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Teaching literature to adolescents is particular challenge for several reasons. Young people have often not been exposed to the world outside of formal education, and are still developing their opinions of the world and its stories. Many young readers dislike the classics because they have not yet experienced the central themes or issues of these books, which are more adult in nature. Another issue in the adolescent literature classroom is that of mandatory attendance. The students probably have not chosen to be in the class, and some may not like reading at all. Still others are very enthusiastic to participate, since they are required to take other classes that they don’t enjoy. It would be rare to have a middle or high school class solely comprised of either avid or unhappy readers. Thus managing the diversity of attitudes towards literature poses yet another difficulty for the teacher. Given the unique atmosphere of these classes, choosing the right books to teach is essential.
Many high school classrooms teach the so-called “classics,” which are a loosely defined cannon derived from western literature. In my mind, the category of classic literature can be somewhat fluid, allowing for the inclusion of more modern African American authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and even Toni Morrison. Of course some would disagree, but due to the general respect for these authors, they are sometimes included. Clearly, the classics are different depending on who defines them. I also consider some of the more widely revered western cannon to be classic, including Shakespeare, Dante, and Jane Austen. I read and enjoyed many of these classics in school, and believe that young adults should have exposure to at least some of these writers. As a young person, I expected to acquire a certain ability to converse intellectually with adults from reading the classics, and I believe I did accomplish that. Even if students don’t enjoy reading the classics, I believe there is some value in being aware of what Western culture deems important. The classics should be taught alongside a wider spectrum of novels from different cultures, and should not be considered “great literature” in their own right. It is most important to read and understand the classics, in order to understand the power structures that deem them classic at all.
I do not believe in banning or restricting access to books in any situation, for any reader. However, I do believe that there are some books that should not be taught in adolescent classrooms which have mandatory attendance policies. Just as I would not withhold books from young adults, I would not force them to read books that they find hurtful. Books are vehicles for ideas, which is precisely what makes them so wonderful, and at the same time so potentially life-changing. Unfortunately, not all books affect their readers in only positive ways. Books containing particularly detailed accounts of self-harm and eating disordered behavior can be extremely triggering to individuals who have struggled with these patterns, and adolescents are particularly vulnerable. These types of books, as well as books that deal with abuse and bullying can be upsetting to read, and even more upsetting to discuss in a classroom of peers for some students. It seems that more and more young adult novels are being published, which capitalize off of teen mental illness, and can even romanticizes dangerous behaviors. The counter-argument is that young adults may find these stories empowering instead of re-traumatizing, and I believe that is a possibility. However, I believe that these types of books are best left for reading outside of the classroom, or in settings where they are not mandatory. I do not believe it is worth forcing one child to suffer in class, even if all of the others benefit.
In deciding what adolescents should read, we are attempting to shape them into the “right” kind of adults. Perhaps we want them to be eloquent, so we teach Shakespeare, or we want them to be global citizens, so we teach “multi-cultural” literature. Whatever we decide to teach, it is impossible to avoid didacticism. There is no such thing as a neutral curriculum. Individuals are inherently biased, and so some books will always be privileged over others. If I were a teacher, I would privilege books about gender and racial justice over books like “Mein Kampf,” but other teachers might make different choices. It would be naïve to think that any one book list could be non-biased, or without an agenda for its readers.