Teaching difficult texts

Just a short post that got me thinking about this. In our Inquiry Education class, we read Wintergirls, a novel about a young girl, Lia, who has anorexia. It takes place in the days, weeks and months after her “best friend,” Cassie, who had bulimia, died. It’s an intense book with a lot of touchy and sometimes controversial events. In a nutshell, it’s the book you want kids to open up and read but you don’t want to teach it because of the subject matter.

After discussing it in class, we concluded with a question: would you teach it? It was a heated debate, albeit everybody was calm and nothing got out of control. But some people were adamantly against teaching it, considering it risky and a possible threat to trigger thoughts and actions. Others would teach it, but under the condition that guidance counselors were available and maybe helped with how to talk about the matter. Many of the people who believed in teaching it did so because they didn’t want to be an English teacher that held books back from students. Should English teachers say “no” to students about what they can and can’t read?

Regardless, everyone agreed that this would be a difficult book to teach – if you were going to do so. And that brought up another point: should we not teach a book because it’s difficult?

Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers. I don’t even know where I stand exactly on the issue, but I lean more toward teaching it with the help of guidance counselors. I just don’t want to hold something back from my students. If I’m an English teacher and asking my students to open up, be creative and challenge ideas, can’t they ask the same of me?



Filed under Books, Class assignment, Classroom management, Education, English, Ethics, Lesson, Lesson planning, Reading, Teaching

7 responses to “Teaching difficult texts

  1. Sean McComb

    Unfortunately Jay, I dont think this decision is left up to most classroom teachers. In most school systems you would not teach that text unless it was approved by that systems Board of Ed or you were granted specific permission to pilot the text. If you taught the book without permission, you wouldnt have much of a defense if punitive action was taken. That said, I may or may not have taught with The Kite Runner for years before it was approved in my system. As time has gone on I’ve allowed students to choose their texts more (versus me selecting and teaching whole class texts). But, students have to have a permission slip signed by their parents.

    On another note, was “teaching this book” how this was worded as you discussed in class? That is how I remember the verbiage in my Pitt Ed classes as well. But, since I have been in the classroom my mindset has focused more on the text as a vehicle to teach skills. The difference may seem subtle linguistically, but has serious pedagogical implications for one’s approach to planning and teaching. It also allows for more choice for texts used in the classroom (reluctant readers get a lot further, in my experience, when they are empowered with choice of text). Some of the great teachers I have met and read work almost exclusively with the readers workshop model where students are selecting their own texts (with suggestions for appropriate text complexity, etc.)

    I’ll check this book out and see about suggesting it for some of my more mature students next year. Good post.


    • I like that you brought up “teaching this book” versus using the “text as a vehicle to teach skills.” There’s a big difference there. And to be honest, the class discussion was about “teaching this book.” Nobody brought up the fact that it would/should be used to teach skills. That, though, may have had something to do with the fact that this was my inquiry class and not my teaching lab class. We’ll probably be discussing it again next class, so I’ll bring up those two differences and see where that discussion goes.

      And I get what you’re saying about not being able to teach because it would need to be approved by the school board. That was brought up, also, but didn’t last long because we were focusing on the content/plot/theme of the book.

      As a side note, it was a pretty easy read. I’d say somewhere around an 8th grade (maybe stretching it to a 9th grade) reading level. That was also part of the problem: 12th graders could probably handle this better but would they want to read something so easy? Maybe, if there is something to be learned and they’re into it.

      But we did bring up how it would be good for some students in a book club setting, where they would need permission slips and talking about the content/plot could share time with teaching skills – depending on what the students wanted to talk about.

      Thanks for reading, too!

  2. Pingback: Teaching difficult texts (via jay.blog) « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

  3. I enjoyed your post. I believe that attitude you convey is the attitude of a great teacher with a future of changing student lives for the better. I hope to see you teaching college classes soon. James Pilant

    • Thanks, James (for reading and commenting on my thought). And I enjoyed your post on the matter. I couldn’t agree more. The goal, generally, is to have the student think about an answer. Not just be able to memorize and recite facts. I’m glad you gave a non-English example to show that this idea can cross into different subjects.

      As for my teaching career, it’s early. I’m still in school. I haven’t even taught a lesson to high school students let alone in front of my peers yet. Time will tell on that one.

  4. Pingback: The Need to Read Difficult Texts | jay.blog

  5. Diane Scaiff

    Enjoying your discussion about teaching difficult texts. I believe in it. When I was teaching English to gifted grade seven and eights we studied Oliver Twist, Huckleberry Finn and (with my principal and the parents’ agreement) The Merchant of Venice. We enjoyed the writing in all three of these texts and at the end tackled the issues of racism and anti-semitism. The students’ conclusions? The writers were not racist or anti-semitic given the societies they lived in and Mark Twain was satirizing racists and hypocrites, especially in Huck’s inner debates. It was well worth the difficulty of dealing with some of the language.

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