Why Assigned Reading Is Terrible
CW: Slight discussion of Sexual Assault, Queer erasure, and discussion of Suicide.
On Booktoot, I asked people what they were assigned to read in school. (https://booktoot.club/@lapis/102327647000207373)
I was mostly interested in K-12, and people outside the US, but all answers were and still are welcome.
I was listening to Tomi Adeyemi being interviewed on a podcast. You might know her as the author of Children of Blood and Bone or the author that got the biggest movie deal in YA. If you don't know her for those, go read the damn book and come back.
She thought she hated reading. You know why? Her assigned reading in English was garbage. It was pretty much Dead White Dudes. She read and wrote outside class, but she didn't think that counted. (If you're wondering, creative nonfiction is what spoke to her).
I'm a year older than her, and I absolutely relate! Why do we read this shit? Why are these classics? They're supposed to speak to us, but don't. And if they don't, you're got three options:
- You're assigning them to the wrong audience (ie: too young)
- You aren't teaching them correctly.
- They're shit and aren't classics.
And I keep hearing this story. Adults who thought they hated English. Kids who finally found something they liked and thought they had hated reading.
It's fucked up!
It's my blog, and it's easiest to lead you through with examples of my assigned reading.
The earliest I remember is Hatchet in like 3rd grade (if you're wondering, Hatchet is kind of a joke in the YA world about how easily it gets assigned.) I liked it, and I think it sent me on some weird survivalist bent. I'm glad I grew out of that. Then I got assigned it again in Middle School.
In Middle School, I also had to read this really boring book. They were on a boat. Absolutely fuck all happened. I skipped ahead to the halfway point, where something happened. It caused me to engage with the book. I told the teacher, and she got pissed at me! Because I was honest and didn't suffer through like everyone else. God forbid I learn to hate reading like everyone else (If you're wondering, an #ActuallyAutistic thing is being honest when you're not supposed to be, and as a girl, I was not diagnosed.).
The first thing I was assigned in High School, and the only thing I particularly liked, was Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. I read it over the course of a day. When I admitted this in class, my classmates were aghast that I'd read ahead and not do something better with my time. Considering the shit we would usually be assigned, I can't blame them! I should revisit Speak.
Shakespeare is common in High School. I visited him twice. One was for the 9th Grade English unit, and one was for my theatre class. The Theatre class I watched a video of The Taming of the Shrew which is the way to do it if you can't get to a production. 9th Grade English we read Romeo and Juliet aloud, and didn't get a chance to parse the words, so if there were any of those dirty jokes Shakespeare loves, they went right over our heads. So spoiler: Everyone hated it.
I also had to read Fahrenheit 451. I cannot describe how much I have learned to hate this book. Have you ever been straight up told you cannot relate to a book? There was this moment, where he's struggling to read his book. The teacher asked if there was anyone who could relate to this. I raised my hand, and told a story of my troubles (I would think having bad ADHD meant I could in fact relate to this). I was told I could in fact not relate to this and no one in the room could relate to it. If that's the case, why the fuck are we reading it?
Early on I was assigned to read To Kill A Mockingbird Because I went to school before Harper Lee “ruined it” by making Atticus a racist. Something tells me the white savior book isn't assigned much anymore. I also got to watch the movie, but hey, I do like Gregory Peck's voice.
Then there's the Great Gatsby. I've heard this is better in college than high school, because the point is everyone in the book is vapid, but this point goes right over the head of high schoolers, so this is a miserable experience.
Oh yes, my myth classes. I enjoyed these somewhat, but all the gay was taken out. Do you know how goddamn boring the Iliad is if you take the gay out!? I was a fujoshi at the time, I would have been all over that story if you'd kept the Achilles/Patroclus in. It's a goddamn slash fic and you made it Het. I also had to read another fanfic, known as the Inferno part of the Divine Comedy because people only want to read the parts where people are suffering in hell, the other parts are boring.
College was easier for the most part. Almost all my lit classes were at a community college, and they seemed receptive to other opinions.
I read some Edith Wharton, and while I don't feel I understand her, it wasn't completely a miserable experience.
I had to read Fun Home twice though, for two different classes.
This is the trouble though. The second time was after a struggle with suicide.
I don't think anyone in the room knew that though, since I don't wear a ribbon saying “permanently fighting off the urge to kill myself” (I think it's called “Chronic Suicidal Tendency”). So When we discussed the Dad's possible suicide, I suggested it was not, because he didn't execute it the way I would when I get the urge to jump into traffic. So someone fucking 'splained suicide to me. (I suppose to be fair, they may have the urge too, or know someone who does).
I had to read Coetzee's Despair for a creative writing class. This should have had a trigger warning, because it triggered the shit out of my trauma regarding my rape as a child. I was so pissed off about it, I fucking ranted about it and my rape to a classmate that day (we both hated the depressing tendencies of the class). Uh... at least I made a friend?
Also, I should mention. I was a Spanish minor before I dropped it to graduate Undergrad. “Why” you might ask? Because the prerequisite to the fun classes was a literature class I failed. Me defiendo bastante bien. But whenever someone asks me to interpret literature, in English or español, I come up with unacceptable interpretations to Nuerotypical ears and eyes. So I failed. I can write stories in Spanish, got an A in that class. Can't interpret Literature.
I don't want this to just be an angry rant about English classes, so I will go on with what I suggest are solutions.
- Think about why these books are classics. Because white dudes of the past wrote them, typically to enforce their usually shitty opinions.
- Add more People of Color. You know that diversity gives diversity of perspective?
- Add women.
- Add YA. Maybe teenagers would relate if the book was targetted at them? And you can't say that YA doesn't have messages. These books aren't vapid. Children of Blood and Bone is about police brutality against black people despite being written in a fantasy setting. Speak addresses rape, which spoiler: a lot of your graduating class will go through if they hadn't already.
- If you're gonna do Shakespeare, do it right. Watch performances.
- Don't erase. You look like a fool if you do.