Cover photo courtesy of University of Illinois Library on Wikimedia Commons
High School English teachers across the nation are having controversy about books taught in classrooms. The current books we're reading were brought into the world when the generation of baby boomers was in high school. They became classics when those baby boomers became teachers. Parents tend to approve books for their children to study when they are the same as they once did. Some traditional books since the 1960s are Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird; and William Golding's The Lord of the Flies.
The battle over which books should and shouldn't be taught in classrooms has become more intense. Progressives, like the teachers of the growing Disruptexts movement, want the inclusion of texts by authors of color. They tend to question the classics. On the other hand, conservatives have challenged the teaching of new books dealing with gender, sexuality, or race.
Some teachers have voiced concerns about newer mediums like television and YouTube videos; books may have an even smaller share of students' attention in the age of cell phones, the internet, social media, and online gaming. In response, other teachers have also shown many reasons to teach books to instill common culture, foster citizenship, and build empathy. These goals have little to do with the skills emphasized by contemporary academic standards. Still, if literature is going to continue to be an essential part of American education, it is not only important to talk about what books should be taught, but the reasons why.
The most taught play in 1988 was Romeo and Juliet, which was taught in 84% of schools. Books taught in schools in the 1960s, when the baby boomers were students, had become classics by the time generation members were teachers and parents. During the 1960s and 1970s, teachers reframed Romeo and Juliet as a contemporary work. Lesson plans from that time referred to its adaptations into West Side Story (a musical that initially came out in 1957). Along with Franco Zeffirelli's risqué 1968 film adaptation of Shakespeare's story of star-crossed lovers. This became the perfect hook for freshmen in a study of Shakespeare that would conclude in seniors with Macbeth.
English teachers have mentioned many reasons for teaching books to instill a common culture, foster citizenship, build empathy, and cultivate lifelong readers. If literature continues to be an important part of American education, it is essential to talk about all things books teach and the reasons why.
"We no longer live in a print-dominant, text-only world," the National Council of Teachers of English says in a 2022 position statement. This group wants English teachers to put less emphasis on books to train students to use various media. According to the students across the country, they may not only have fewer books in common, but they also may need to read fewer books altogether.