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Out With the Old, In With the New: Contemporary Fiction in the Classroom

2012 May 3
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In school, English class was always my favorite, but I often wondered why we couldn’t read something fun instead of spending so much time on “the classics.” I’m in search of contemporary fiction with teen appeal and credibility for teachers. I interviewed teachers and here is what I learned.

Mike teaches grades 6, 7 & 8
Emily R. teaches grade 11
Emily D teaches grade 7

What contemporary fiction novels do you use in the classroom?

Mike: I don’t really use contemporary fiction novels in the classroom except as books available for book projects and book reports.

Emily R.: I may have them do an independent project this quarter with a novel of their choice.

Emily D: House of the Scorpion (2003 Printz Honor Book) by Nancy Farmer, Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne, Monster (2000 Printz Winner) by Walter Dean Myers, and Seedfolks (Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers) by Paul Fleischman.

What older classics do you or have you used in the classroom?

Mike: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (The Ultimate YA Bookshelf), Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, The Cay by Theodore Taylor, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (2002 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults), and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.

Emily R.: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Why do you use contemporary fiction when there are more tried and true novels?

Emily D.:  Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Esther Forbes, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.Mike: The newer novels have an appeal to the students because they have seen advertising and heard opinions of others who have read the books.

Emily  R.: I made the choices for our summer reading picks: Freshman read Nation by Terry Pratchett (2009 Odyssey Honor Book), Sophomores The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (2013 Popular Paperbacks), and Juniors and Seniors read The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2010 Alex Award Nominee) and Never Let Me Go by Kauzo Ishiguro.

Emily D.: I use contemporary novels because they offer the same themes and lessons of “classics” but are more in tune with my current students. The students have an easier time connecting with Steve in Monster than with Cassie in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

What do your students think of the newer books versus the contemporary books?

Mike: I really think they don’t know the difference. Pretty much they’re all new to the students, and a well-written book is a well-written book. Some of the new things they read are pretty much throw away trash. I read those as an 8th grader too, but they are not something that would deserve literary study. I think part of my job is to show them that some books have more merit than others.

Emily R.: They would rather read newer books, but I like to point out that reading classics prepares a reader for themes that will appear frequently in novels from any age.

Emily D.: The students seem to think the newer books are more interesting. Plus, when using an older book the students seem to always make fun of the cover. If they see an older looking cover they check out of the story.

Is it harder for students to cheat on assignments when you use newer novels?

Mike: I encourage the students to use the Internet and their resources as help to understanding the novels. For example, I tell them to use the hundreds of websites devoted to To Kill a Mockingbird to help them learn the vocabulary, the setting, what others think of the book, etc. Spark Notes and Cliff Notes bring the students a summary that might help them understand the adult language used in the book, but when we read together in class, I try to make them realize how much better the original is because of how Harper Lee shows the reader. She doesn’t tell as the abbreviated versions do. I also point out that sometimes it’s not what happens that’s important, but how it happens and why it happens. And to understand the characters in the story, you must see them as real people. Harper Lee is a master craftsman at making characters that are true-to-life. When it becomes research, how can someone cheat?

Emily R.: The biggest problem when teaching a novel is getting kids to actually read the book. If there are fewer aides (Spark Notes, etc.), it is more likely they will read instead of finding a chapter summary.

Emily D.:  I do not think it is harder to cheat on newer books. It seems so easy to find summaries of books on the Internet, especially if it is a best seller.

It seems like teachers and students are warming to the idea of fresh new fiction in the classroom. How long before The Hunger Games is on the required reading list at your school?

— Laura C Perenic is currently reading Karma: A Novel in Verse by Cathy Ostlere (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults)

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  1. Assigned Summer Reading: Where’s the YA? | The Hub

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