New Adventures: Seeking Memories


After ten years of teaching elementary and middle school English, I’m charting new territory next fall: high school English. All-girls school. (I’ll tackle single-sex education in a different post).

I’ll be teaching nearly 20 books next year, so my summer will be spent in a hammock with a stack of books and a highlighter (wait, that’s how I spend my summers anyway!).

As I work on my curriculum, here’s my question for you, dear Exponent readers:

Think back to your teenage years. What was the single best piece of literature you read in your four years of high school English. Why?

(The painting is Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” — it hung in my 11th grade English classroom. It will hang in my room next year . . .)

Deborah

Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. Tump says:

    Its hard to pick a single book so I’ll write a brief list…
    Ray Bradbury, Dandelion wine
    Zora Neale Hurston, Their eyes were watching God
    Virginia Woolf, To the light house(and others:)
    No list would be complete without
    Harper Lee, To kill a mockingbird
    H.D.T., Walden
    Pearl Buck, The Good Earth
    so many more!
    You have a unique position, the books I read in H.S. English changed my life!

  2. Mary B says:

    The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  3. jana says:

    “Christina’s World” was in my 10th grade classroom. What a fun walk down memory lane…

  4. Caroline says:

    How fun!!

    The number one book I would teach to girls is House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I taught this book in 10th grade English, and it was awesome. So many creative poetic projects you can do with it. (get in touch with me if you want any project/paper ideas)

    I was also very struck by Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. I think I may have felt some of my first feminist awakenings while reading that.

    You may also want to consider something by Edith Wharton.

  5. FoxyJ says:

    Don’t forget to include some poetry and drama too 🙂 I’ve pretty much only ever read poetry for classes, but I liked most of it.

    My school district was mostly minority students so they had an initiative to introduce us to more contemporary, diverse literature. We read Bless Me, Ultima and also The Joy Luck Club. I really loved The Joy Luck Club, and it touches on a lot of feminist issues so that might be cool for a girls’ school. During my senior year we read One Hundred Years of Solitude in my AP class and I fell in love. The writing is so fascinating (it does have explicit content, don’t know if that would fly at your school).

    Other authors I fell in love with during high school were Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Sinclair Lewis.

  6. Ana says:

    Like Starfoxy’s, some of my favorite literary experiences were outside the traditional canon. I had a fabulous, fabulous teacher who had us read Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Louise Erdrich’s Tracks. I still read those authors to this day. She also steered me to a big project on May Sarton. Sarton’s later stuff was not my favorite but her early novels were really great for a teenage girl with a strong, um, sense of drama!

    Also, though, my experiences reading and performing Shakespeare in HS were really defining.

    Recently I read A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. I think that would be a fantastic book for high school girls!

  7. Ana says:

    Heh, I just realized you asked for “single best.” You should know better than to expect me to choose a favorite book! That would be immoral!

  8. Bored in Vernal says:

    The ones I remember the most from high school are The Giver and Animal Farm. The books and the resulting class discussions really changed my way of seeing the world.

  9. Naismith says:

    I hated high school English. I never read a book I liked. I never saw the symbolism I was supposed to see.

    That said, I am not stupid or illiterate. I enjoy reading, and nowadays participate in a book club.

    It’s just that the high school selections and approach did not work for me.

    I remember reading something by Charles Dickens and Shakespeare every year, which I have never learned to appreciate. We never read anythng by Jane Austen, who I adore.

  10. AmyB says:

    Zora Neale Hurston had a huge impact on me, and I loved the beauty of the way she uses language. My first book of hers was “Dust Tracks on a Road.” Also loved “They’re Eyes Were Watching God.”

  11. Erin C says:

    My high school English curriculum was nothing but dead white men (we literally never read anything written by a woman in those four years, and only one book by a minority author), so I’m going to pull from my college coursework and say “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez.

  12. Jen says:

    My Name Is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok.

    We actually read The Promise in class, but I found Asher Lev and loved it more. It taught me that my politics and my religious beliefs could coexist, even if they sometimes were in conflict. I named my second son Asher.

  13. Dora says:

    12th grade AP English with The Great One (so nicknamed by his teacher buddies because he knew so much). I think we read a piece a week … or at least it felt like it. I remember most _Hamlet_ and Tom Stoppard’s _Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead._ Brilliant.

    And, I remember reading a falling-apart copy of _Auntie Mame_ that I serendipitously picked up from a garage sale. Wickedly funny.

  14. Courtney says:

    I can’t think of one single piece, so I hope a short list is OK:
    Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
    1984 by George Orwell
    The Tortilla Curtain (I can’t remember the author–sorry)
    Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
    A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
    I love Amy Tan– Joy Luck Club is fabulous. And In the Time of the Butterflies is one of my all time favorite.
    And if you have to do Shakespeare, I enjoyed reading Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice while I was in high school.
    I realize you probably know all the authors, but oh well. There are so many others. I don’t know how you can possibly choose!

  15. Maria says:

    Cry the Beloved Country by Paton. Still one of my favorite books–what great themes of forgiveness and redemption.

  16. Deborah says:

    Thanks for all the responses! I have my own long list of loves, but it’s valuable seeing what other people connected with and why. Like Tump, the books I read in high school helped shape they way I view the world.

    Caroline: I’ve used excerpts from Mango Street as writing prompts in middle school. Great stuff. I’ll have to re-investigate A Doll’s House. I know I’ll be teaching Chopin’s “Awakening.”

    FoxyJ/Courtney: Two votes for Joy Luck Club. Duly noted. And 100 Years of Solitude is in my shame pile — next to Moby Dick. “Books I’m ashamed to say I have read yet.”

    Ana: Love Northern Light! And I know I’ll be teaching at least one Morrison (Bluest Eye, I think).

    BIV: Thanks for your comment — I’m looking for those books that people point to and say: “that changed my way of viewing the world.”

    AmyB: I hope hope I get to teach a Hurston . . .

    Erin: Not even Austin or Shelley? An advantage of an all-girls school — one of my senior electives will be “Women in Literature.”

    Jen: I read Asher Lev this year and wished I had read it in high school — I could have used it then . . .

    Maria: Another one I haven’t read. Thanks.

    *******
    Again, I’d love to hear *why* I book meant something to you in those teenage years, if you have any such andecdotes.

  17. AmyB says:

    Reflecting back on why I loved Hurston as much as I did. . . One reason was that I fell in love with her use of language. Another reason I think had to do with the strong, resilient female characters. It gave me another view of women besides the polite, smiling veneers that I saw all around me, and other feminine values besides being nice and compliant.

    A note on Christina’s world . . it hung in my fifth grade art class. At that time I thought that she was crippled. It was funny for me to remember that.

  18. Deborah says:

    That makes three (and next year four) classrooms — what is it about this painting that we teacher-types enjoy so much?

  19. annegb says:

    That’s a beautiful painting. I’ve often thought that if I couldn’t walk, I would crawl rather than have other people carry me.

    My teenage years (between 1966 and 1970)were so tumultuous. I know I read constantly, but if I had to pick a standout, one that I read over and over, I’d have to pick Jane Eyre. It gave me hope that this homely could someday find love and happiness.

    I still read it every now and then.

  20. askmama says:

    “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a definite favorite because of the strong female lead – I believe I read it in my AP English class. I also vote for “The Joy Luck Club” because of all the female characters and their stories. It changed the way I thought about Asian women. “East of Eden” is my all time favorite book not because it empowered me as a female but because of its religious aspects.

  21. Veritas says:

    If I had to choose just one book, it would be Catcher in The Rye. I was a misfit and felt a connection like many have, to Holden Caulfield.

    Other lit would be on my shortlist:
    A Seperate Peace
    To Kill A Mockingbird
    A Dolls House
    Short stories – The Lottery in particular had a big impact

  22. Eve says:

    Like Jen, the book I read in high school that had the most impact on me was My Name Is Asher Lev. My sophomore English teacher assigned us all The Chosen, which I loved, and I went on to read all of Potok’s other books over and over, obsessively, because they spoke so directly to the religious conflicts I was struggling with at the time.

    I also remember really liking both The Tale of Two Cities and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

  23. Myka says:

    Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I love books about flying. This one is beautiful. I still read it every couple years. I read this in my senior AP course, and it was by far the best one we read. Class discussion was interesting. That sounds so fun to teach HS English. Those classes were the best.

  24. Tatiana says:

    I second many of those listed by other people, like Dostoyevsky and Chaim Potok, but as for me, the book that had the most impact on me that I read in high school was “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Nikos Kazantzakis. I didn’t read it for school, though, but just for fun.

    Instead of Joy Luck Club, if you want to choose a book by Amy Tan, pick The Kitchen God’s Wife. It had great feminist themes and was the superior book.

    I have another suggestion, a book I would have loved to read in high school. The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman. It has themes of loyalty, cultural variety and sameness across space and time, and spirituality, and it’s great on Chinese history and hilarious to boot. It’s a great adventure quest type story that would make a fantastic martial arts movie. I sure hope someone makes it into one. It’s got a lot of warmth and heart to it, as well. Mark Salzman is my favorite living writer.

    Another really good contemporary author is Ursula K. LeGuin. Her writing is amazing, in that she says so much somehow without words. It’s packed with feelings unspoken. One I would highly recommend is “The Left Hand of Darkness”. Another is “Four Ways to Forgiveness”.

  25. Deborah says:

    I love these reflections — thank you!

    Tatiana: One of my other senior electives in Contemporary Literature — so thanks for those ideas.

    I suppose I should answer the question myself. I became so wrapped up in the books my teachers assigned. For example, after reading Crime and Punishment, I had nightmares for at least a week: accused of a crime I didn’t commit and running for my life, desperate to have someone believe me. Clearly struck a nerve! (Have fun with the psychoanalysis).

    Grapes of Wrath was a revelation. It transcended the page and felt like a personal tragedy. American history began to feel real. I was in awe of Ma Joad’s grit and compassion. This book helped foster my social conscience.

  26. christi says:

    Loved Grapes of Wrath–for the story, for the way it made California history speak.

    Also loved Wuthering Heights–teenagers can relate to that kind of infatuation. I could, anyway!

  27. Dora says:

    So, this is a bit off-topic, ut pertains to high school English.

    Reading was never a problem for me. I’ve read most of the recommendations posted, either before my senior year, or just for pleasure. However, what really helped me grow was what I *wrote.* I still have some of my the papers I wrote … the ones that revealed something very personal, or that I got really good marks on.

    Anyway, I’ve been really impressed with the “This I Believe” presentations … especially of the school-aged/adolescent children. A good introspective tool for developing writing skills. I think that learning to write it out can help teens to not only sharpen their composition skills, but help them more fully understand how to make sense of their lives.

  28. Starfoxy says:

    I just thought I should point out that FoxyJ and I are different people.

    Walden, and All Quiet on the Western Front.(I should confess that I didn’t actually read Walden until after high school, though it was assigned in my HS English classes.)

  29. Ann says:

    I would pick To Kill a Mockingbird. The pace and tone so evoke the lazy hot summers of the South. Atticus Finch is one of the great heroes in literature. The tension is subtle but palpable and matches the slow pace of the book beautifully.

  30. Rynell says:

    An American Childhood by Annie Dillard — this is an all-time fave of mine. I read it in high school and it spoke to me about being an intelligent female, about conflicting emotions, and about valuing where you come from.

    Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
    so very good, in fact, I just re-read it.

    I also loved most anything written by Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

    Oh and please for the love of all that is good….choose some great contemporary poetry written by women… Naomi Shihab Nye is a wonderful place to start. There are many, many other great options.

  31. Deborah says:

    Ann:

    I just finished teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, and cried last night realizing I won’t be teaching it again in the forseeable future (my students will have all, likewise, read it in middle school — and yes, I regularly weep over literature; my students are used to my cracking voice and seem to find it endearing . . . .)

    Tynell: Thanks for the shout-out to Nye. I taught a couple of her poems this year . . . but they were ones I happened to find in anthologies. I’m really not that familiar with her work. My favorite contemporary female poet is Mary Olliver.

  32. Anonymous says:

    I am a high school English teacher, and one of my favorites to teach right now is The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. In an all-girl school I think her The Poisonwood Bible would be great. I’d like to teach that instead, but can’t justify spending the time it would take (it’s much longer). Also Julia Alvarez’s “Why I Write” is one of my favorite poems to use to get students thinking about their writing. It might be interesting to share ideas, so I’ll check back as I haven’t posted here before:)

  33. Deborah says:

    Thanks, Anon — especially for the poem suggestion. I’ll likely be starting a new blog with the purpose of sharing ideas about teaching English. If/when I do, I’ll put a link here . . .

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