Two sides to every story: the multifaceted qualities of required reading

At some point throughout FHC’s student’s high school careers, they are bound to read at least one—if not many—required novels in their English classes, which is something AP Lang and AP Lit teacher Lisa Penninga views as not only necessary but beneficial. To Penninga, these required readings are a positive asset in the classroom setting and a great opportunity for students of all ages to take something away from these novels.

“I think when [a class has] an anchor text, a book that everyone in the class is reading,” Penninga said, “it fosters a model of how to really read a good book and annotate [for the students]. It also fosters a really good discussion base for the class; we are able to discuss the same moments and how we reacted to them differently.”

Through the use of an anchor text, Penninga fosters a wide range of discussion topics for students to discuss in just a single novel, each powerful and full of knowledge. Presented with the opportunity to voice their opinions and takes on the novel, a class-wide discussion connects students to the books. Despite this added depth to the class through reading, Penninga recognizes that despite required reading acting as a great opportunity for discussion and learning, students may think differently.

“I had a really long discussion with my seniors about [how they feel about required reading],” Penninga said, “and they definitely get frustrated with being told they have to read this [required] book; I think they like choice more than anything. But I think this is why it’s important for English teachers to reevaluate every couple of years and think about why they are teaching these things and change the curriculum.”

Penninga has asked for approval from the Board of Education on a plethora of novels she would like to immerse her students in to change the curriculum, hoping to make things new and exciting every couple of years, but the term “required reading” still holds a negative connotation. 

Trying to make her classroom a collaborative effort between herself and her own students, Penninga listens the opinions of others and takes them into account for her lesson plans, which lead her to curriculum modification. Besides trying to get books approved for required reading, she also is the first English teacher to take a step forward in this direction.

“Right now, in my AP Lit class, we are doing a book club where the students have three choices [of books],” Penninga said, “and I have noticed a huge difference from when I taught those books as an anchor text. Anytime you can give students choice in the classroom, it’s a better opportunity for learning because there’s more buy-in.”

While Penninga is the first English teacher to start book clubs within the classroom, she is seeing a lot of positive feedback from her students. The books in the clubs are still required, but students are handed that choice of which novel to read, and that makes students more willing to take control of their learning experience—being given choices will make students more engaged in their education.

And while Penninga works towards her students having more control in the classroom, Honors English 10 teacher Ken George pointed out that he has still noticed a lack of choice in an area that desperately needs it.

“There’s totally [a lack of choice],” George said. “Like right now, we are all going to read Of Mice and Men in my classroom. Can you choose to not read it? No. Right now, with required reading in English classes, generally, there is no choice.”

Students are usually not given many choices in their own learning experience during high school, and the English department has started to implement change. With restrictions from COVID-19, the pandemic has set back the plans of choice for students in the classroom. Whereas English teachers planned to meet and discuss the changes that could be made to better their students’ experiences, social distancing and not being able to gather in large groups has made this difficult. Ultimately, the meeting was pushed back for another year.

So, while English teachers like George and Penninga see the lack of choice, there isn’t much that they can do on a large scale currently. Required reading is still a constant throughout all grades at FHC, and while some will recognize the reading as a positive experience, others won’t. A common downfall of the required novels in English classes is the archaic nature of some of the books, but George admits that he doesn’t think adding newer books will help the cause.

“Even when [English teachers] assign something current [to read],” George explained, “instantly, in a student’s mind, it’s like ‘Oh, I have to read this.’ I think the term ‘required reading’ has an instant negative connotation with that. But, [if reading a required book was optional], then you fight the battle of if students really want to read it and choose to do it. So, the plan once life gets back to normal is to do book clubs [in the classroom] that provide choice [for the students].”

Teachers are doing their best with what they have been given this year while still trying to implement change. Required reading is still a focal point of the curriculum, and George and Penninga try to approach it with a positive outlook. Reading as a class can jumpstart the profound and intellectual discussions that most teachers strive for. So while students generally aren’t fond of required reading, there is always a silver lining surrounding the situation.

“There’s stuff to learn from reading the book [as a class],” George explained. “But there’s also something to be learned from the class discussion. It’s a very different experience to read it on your own [than to] be reading it with me and the other students. It depends on the student, but a reread is not negative. Most students say ‘I want to read it again,’ and the reward is all the discussion [and] all the stuff we do with it.”

Since the required reading remains constant, the library plays a huge role in distributing all of the novels to students in school and at home. The English department and library alike have been affected by COVID-19 restrictions but have found ways around new difficulties while still being mindful of the pandemic. The biggest thing for one of the school’s librarians, Soo Schab, is keeping the students safe and getting them their books.

“This year, [checking out required books] is different,” Schab explained. “We are trying to be socially distanced, so we told the teachers to stagger [how many students are being sent to the library]. For virtual students, we package up the books so students can pick them up curbside; we are trying to follow KDL’s guidelines. When we are packaging up books [for online students], we make sure to sanitize our hands before we handle the books; when they’re returned, we have to quarantine them for thirty-six hours.”

Making sure every student is getting their required books is extremely important for overall learning. There are a lot of what-ifs attached to distributing books and receiving them, but the library is doing its very best to support FHC’s students’ educations through their paper-back texts. 

And while it can be frightening for everyone in the process of distributing library books, Schab doesn’t mind the extra work as long as she is keeping herself, others, and the books safe.

“[Checking out required books to students] doesn’t make my job harder because it’s just a part of my job,” Schab explains. “But I do enjoy seeing all of the students who just come down for a couple of seconds to check out the book. [Required reading makes me see more students] because a lot of students who would never come in [the library] come in here because they have to check out the [required] book.”

For the rest of the year, it is most likely that the process of distributing required books and reading them as a class will stay the same. But Penninga, being the first to take a leap of faith by implementing book clubs, sees that there is a need for improvement and change in the English curriculum. Choosing is the answer.

“I think [required reading and choice have] a place in the classroom,” Penninga explained. “But I don’t think any classroom should have just one or the other—having a blend of both seems to work really well.”

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