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Schools' reading lists get a rewrite
Times Snohomish County Bureau
Joel Villasano speaks with pride about reading Shakespeare's "Hamlet" earlier this year.
The Elizabethan prose was dense and often incomprehensible, but there were great insults and sword fights. And once he had worked his way through the play, Villasano said, he felt a huge sense of accomplishment.
But the Mariner High School senior really lights up when he talks about another book his English class read this year: "Life of Pi," a story of a 14-year-old Indian zookeeper's son stranded on a life raft with a Bengal tiger. The book, published in 2001, is a harrowing high-seas adventure and a meditation on faith by a boy who loves God so much that he practices Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
"Is it an animal story or a human story?" Villasano asks. "Is it about the survival of just the most powerful predators? Is one religion better than all the others?"
Villasano, who didn't speak English until his family came to the United States when he was 8, and who didn't like books much when he entered high school, poses these questions like a seasoned reader, his voice animated with curiosity and awe.
Largely in response to their more ethnically diverse student bodies, high schools in the area are broadening their literature selections to include more contemporary writers, more women and more minorities.
Students say the books engage them more immediately than the classics yet still raise timeless questions about existence and meaning.
Teachers say the contemporary books appeal more to students who don't like to read and need an introduction to the power and pleasures of literature.
The classics haven't been discarded, though. Despite their drubbing the past decade for being elitist, inaccessible and written almost exclusively by dead white males, the traditional literary canon — Homer, Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare, to name a few regulars — still makes up the bulk of high-school reading.
But the classics are increasingly interspersed with novels by contemporary writers such as Toni Morrison, Rudolfo Anaya and Maxine Hong Kingston.
Teaching contemporary works of literature in high school isn't new. Arthur Applebee, an education professor at the University at Albany in New York who has studied changes in high-school reading, said literature classes in the 1960s and '70s frequently featured books that re-
flected adolescent interests.
"Go Ask Alice," an anonymous account of a girl's descent into drug use, and "Catcher in the Rye," about a prep student's alienation from his upper-class family's expectations, were commonly assigned by teachers seeking to make their assignments more relevant to students' lives.
Still, the classics were never really replaced. Applebee's 1993 survey of high-school reading lists found that the 10 most required books were "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "Julius Caesar," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Scarlet Letter," "Of Mice and Men," "Hamlet," "The Great Gatsby" and "Lord of the Flies."
Angela Rossana, an English teacher at Mariner, said that over the past eight years her students, about 40 percent of whom are minorities, would study the authors' photos on the books and ask, "Why don't any of these pictures look like us?"
"That's a valid question," she said. "They're looking for a connection to the book."
Mariner's reading list now features about two dozen titles by contemporary authors among about 160 books approved by the Mukilteo School Board. They include "Mi Vida Loco" (My Crazy Life), the story of former world boxing champion Johnny Tapia; "Children of the River," a tale of growing up in wartime Cambodia; and "A Child Called It," about a victim of abuse.
Nesting said these stories share qualities to which students respond. They often are first-person narratives and seem true in a way the classics don't. They focus on a young person, whereas the classics typically focus on adults. And because the contemporary books describe diverse cultures, the students, rather than just the teachers, can help interpret the texts.
But students don't always react in predictable ways — they're as varied as the books they read. Mariner senior Kendra Parham, who is black, said she could relate more to Hamlet, with his family drama, his mother's remarriage and his doubts about his stepfather, than to Jon Krakauer's 1997 nonfiction work, "Into the Wild," about a middle-class college student who drops out of life and ultimately dies trying to find himself in the backwoods of Alaska.
"I could not get into it," she said.
In her backpack she carries the books she likes to read, contemporary novels by black authors Carl Weber and Omar Tyree.
"The books that I really get into are ones I can relate to as a person, as an African American and as a young person," she said.
Mariner students sometimes rebel against the books teachers think they should read. Rossana said students shove back at her "The Grapes of Wrath," a weighty John Steinbeck classic, and say, "Just give me an F."
"It's too much dry, dusty detail," she said, but added that the same students "devour" Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."
In the past, advocates for teaching the great works of Western civilization insisted the classics were essential to develop citizens in a democracy. Nesting remembers hearing in college the argument that you must read "Hamlet" to be a completely realized person.
"You know, you don't," she said. "There's no one book you need to read to become a human being."
At Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy High School, a Catholic school near Mill Creek, the traditional literary canon is still seen as essential reading for college-bound students. The school's approved reading list has about half the number of books as Mariner's but about the same ratio of classics to modern and contemporary works.
Books by Sandra Cisneros, Sherman Alexie and Alice Walker are now optional reading for Archbishop Murphy students along with the required Homer, Virgil and Chaucer.
Matt Wright, who chairs the school's English department, said the classics expose students to the world of ideas and develop their critical thinking.
But try convincing students that those difficult works pay intellectual gains. Wright said it's a continual challenge to get students to read the great works. Sometimes, despite their teachers' best efforts, students are unmoved.
Next year, Wright will jettison Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," after several attempts to engage students in the issues of power, politics and leadership. He taught the play during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and tried to raise questions about the use of force to remove a nation's leader, using the parallels with Brutus and Cassius' plot against the ruler.
But none of Wright's talking points raised even a moderately spirited response from students.
"That's a good barometer — if they're completely apathetic," he said. "I'm not going to drag them kicking and screaming through it."
Taylor Graff, a senior at Archbishop Murphy, said it's not just contemporary works that expose students to diverse cultures.
"Homer's Greece, Jane Austen's England — those are totally different cultures to us," she said.
Some students at Archbishop Murphy see the diversity of public-school reading lists as a bid for political correctness. They question whether works such as Dante's "Inferno," with its vivid, often-disgusting portrayal of hell and some of hell's notable inhabitants, including the Muslim prophet Muhammad, could be read without controversy in public high schools.
" 'The Inferno' would be banned in most public schools," said sophomore Russ Pohl during a recent class discussion on Dante. "They have more variety of students, so they have to be more PC."
Public-school literature teachers, however, say Dante is taught as part of Advanced Placement world-literature courses. Mike Pittis, the chairman of the English department at Edmonds-Woodway High School, said some cantos from the 14th-century poem also appear in world-literature anthologies read by 10th- and 12th-graders.
But the poem has generated controversy. Four years ago, Muslim students in the Tukwila School District objected to the depiction of Muhammad in the lowest circle of hell.
Jan Lande, a spokeswoman for the district, said those students were allowed to read an alternative text and that "The Inferno" remains on the list of approved books.
Though Archbishop Murphy's required reading seems more weighted to the classics than Mariner High's, the 1993 survey of high-school reading lists found little difference between public and private schools. Both types of schools responded to the need to reach out to students who didn't like to read. Both broadened their curricula to represent more cultures and viewpoints, said Applebee, the professor who completed the study.
"I don't think that's changed a lot in the intervening years," he said.
Applebee said educational value doesn't lie in the title of the books but in the discussions among students and teachers.
"Many of the traditional works are very meaningful and powerful, but that's also true of many modern ones," he said. "The most important piece is whether the conversation is about something that matters to them."
At Sno-Isle Libraries, with 20 branches in Snohomish and Island counties, teenagers don't have to check out the classics and, for the most part, they don't, said Christa Werle, an assistant managing librarian at the Marysville branch.
When they read what they want, they choose graphic novels, books with traditional content but a comic-book-like presentation. Romance and biographies are popular. So are the Japanese-style books known as manga. A favorite subject is vampires, which Werle said kids like because they're "a little sexy and a little dangerous."
"It's a time of exploration, a time of freedom for teens. They read content that they identify with. It's not the weighty tomes they carry in here with them."
The good news, Werle said, is that in an age of television, instant messaging, MySpace.com, iPods and computer games, teenagers read as much as they do. In fact, she said, the teen collection is the highest circulating group of books in the library.
"They're doing it," she said. "Don't worry."
Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company