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Stop Using the Same Novels/Stories Every Year : 3 Reasons to Change it Up in E.L.A.

A teacher I know...well many teachers I know...have been teaching The Outsiders for over 20 years. I read that book when I was in middle school and while yes, I really did dig that book, who's to say I wouldn't have enjoyed something for timely, more connected to the world I was living in at the time?

I did an activity recently with my classes inspired by Hanson Hallway. They had to do a simple t-chart listing what was great about reading and was awful about reading. All of my classes expressed that it's awful when they are forced to read and it's great when they read what they enjoy. Below is a chart I compiled from their responses after we discussed.

A compilation of thoughts from my 7th graders.

So why are many continuing to force students to read old, outdated books? Aren't we trying to create readers?

There are 4 major reasons I feel it's important to change what students read every year. And no, I do not mean changing the whole class novel. I don't believe in whole class novels (read about that here). What I mean is changing up the mentor texts and choices of books students read. This also means changing book club book choices. Here's my reasons:

  1. Dated books with dated themes/ideas/misrepresentation.

  2. New books, more connections.

  3. Keeps YOU current and not stale.

Stop buying class sets and use the public library to provide books for students and teach them responsibility. Read about how I use the library here.

My students at the public library.

Let me preface with this...I am not suggesting to toss all your old books in your library. There really are some great classic books that are timeless, especially in fantasy and science fiction. (I do feel this issue is more prevalent in realistic fiction books). It's also important to keep older books so students can see how writing has changed over the years. This is more a call for stopping the forced reading of older books...allow them to navigate to a variety of books.

Reason #1: Dated books with dated themes/ideas/misrepresentation.

Life is not like it was 30 years ago, or more, which is when a lot of the books the students are reading were written. This is not relevant to our students.

An argument to this is that it gives students a window into that timeframe or it shows them what the past was like.

However, not many books that have been used in the classroom for years are a true representation of that time. They are told from narrow perspectives with little insight into others' view at the time.

These books often sugarcoat what it was really like. 30/40/50 years ago, lots of topics weren't touched. Students can read current books set in a specific time. Newer historical fiction books offer a lot more point-of-views.

A lot of the ideas, messages, and themes, are misleading and don't appeal to all cultures. So, when I think of something like The Outsiders, it's cast of characters is limited, for example.

Reason #2: New books = more connections

Over the past few years, authors have done some amazing things. There have been more diverse characters with more current issues. Students today struggle with problems that are much different than problems 30 years ago. Yes, middle schoolers will always deal with bullying, self-consciousness, etc., which a lot of older books address, but even the way bullying occurs has changed. They would connect better to a book, for example, that has smartphones in which characters have to deal with cyber bullying rather than a book in which physical bullying is the primary form of bullying.

Identity is big issue for students that was never addressed in older books. Boys were boys, girls were girls and the stereotypes associated with those stereotypes are rampant in those books.

This always drove me crazy as a kid. I never fit into the the typical female stereotype. It was a struggle finding a book with characters like me. The shift did start happening a bit in the 90s, but now, wow, there are so many great books to help students with this. I am not even necessarily talking about transgender (which there are great ones for that, too), I am just talking about children being represented as individuals not as their genders.

Cultural connections are a big change in books, too. For me, I never had an issue connecting, culturally, to any books growing up because, well let's face it, I'm the majority. However, I grew up with a very diverse group of friends and they were never represented in the "classics". Kids need to see themselves in the characters they read. Also, kids that are like me, the majority, need to be exposed to these different cultures because sometimes they never will until they are older. Without that exposure at a young age that can often result in lots of misunderstandings.

Reason #3: Keeps YOU current and not stale

It's so important as teachers, that we consistently grow and change with our student population.

By using the same text every year because "it's always worked" doesn't mean it works now.

I've known a few of those teachers who do the same exact lessons, the same exact books for years, and oftentimes, there is no passion anymore. Teaching becomes mediocre, boring, and not something they look forward to. In fact, many of them are the biggest complainers.

However, I thrive on creating and using new material each year. Reading new books helps me learn about cultures and new trends. We need to be relevant for our middle schoolers. We are doing a disservice by not evolving with the students each year.

Bottom Line

Again, I am not saying we need to ban books or pretend books like The Outsiders don't exist. We can certainly still offer those books to students or use excerpts from those books, but we must provide a variety and a balance. There has to be current books used in your curriculum.

Here is one list I use with my classes.


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