Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Reading List 2009-2010*



The biggest question this year in revising my syllabi was not what to have my students read, but how much to have them read.

The first things the students must read for me is what we call the Summer Reading Requirement. These are selected books to be read over the summer before class starts. In our school, we test them on these books during the first week of school.

In ninth grade, I will have them read A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for the summer. Most reading lists in high school contain few science fiction books. Bradbury is such a master of language, and he tells a ripping good story, so choosing him was a no-brainer. Donnelly writes beautifully and poetically, and the dilemma of the main character of the novel—whether to break away from her small community and close-knit family and go away for college—makes the book important for my students.

Once we start the year, we will move from an anthology of literature through several novels and plays. Inherit The Wind, based on the Scopes Monkey* Trial and the debate between creationism and evolution, is always a favorite and leads to great class discussions. I will also use G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, a real challenge for students, and classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, The House On Mango Street, and Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I first read the Golding book when I was in ninth grade and it had a profound impact on my life. Hopefully, I can recreate that for my students.

Tenth grade students will read To Kill A Mockingbird and a Hercule Poirot mystery over the summer. The Harper Lee classic was left out last year, so I am playing catch up by including it here. As for Agatha Christie, few high school reading lists contain mystery stories, yet students love them. I used this book several years ago and started a run on Christie books. Students raced from one book to the next and could not get enough of her work.

During the year we will read Camus’ The Stranger, Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Julius Caesar, Our Town, and Death of a Salesman, to give them some classic American drama. Also included on the list are Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, The Red Badge of Courage, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I will put in selections from Oscar Williams’ anthology, Immortal Poems of the English Language to start a study of poetry that will be continued in the twelfth grade.

AP Language and Composition for eleventh grade students will begin with Einstein’s Dreams, a unique and thought-provoking novel, and The Catcher In The Rye, a classic work by J.D. Salinger. Both books are easy reads for the students; they love them, and the books need no teaching, really, although we will get into some interesting discussions about the nature of time and the universe with Alan Lightman’s book.

During the school year, we will alternate between The Norton Reader, an anthology of nonfiction prose, and several classic novels and plays, including The Great Gatsby, The Bell Jar, Huckleberry Finn, The Road, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Crucible. Eleventh grade is focused on American literature, but I have added for this year Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which we are performing on campus, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

Seniors in AP Literature and Composition will read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by the inventive Jonathan Safran Foer, Lucky by Alice Sebold, and 1984 by George Orwell. The Foer book is different from many novels of the twentieth century. He experiments with altered text and a creative expansion of the traditional novel while detailing a child’s grief over the loss of his father on September 11th. Sebold writes boldly about her rape as a college student in this nonfiction work. I will take some time with Orwell’s classic as there are a few things I want my students to really lock onto in the novel, even though they are reading it on their own.

We will push through several great works of literature, mostly British, during the shortened senior year—students graduate about four weeks earlier than the rest of the school. We will continue our study of poetry with Oscar Williams’ other anthology, Major British Poets. Novels on the list include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Crime and Punishment. Drama will not be neglected, and I am able to include some humorous work: Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Waiting For Godot, and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I love Tom Stoppard’s take on Hamlet from the minor characters’ view, and Samuel Beckett’s work is particularly relevant these days when the theatre of the absurd is now called real life.

For classic literature, I will include Dante’s Inferno from The Divine Comedy. This will allow us to discuss some Christian theology as well as the psychology of human nature, revenge and redemption. Since the AP exam covers literature from the Renaissance forward, Dante helps with mythology and Bible references in more modern work.

So there it is, our entire year of study. It will be a real push to get through everything, but I told my students before they left for the summer that failing to cover something is not an option. It is all important, so they will be reading and reading and reading, along with vigorous and regular writing.

It should be a tough, invigorating, intense year.

*Yes, as William Michaelian pointed out, it was not the Scopes "Money" trial, but the Scopes Monkey Trial. Consider my error corrected.