My On again, Off Again Relationship with Assigned Reading

As I start school again for the winter semester, I can’t help but think back to the time before I entered college. In my k-12 education, I have had to read numerous books that I didn’t pick for myself. It’s no lie that I love books. Regardless, I have some very mixed feelings about the assigned reading that forms the basis of American language arts curriculum.

Assigned reading is a necessary evil. There needs to be some kind of standardization so that students have the same text to study. It’s not fair on teachers to have to not only create a curriculum but figure out how to do it with no common text for students to be familiar with. At least on a basic pedagogical level, assigned reading makes a lot of sense.

Not only just as a teaching tool, assigned reading helped me to find new kinds of books that I would have had difficulty jumping into without a teacher’s guidance. I struggled to understand Shakespeare before three different high school teachers introduced new ways to look at the text. All three times, they taught me that Shakespeare, and theater in general, is meant to be read aloud. The time that I spent dissecting Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and other Shakespeare plays in class led to my interest in watching and reading his plays independently. I made the decision to see Measure for Measure at the Globe Theatre in London a few years ago, and I think it was the high point of that trip.

However, not every book that has been thrust upon me has led to such interest. For every book that sparked my interest in a completely new genre, there’s been one that was pretty much…meh. I’m not trying to dismiss the classics, but I think that the way that public schools in America teach them is detrimental to actually enjoying them. And there are a couple of books that I could not stand.

It may or may not be controversial to say, but The Old Man and the Sea and Catcher in the Rye were not the highlights of my high school career. In fact, I would say that those are the only two books that I read in school that I actually couldn’t stand. I didn’t have the option to just put down a book that I wasn’t enjoying and find something different, either. Assigned reading led to one of two extremes for me as a result. I either learned about a new book and learned to love reading even more, or I had to spend weeks reading a book that I wasn’t enjoying, which took up time I could have spent reading something else.
That being said, I don’t know if there’s a solution. I’m not here to offer some kind of overhaul of the public education system, but rather to talk about how my experiences affected me and my attitude towards reading. I can think of things that I experienced that worked, but far be it from me to tell teachers how to do their jobs. One teacher I had in high school had a unit in which small groups picked out the book that they wanted to analyze from a list of 20 or so approved works. If students had another one in mind, the teacher was open to discussing it. Sure, I was pretty neutral towards the book in the end, but at least it was a 2 day read that wasn’t terrible, just a little monotonous. But I don’t know if that would work for every classroom and every student. I think that as time goes on, I’m interested to see how assigned reading changes in our classrooms, and how it affects students’ experience as a whole.