit into a round hole, which is exactly what we need to do as teachers.


  6. I agree that there needs to be a change to the way we teach classics to our students. It was encouraging to read about your changes in the classroom and seeing how they engaged readers. While I enjoyed reading Peggy Kittle’s book and watching the video it was intimidating. How do I get engaged readers? How do I get those students that hate reading to love it? Thank you for the encouraging read.


    1. I think you just have to start somewhere. Don’t worry about changing the entire world straight out of the chute, just focus on making some changes that will help students and let it grow.


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