Free Students from the Chains of the Bookroom
By Rich Mitchell
I have a theory about novels. As a high school teacher, I assume that the dim, damp, locked bookroom across the hall from my classroom is similar to many if not most high school bookrooms around the country. Copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, and Heart of Darkness, line the shelves, some tattered, some new; some Everbound, some paperback. My theory is this: We teach books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, and Heart of Darkness because our schools own them. They’re great books, don’t get me wrong, but aren’t the true reasons we use them financial and practical? Do we not order ten new copies of The Great Gatsby annually because we already own so many other serviceable copies? Can we deny that we work with To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s easier and cheaper than finding a new book, written by a living author, with similar, yet more current themes, and no SparkNotes?
How can we expect students to seriously read, write, and think forwardly, when everything we use to facilitate such reading, writing, and thinking is older than their parents and grandparents? How can we get them to understand the value of writing when we teach them that good writing—that which is studied in schools—only happened in the past?
I’ve fought the novel fight in many ways. Due to space constraints, I’ll illustrate one. Each spring, I am responsible for selecting the summer reading title for incoming AP seniors. I must justify my choice to my department and my district. When the students come to school in September, I offer extra credit for donating their books. Once they do, I have acquired a new, school district endorsed text for use in the classroom the following year that has no SparkNotes—a book students might enjoy because I’ve made my choice with them in mind.
Ultimately, “enjoyment” isn’t my primary concern for summer reading. Rather, I aim to help enlighten students about their world. If I’ve selected a 21st century novel, chances are I can justify attempting to move student writing, reading, and thinking forward working with that novel. Currently, the progressive thinking “Everbound” to the bookroom is that “racism is wrong,” that “slavery was horrific,” and that “utopias are actually dystopias.” Students have a pretty good grasp on these things. What they don’t know is that, for instance, slavery still happens all over the world, including in the United States. They know racism is wrong, but they don’t understand, know about, or care to hear about institutionalized racism. Indeed, many students believe racism has ended.
Thinking “forward” about the 21st century and the concerns that accompany it require teachers to think about the choices we can make. It takes a little creativity, but if we’re not creative, who is going to be? If we’re not creative, teaching English becomes an annual review of the past, rather than a discussion based in truth and honesty about the future.
Richard Mitchell teachers Senior English at West Chester East High School and is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania studying reading, writing and literacy. As a member of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, he contributes as the co-director of the Summer Invitational Writing Institute and this year, will be teaching a youth program for high school juniors and seniors on writing the college essay. He lives in West Chester with his wife Maggie, and their daughter, Evelyn Rae.