Mixing classic and contemporary

Tri-State teachers introduce new books to keep interest

Tri-State teachers introduce new books to keep interest

February 09, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

Stargirl Caraway, Billie Jo and Charlotte Doyle are joining Atticus Finch, Hester Prynne and Jay Gatsby in some Tri-State area classrooms as English teachers try to go beyond the classics in choosing novels for students to read.

The classics still are assigned reading in many Tri-State area classrooms, but more and more teachers are giving students the opportunity to read contemporary works or books of their own choosing, Tri-State area teachers said.

At Berkeley Springs (W.Va.) High School, English teachers have the flexibility and money to introduce new titles into required reading for entire classes, English teachers Linda Unger and Melodie O'Hanlon said.


Other than the required reading for Advanced Placement and honors students, Morgan County (W.Va.) Public Schools leaves it up to teachers to decide which novels students should read, Unger said.

"We tend to be anymore a society of nonreaders. To encourage students to read, you have to put them in a direction of something they want to read," Unger said. Once you have spurred their interest, you can introduce them to some classic novels.

Reading novels helps students learn the elements of literature, such as themes, character and symbolism, South Hagerstown High School English teacher Kathy Thornhill said. It also can teach students about cultural heritage and can be a springboard to writing activities, she said.

Assessment and Advanced Placement tests can play a role in what novels are chosen, educators said. Assessment tests often involve reading comprehension and Advanced Placement tests can require certain books to be read, teachers said.

What's read in Washington County high schools has changed little over the years, said Thornhill and Peggy Pugh, interim supervisor of secondary reading/English language arts.

High school students still are reading the classics, though Pugh said nonfiction works such as biographies could be added to the ninth- and 10th-grade reading lists as early as next school year. That's because 10th- graders take a state reading assessment test in the spring that includes reading for information.

Students are supposed to read a certain number of independently chosen books as well, Thornhill said. That often leads to more variety as the students tend to choose more modern books about contemporary life and kids their own age, she said.

One example is Jerry Spinelli's "Stargirl," about a nonconformist girl who sets a school on its ear by doing unusual things such as finding out when people's birthdays are and sending them a card, whether or not she knows them, Thornhill said.

The Washington County Reading Council, of which Thornhill is president, has an activity called Teachers as Readers to encourage teachers to read some of the best young adult literature available so they can keep up with students' interests, Thornhill said.

Students are more likely to read contemporary authors' works in middle school, where different genres are studied at each grade level, Pugh said.

Clear Spring Middle School eighth-grade teacher Joan Myers' class was studying Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" last week.

Besides reading a mystery novel, the students will each choose a historical fiction book to read this year, Myers said.

"As a teacher, my biggest hope is that they'll foster a greater love of learning. Much of my education has been done on my own from choices made in my reading," Myers said.

Classics such as "Heart of Darkness," "The Metamorphosis" and "All Quiet on the Western Front" are the focus at Waynesboro (Pa.) Area Senior High School, said Gary Brett, English department chairman.

Recently added was Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," a novel from the Harlem renaissance movement that was rediscovered in the past 20 years, he said.

"We still read books that are on the top 100 novels of all time or lists of what students should have read before they enter college. We still read Dickens," Brett said.

"I enjoy the classics. I think they are classic for a reason. The writing and the themes that they explore are universal," Brett said.

During their junior year, students have the opportunity to select, within guidelines, what book they want to study, Brett said. Some students pick a book by Stephen King or another contemporary author.

Kris Scritchfield, a ninth-grade English teacher at Faust Junior High School, said the Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District is negotiating to add some more modern novels to the curriculum as the district buys new textbooks.

Scritchfield said the classics usually have been read during her 25 years with the school district.

For example, the ninth-grade list of novels includes "Animal Farm," "Bless the Beasts and Children," "The Miracle Worker," "Old Yeller," "The Odyssey" and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Scritchfield said.

The Herald-Mail Articles