One of the hardest things about being a high school English teacher is trying to find books and stories that my students will like. One of the best things, though, is when I teach something for the first time and find out that my students have fallen in love with it. Here is a list of the top five most surprising books, stories and articles my students have loved, year after year.
“The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch
Pausch’s Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon has been celebrated for years. Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, Pausch – a professor at the university – was asked to participate in the Last Lecture series. The question he was responding to was: If you knew you were to vanish tomorrow, what wisdom would you impart on the world? The lecture series was usually the last lecture of the year, meant to inspire students before summer vacation. Ironically, though, this would be Pausch’s last lecture ever.
Knowing this, he gave a lecture about achieving your childhood dreams and wrote a book that expanded on his lecture. I gave my students selections from the book as reading assignments, and we discussed them every day. Some even went out and bought the book for themselves, to keep as a reminder forever. When it came time to write a final paper on the book, the students came up with the idea of writing their own last lectures and presenting them to the class. Their advice was heartfelt and important, and I was surprised that the book had such an impact on them.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
In 1892, Gilman published “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a semi-autobiographical short story about a woman who suffers from postpartum depression. Her husband, a doctor, takes her to a house in the country and orders her not to work. He belittles her condition and insists she stay in a room of the house with hideous yellow wallpaper. Eventually, the woman’s imaginations get the better of her, and she locks herself in the room. Students usually have a hard time understanding this story, but their sense of injustice is keen at this point in their lives. They know that what is happening to this woman is not fair, and they are outraged at how she is treated by her husband. We talk about how he is gaslighting her, or making her feel bad for being upset at him, and they become even more outraged. By the end of the story, we’ve had many vital conversations about oppression and women’s rights, and the students remember the story fondly.
“Reality Bites Back” by Jennifer Pozner
Unsurprisingly, when I mention reality television, the students jump at the chance to talk about it. They always want to discuss the newest episode of “Jersey Shore” or “Teen Mom.” However, when I give them the chapter in Pozner’s book about marketing, they are appalled to learn that these shows exist solely for media companies to make money. They are even more disgusted when they realize that the illusion that “everybody is watching” is actually one made up by media companies and clever cross-advertising. Students always leave this unit on media literacy with a new understanding of reality television, as well as a critical eye for marketing campaigns. After this unit, for the rest of the year, they come into class telling me about the latest product placements they spotted on their favorite shows.
“The Smurfette Principle” by Katha Pollitt
Even teenagers love cartoons, so when we read “The Smurfette Principle,” their eyes are opened to the gender injustice all around them. “The Smurfette Principle” is an article by Katha Pollitt that posits that there are not many options for girls when it comes to the cartoons they watch. If a girl character is present, there is only one of them (like Smurfette), or they are a princess. Neither of these options can hold a candle to all of the awesome, adventurous things boy characters get to do in cartoons. Now, students can cite Dora the Explorer or the Powerpuff Girls as exceptions to the rule, but they are still upset to find that most shows employ only one girl character, if any. This always leads to a discussion about girl toys and boy toys and creates a memorable way to discuss our gendered society.
“Fahrenheit 451″ by Ray Bradbury
Hands down, my students’ favorite book of the entire school year is Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” At first, they are resistant to the idea that books can change lives. However, once they start to see that a society without books is also a society without intelligence and social progress, they are always hooked. We started the year with this book, and they devoured every book I gave them afterwards. There wasn’t one single complaint about reading, because they knew that, without books, they could never progress.
Photo Credit: moriza