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>And if you’re not an English major?

>The discussion about Shakespeare reminds me of something a friend of mine said she was going to do while taking some extended leave from employment: she was going to read Ulysses, because she thought it was something every educated person needs to have on their read-that list.

Maybe, if I’m on a very small, very deserted, Irish island, Ulysses might make its way on to my list–it’s not that I’m planning not to read it, but the fact that I haven’t doesn’t make me feel incomplete. Time spent feeling guilty about the books you don’t get to is time wasted not reading something else.

I wish (and maybe this could be my next job) high schools offered their seniors a class in Reading. Not literature (although I hasten to add that I think they should be studying that, too), but a class instead designed to demonstrate the breadth and methods of reading in one’s life quite apart from the pursuit of educational degrees. The students would learn about the different genres of popular fiction, for example; cross gender boundaries by reading Danielle Steel and Tom Clancy; go on a field trip to a book store and library to learn how to browse. Slow readers could learn techniques for speeding up (if they so desired); grinds could be taught to relax; fluent readers could be challenged to stretch their preferences. Everybody would learn how to skim. Students could practice giving and receiving book recommendations. They could learn to give up on a book that isn’t working for them and how to stick with something that might prove rewarding. You could survey magazines from Car & Driver to Granta; find out how to parse product manuals.

For me, gym class finally became almost bearable in twelfth-grade, when the emphasis shifted from team sports to what the teacher called “lifelong activities” like running, golf, and tennis. For all those people not going on for a B.A. in English, why can’t we do the same for reading?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Anonymous says:

    >Oh Jesus, Roger, this is your evil twin speaking above. You don’t believe this. You’re the guy who goes on and on about “leave them alone.” How to make reading a drag for everyone equally 101. How to take all the pleasure of reading out of reading. All you have to do to make something suck is turn it into a course. Now go run around the block a few times and come up with a better idea for a post.

  2. Roger Sutton says:

    >Don’t worry, Anon. It won’t be on the test.

  3. >In many ways the YA lit course I teach to college undergrads is a course in reading. For those who haven’t read much since they were kids, the course re-connects them with works that they can read and enjoy in a pretty natural way, while opening up room for discussion of the choices made by writers. Because YA lit is so often experimental in style, I find that the first thing students want to talk about is technique, while in other literature courses I have to insist. It also seems natural and appropriate to talk about the marketing of books and the social contexts in which they are “used” (especially the classroom). I have students do a lot of self-selected reading, so I can see that they are genuinely interested, as readers, in what other students have to say about their books. It’s my favorite class to teach, and the only one in which students routinely borrow books to read–during the semester–that are not on the syllabus.

  4. >I agree with you and think the vast majority of high school students would be much appreciative. Although there will be a few who bemoan their poor high school educations. I met a woman during my college years who couldn’t get over the fact that her high school teacher hadn’t forced them to read Huck Finn. I said, “Go read it.” Her point might have had something to do with SAT questions.I managed to enter college without taking the SAT, so I don’t know for sure.

  5. >I would have loved more than anything to take a course in YA lit instead of Shakespeare. Yes, it’s good to know him for culture and allusions’ sake, but honestly, it’s like my college statistics course, “When am I ever going to use this?”

    Perhaps when I go on Jeopardy.

    And as a sidenote, I’ve linked to last month’s discussion on “the girl who dressed as a boy” in my blog, as part of a discussion on reclaiming the feminine. Just so you’re aware, or something.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >I wouldn’t stick around long enough to find out, Roger. You will find me on my porch swing reading.

  7. Anonymous says:

    >I have a better idea. Why don’t we get you your own little show called Project Library. THEN will you be happy?

  8. Roger Sutton says:

    >Naw, I hate book TV. I just think that while some of us are instinctive readers (that’s shorthand, I know) there are a lot of people who are reading-averse because they’ve never been given the tools and permission to do it for fun. High school English class doesn’t teach you to read for pleasure. And I don’t know how successful such a class, however loose-hanging, would be, but I think it would be worth a try. I admit my initial fantasy specifically excluded YA, as I would want the students to feel like they were reading as adults, but maybe that’s too doctrinaire of me.

  9. >Roger: I’d agree with you, but only if readers could be exempt from such a class. Jut the thought of being in such a class in high school gives me the shivers. Honestly. We did read quite a bit of Shakespeare in high school, though, and I went to a public school in rural CA.

    BTW: ALL P.E. courses should focus on “lifelong activities” instead of team sports. Think of all the bullying you could allay if you didn’t have that awful line up in which physically challenged children (I was one of them. I have no peripheral vision to speak of) were made fun of and picked last.

  10. Anonymous says:

    >Well, if people would get rid of the classification YA and go back to childrens books and all other books, it would be fine with me so I am all for eliminating it from your class. But can you really TEACH anyone to do something for pleasure? You can teach someone to do something. But for pleasure? I think you just love reading and you want everyone else to too which is kind of sweet as long as you don’t become like one of those people who want to teach everyone to love Jesus. Because then we will have to take you to the reference room and shoot you.

  11. Anonymous says:

    >And Kelly, BTW, if you are expecting sympathy for your views on competitive sports, might I remind you that you are speaking to a critic whose job it is among other things, to make fun of and pick last.

  12. Roger Sutton says:

    >Kelly, I never envisioned the class as anything other than elective. And pass-fail. The trick, I think, would be to get anyone other than readers to sign up for it.

    As far as team sports go, why the hell do you think I became a book critic???

  13. Anonymous says:

    >And as for reading Shakespeare. He was not meant to be read. He was meant to be performed and seen.

  14. >I like the idea of a class that takes students to a book store and shows them around (as someone who works in a bookstore, it’s amazing how many people have no idea how to find anything in one and have honestly never bought a book before).

    I also like the idea of letting students explore genre fiction. A lot of people have this idea that they hate ALL books in certain genres when in reality, they’d probably really enjoy some if they knew what to look for and were willing to give them a chance. Just because it’s in the Sci Fi/Fantasy section or the Mystery section doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll hate it. Not all non-fiction is bad. It could be a good idea.

    And high schoolers might enjoy it a lot more than another class requiring them to read “The Scarlet Letter”.

  15. >What a great idea! A reading specialist once told me kids are often given only books at or above their reading level, making the act of reading hard work. Kids actually learn to read for pleasure when they are given things that are “too easy” for them.

    But you know what? Few schools can afford reading specialists so parents and teachers don’t hear things like that. Not to get all political, but email your congress person and tell them to fully fund all the unfunded mandates (ie, No Child Left Behind requirements). Schools can’t climb out of the box when they don’t have enough money for a ladder.

  16. >A hundred years ago when I was in high school we were lucky enough, at least in my opinion, to have “silent, sustained, reading” periods. During that time we were allowed, though some would say required, to read anything we wanted (within reason, naturally). It made a nice break from being force fed literature during five years of honor’s english and fed my love of reading for pleasure.

    In between Shakespeare, Hawthorne and Crane I was gleefully enjoying Stephen King and other great recreational/popular fiction reads. To this day telling me a book is great literature that I “have” to read is one of the fastest ways to ruin my fun.

  17. Elaine Magliaro says:


    I was an elementary classroom teacher for many years. I never once heard a reading specialist suggest that children should read only books at or above their reading level. Children would never become confident readers. They need to experience success in reading. Otherwise, some kids just feel defeated and get discouraged.

    Good teachers provide their students with books in a variety of genres at many different reading levels. Sometimes a struggling reader may surprise you when he/she finds a genre or an author that inspires him/her to want to read more.

    Regarding the bard: A close friend of mine is an English Language Arts curriculum director in a school system in Massachusetts. She is discouraged that so many prospective high school English teachers she interviews have never had a college course in Shakespeare. How can they be expected to teach about Shakespeare if they’ve never read any of his works?

    I, for one, can say that I had a fabulous English teacher my senior year in high school. She made Shakespeare come alive for me. Kids are inspired by capable educators who have a passion for the subjects they teach.

  18. Saipan Writer says:

    >And besides teaching students that you don’t HAVE to finish reading what you start, I’d add this: teach them that it’s okay to read more than one thing at a time (well, not exactly at one time, but back and forth).

    I remember the joy of discovering this option–I’d read one book in one place and another in a different corner. In fact, I still do this.

  19. Andy Laties says:

    >Well I’m all for taking highschool kids on field trips to bookstores. I think this is more common in the elementary schools: we used to have 100 field trips a year coming to The Children’s Bookstore, mostly for storyhours or What-Is-A-Bookstore? presentations (yes, most kids had never been to a bookstore). A couple of Chicago schools in particular would raise money from foundations (Joyce Foundation and Fry Foundation) and the kids had a $4/child budget when they visited the store (we gave a 10% discount). Our staff-people would help the 30 kids in the class each pick a book that would then go into their classroom library (each child-selector’s name would go into the inside front cover showing which child had “donated” the book to the class). Sometimes these grants even enabled the children to keep the books personally, instead of leaving them in the classroom. Chicago Public TV made a documentary called “Teach Me” about the school that was leading the way with these bookstore field trips in Chicago: Washington Irving School. The teachers were allowed by the principal to bring their classes to any bookstore on a list of 15 different stores (chain and independent).

    One year the principal, Madeline Miraldi, raised and spent $9,000 in our store alone. Every class in the school visited us several times that year (1992), and so every child in the school ended up personally selecting books several times. We got to know the kids and the teachers; the kids became quite good at choosing books. When I visited the school late that year, I saw that they had lined their HALLWAYS with low bookcases to accomodate all the books the kids had chosen.

    I do think that many of these kids felt empowered. I think it would work with highschoolers too.

  20. Anonymous says:

    >Andy, Andy, Andy, all these years on the planet earth and this is your idea of human nature, that you can empower a child to read by suggesting to him that it’s a good idea and taking him on field trips. If you want children to discover the joys of reading, finish every class with, okay, you can go home now and enjoy yourselves but stay away from the crack and for gods sakes keep your hands off the books.

  21. Andy Laties says:

    >Anon, Anon, Anon I see you read best when addled by crack.

  22. Roger Sutton says:

    >Yes, the right to read more than one book at a time is a great addtion. My attention span is just too short to be satisfied with one thing to read.

    Elaine, I’m responding to your comment about teaching Shakespeare over on that thread.

  23. Anonymous says:

    >Moi, merde alors, mon petit, what an idea but I might consider taking it up if I was forced to take field trips again.

  24. Anonymous says:

    >Besides, Andy, I really hope you don’t think I was suggesting we take crack when we read. No, it was for the CHILDREN.

  25. Andy Laties says:

    >So you’re suggesting that I sell crack as a sideline in my store? Hmm.

    I’ve heard that it has a very high markup and is quite profitable….

    You know me: all about the dollar.

  26. Melissa W. says:

    >I was searching through the course selections at my son’s high school (frantic last-minute scheduling crisis) and came across this offering that I thought might warm your heart. Maybe the outside-of-class work involves visiting bookstores:

    (158) Popular Lit for Reading Enrichment – (9/10 only) Level II

    Year Course Meets two times per week

    Credit Value 0.4

    This pilot course is designed for students who are interested in exploring popular literature while improving their basic reading skills. Students will read a variety of literary types and practice the skills listed in the Pennsylvania Academic Standards. These skills will include reading independently and critically, improving vocabulary, and practicing analysis and interpretation of literature. Students taking this class will be expected to complete some work outside of class.

  27. rindawriter says:

    >I don’t think Roger is talking about TEACHING young folks HOW to read; I think he’s talking about the possibility of creating a school setting in which young folks can be inspired, nurtured, and encouraged to explore and discover reading for themselves and by themselves and perhaps too with others. It sounds to me that such a project would HAVE to be diguised as a pass/fail class in order to keep the school administrators’ and other teachers’ and parents’ and the rest of the status quo’s “teachy” feelings fulfilled, however.

  28. rindawriter says:

    >P.S. If my stuff is double-posting, it’s becuase of this silly blogger software…ahh!!! It DOES NOT LIKE ME!!!!

    And I think taking children on field trips to bookstores is a WONDERFUL IDEA!! Especially if each child is allowed an equal amount of money to spend on the trip on books of his/her choice. Goodness me! They might even see some books that would never be allowed in their school libraries!

  29. Melissa W. says:

    >It sounds to me that such a project would HAVE to be diguised as a pass/fail class in order to keep the school administrators’ and other teachers’ and parents’ and the rest of the status quo’s “teachy” feelings fulfilled, however.

    And I think that’s what this course description is doing, with the sop to Pennsylvania Academic Standards. And while it isn’t Roger’s ideal, it’s a step toward acknowledging the importance of popular (ie: pleasure) reading.

  30. Roger Sutton says:

    >I like it, Melissa, although I suspect it’s an English class by another name, what the “skill-practicing” and “analysis and interpretation.” I’d want it to be all about the enjoyment and usefulness. It’s also designed for poor readers, whereas in my dream class we would bring the good and not-so-good together. (Maybe I’m still trying to get the bullies to like me 😉

  31. Anonymous says:

    >I think joy is unstructured and unscripted. I remember when the ALA was doing posters encouraing kids to read and getting well-known writers to contribute why they thought children should. Cynthia Rylant said that she didn’t think children should be encouraged to read. They should be encouraged to play. To go outside every day and play and play hard to their hearts’ content. That she never read any kids’ books until she went to college. Up until then she read only comic books. Then she discovered reading. I admired her for saying it and the people making the posters for using it. If you gave a class on how to play what a dreary dismal failure it would be. How great it is to find joy in anything. Like Michaelangelo’s Sistine chapel with man reaching fingertip to fingertip with god. Who are we to teach that. Everyone finds it alone.

  32. >This is exactly what good elementary school teachers do – teach reading strategies and help students expand their horizons.

  33. Anonymous says:

    >This is what good elementary school teachers WANT to do. What Ms Rylant says is that she got to look explore her own horizons with the endless time of childhood first.

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