Teaching English

Last Friday, I met one of my newest clients for the first time. Amy Hanson, besides being the author of the glorious novel THE THIRD ACT (coming soon to editors’ desks around town!) is an English teacher. And lucky for her, she has say over what books she will teach. We chatted a bit about the fact that she teaches Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD to her high school students. As someone who would marry that book if I could, I was jealous of the teenagers who got the chance to read such a vibrant, thrilling, daring novel in class. I also started thinking a lot about what I read in high school and how valuable teaching current fiction can be.


Let me first say that I believe deeply in teaching the classics. I actually believe every student should have to read LORD OF THE FLIES and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I’m much less certain that I feel CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE GREAT GATSBY are as important as they’re made out to be. And sure, everyone should read some Shakespeare, but how about some August Wilson? Amy teaches Ibsen! That thrilled me to no end.


That aside, I remember the day my English teacher delivered copies of Richard Russo’s THE RISK POOL to our desks, and my mind blew open. Here was a novel that had been published in my lifetime. And there were things in it to learn? Mesmerizing.


As most people reading this can probably also claim, I had already found books I loved by this point. SONG OF SOLOMON and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE remain two of my favorite novels precisely because of when I first encountered them and how defining the first reading of each was to me. But it was that notion of great literature as a living, evolving thing that most struck me. Maybe I just wasn’t terribly bright, but until then it had never occurred to me to think of new books as potential future classics, or to approach them with the open mindedness that they might very well be brilliant.


So then the question becomes: which contemporary books should be taught? A few of the first novels I thought of would likely be terribly dull for teenagers or just be those kinds of books you don’t enjoy until you’ve experienced certain things: THE CORRECTIONS, BEL CANTO, THEN WE CAME TO THE END, GILEAD… Right now I’m leaning towards Bonnie Jo Campbell’s brilliant collection AMERICAN SALVAGE and Junot Diaz’s peerless THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO.


What about you all? What contemporary work of fiction would you add to a high school curriculum? And if you are a teacher, what do you wish you could add?


Also! Don’t forget that Lauren and I are hosting an online book club. We’re reading ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell, and the first Twitter chat will be April 30 on the first half of the book. Follow along with @JimMcCarthy528 and @laureneabramo. And check back here for updates on our progress!

5 Responses to Teaching English

  1. Siri Kirpal Kaur Khalsa says:

    When I was in high school, back in the last millenium, lots of us read STEPPENWOLF on our own. It wasn’t on the curriculum then, maybe still isn’t. My Mom, who taught English at the community college level, had her students read the Simon and Garfinkle song “Sounds of Silence” as a modern example of the old medieval dream poem.

    Other nominations:


    Barbara Kingsolver’s THE BEAN TREES

    Not super current, I know. But I’d love to have read them earlier than I did.

  2. Joelle says:

    It’s always a bit of a toss up what to teach when, I think. I mean, I remember reading Great Expectations in ninth grade and thinking it was a load of boring crap. Then I had to read it in college and thought it was genius. I didn’t think Austen was funny in college, but in my thirties and now, it cracks me up.

    I was just at a middle school and the entire school had read The Hobbit. The kids were way less than impressed. They all told me “it was soooooo boring!” But ask them about The Outsiders and they came alive. They loved every minute of it.

    My friends’ kids read Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK in ninth grade and loved it. They also enjoyed (for lack of a better word) Lois Lowery’s The Giver. I am not so sure about those books…I mean, I read Speak, but as an adult. I think I would’ve found it pretty upsetting as a teen, which I know is the point, but I like to choose which books upset me, not have them be required reading.

    I remember stumbling through The Red Badge of Courage and hating every second of it though, so maybe I would’ve been better off with SPEAK.

    All in all, I think a mix of classic and a contemporary novel or two sounds like a good plan. Also, summer reading lists are full of contemporary novels and kids often have to read 1-5 of them, so that way they get to choose. I like that plan. Especially when my books are on the lists!

    • Kevin A. Lewis says:

      This brings to mind a customer I was talking to at Borders before the ship sank who came from somewhere in the back hills of Arizona, where a teacher had finally gotten it through her head that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was possibly the dullest book in the universe, and decided to give her class the option of reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula instead. It was a wildly popular choice until a delegation of complaining parents beseiged the school board into having it pulled off the list for the following nutty reasons: It was too Satanic for
      Catholics, too Catholic for the born-again crowd, and too Godly for the couple of atheists who chimed in. My customer got called away before I could learn the name of this benighted town, but I put a fictionalized mention of this idiocy into the book I’m shopping around now, so hopefully someone will recognize themselves and speak up. One can only hope; I’ve noticed that Dracula is never on any reading lists even out here in CA, so this problem may be more common than we imagine…

  3. EDWARD says:

    I teach college freshman in Florida. I am under relentless pressure to find works of great literature that are short. It doesn’t matter wether the book is modern or classic, it matters how many pages long it is. More accurately, how few. This is essentially an offshoot of standardized testing. The student needs as much time as possible to learn how to identify words on a multiple choice test. Nothing else matters. I have found young people can relate to THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (a long short story with many implicit moral threads). There are better books, but they are more pages and thus counter productive. It is hard to tell what the student gets out of any of this. The word “education” would be misleading.

    • Joelle says:

      I think that’s horrible that you have page count concerns! Sheesh…I went to a state university and even though it was a pretty pedestrian education, I had to read 3-4 plays EVERY week for my theatre degree, plus all the reading for my other classes. So a novel every two weeks (big, long ones), 3-4 plays, rehearsal every day after school, and work 16 hours on the weekend. I never read for pleasure, but I sure read a lot of pleasurable stuff (and a lot of bore-me-to-death stuff).

      What about novellas by people like Alan Bennet? You could always teach The Bridges of Madison County (haha…seriously, I’m joking).

      Okay, I’ve left two comments on this one topic so clearly I am procrastinating the writing I should be doing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>