12 Great Adult Books That Teens Always Love

I’ve seen a lot lately about using YA (Young Adult) literature to help get students more interested in reading. I have mixed feelings about that–I primarily teach juniors, and my mindset is that I should be preparing them to be adults, not preparing them to be children. After all (as I often remind them when they’re being immature), in less than two years, they’ll actually be adults. Why not guide students to read things that will introduce them to the world they’ll soon be entering and living in for the rest of their life, instead of pandering to what is currently comfortable but which will be obsolete in a matter of months?

I’ve tried many different strategies for engaging young people with worthwhile literature over the years. While most of the stuff I offer fails big time (Alas, I’m looking at you, Stranger In A Strange Land, Catch-22, and A Farewell To Arms), some titles tend to make solid connections year after year. Here are twelve perennial winners:

  1. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I’m continually surprised by how many high schoolers haven’t even heard of this. It always scores a new fan, though.
  2. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Even before the Hulu series, this one was a big hit, especially with feminist students. Two years ago, when one student was researching things about the book for a presentation after finishing it, and she learned that a trailer for the upcoming series has just been released, she made us all watch it. She smiled from ear to ear. That’s an extreme example, but still, kids who read this tend to dig it.
  3. Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes. This dark nostalgia-fest is easier going for those who struggle with reading. The details and the themes tend to resonate.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night. Everyone reads Gatsby in class and everyone loves it, but time and again, when students pick this one for other reading projects, they universally tell me how much they enjoyed it.
  5. Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. While some teens are disappointed by the lack of gore, most of them get the creepy psychological vibe here, and it’s a quick, easy read. Never had a kid read this and regret it.
  6. Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men and/or The Road. Man, kids like Cormac McCarthy. I’ve had several good conversations comparing and contrasting the book and movie versions of these with teens. They don’t always get the deeper ideas he wants to impress, but the violent plots do certainly get them ready to think about them.
  7. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye. Probably the easiest of Morrison’s works, this is still timely in regards to race and sex issues.
  8. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita. Like other titles here, this one uses its scandalous appeal to communicate wonderfully deep ideas and style. The shocking sensationalism is always a hit; students may not even know that they’ve been educated by a classic!
  9. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood. Like McCarthy in that her style brings deeper ideas to pop consciousness, but even more than being violent, kids just find her attractively weird. In a good way.
  10. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. What teen won’t relate to this, in some way, sometime? Bonus: if you’re expecting to see Catcher in the Rye in this list, forget it: you might be surprised by how many teens hate it, seeing Holden himself as a phony. The Bell Jar is where it’s at.
  11. Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels. Generally, this one is favored by young men who want to avoid anything too soft or fancy in their reading–ROTC types always love it. As with every title on this list, I’m happy to connect every type of student to something worthwhile for them to study, enjoy, and be enriched by.
  12. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five. Ditto from the last entry. The multi-genre weirdness of this one tends to rock readers a bit, but it’s a worthy and rewarding ride!
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The Happy Days / Scarlet Letter Crossover You Never Knew You Needed

At the end of major reading units, I often have students do a series of small creative tasks to demonstrate understanding by extending or reinterpreting material in various ways. This pivotal scene from The Scarlet Letter has been combined with a classic TV reference. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Several months ago, the same student who did this drew the courthouse scene in The Crucible with Sesame Street‘s Big Bird sitting in the rafters. Very clever.

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Romanticism PowerPoint

I did up this presentation to start off our current unit in American Lit. I started with this Powerpoint I found online, and gussied it up a bit. Students filled in these notes while we discussed the slides:

Romanticism Notes

As always, my pop culture and arts references are meant to spur further connections in the minds of students–I try to draw these out from them while we talk. Each piece we read and analyze in this unit includes a discussion of which elements of Romanticism are present in the text and where: this leads to some very natural compare/contrast exercises.

How To Use Turnitin.com and Why

I’m a big fan of the website Turnitin.com, which assists in grading written work and in checking for plagiarism. If you’re a teacher and your school doesn’t subscribe, bug your admin until they get it for you.

It streamlines the writing process, collects all documents and communication electronically, simplifies feedback, and even reveals nearly any kind of cheating a student writer may have done (it was even once used to demonstrate that a professor at UNLV was a serial plagiarist and got him fired!).

It’s thanks to things like this that I don’t carry around boxes of papers to grade any more–all I need is a computer–and it even goes faster, since I don’t have to laboriously scribble my sorry handwriting on each paper. And everything is automatically documented! (More than once, I’ve had a parent insist that their perfect angel turned in an assignment that I’ve marked missing, and where I used to only have my word to go on, I can now take a screen shot of the empty submission page and send it to the parent.)

Last year I put together this quick illustrated user guide for teachers. In case it might be useful for any of you out there in Internet Land, here it is. I also hope you enjoy looking for the little jokes I worked in.

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Student Notes, part 4

Last semester, I had a student in English 101 who I’d also had for her sophomore and junior years in high school. She wrote the following on the back of her final exam last month. This note made me feel good for days after. Really, if you can say something nice to a teacher, rest assured that will have done something meaningfully kind for another human being.

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The Declaration of Independence Rhetoric Unit

One of my favorite units of the year is one I just finished–where I use the Declaration of Independence to teach about rhetoric, along with reading, writing, and speaking skills.

I start with the text, asking why exactly this document was written and for whom. Nobody ever knows. Then we read it looking for answers (attachment 1 below). I point out aspects of persuasion in it, then we go back to the big questions. That’s about half a day, on a block schedule. The other half day I use to go over this rhetorical analysis worksheet that I like with them (attachment 2). I really want them to understand this as an argument–we look for ethos, pathos, and logos in the declaration, for example (use this video if those concepts are new to students).

Putting this color-coded version on the projector to immediately review also reinforces the most salient points.

Another day we look at the handout that compares drafts (attachment 3), and we talk about the writing and revision process–what changes were made and why, and if they’re better or not. We relate this to their own work. I also tell them about the anti-slavery paragraph that the southern colonies made Jefferson take out–none of them have heard that before, so I put it on the projector and read it to them. Fun! That’s just a small part of a day.

I also make sure to point out that it’s the FINAL draft of the declaration that has the treasure map on the back. That always elicits a few giggles from the group.

A third day is to give them the speech outline (attachment 4), so they can see how the four parts work together and practice using these tools for something useful and realistic.

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A Thought About Gospel Teaching and Sacrifice

An idea that came up in our ward’s teacher council: to be effective teachers, we must diligently prepare lessons, but we must also be flexible to the needs of our friends during class and must be willing to let go of all that we prepared as the Spirit directs us. We could spend hours preparing a lesson, and only end up using some of it because it becomes clear that a discussion needs to go in a different direction.

And yet, if we do no preparation, no such inspiration is likely to come. A friend remembered a sacrament meeting where a man started his talk by taking the script he’d written, putting it in his pocket, and saying, “Well, I had one talk prepared, but the Spirit is now leading me to say something else entirely,” and the resulting talk was exactly what people needed to hear. I then remembered a time about 20 years ago, where a speaker decided to improvise the entire talk on the fly in order to illustrate the workings of inspiration; he only stumbled and rambled for a few minutes, confusing himself and the congregation, before closing and sitting down.

It’s almost as if the Spirit says, “I will guide you, but only if you put in the work first.”

And that makes me wonder if good teaching is related to the basic law of sacrifice. If we research and draft and prepare good lessons, we have something that we can then give up as needed, so greater blessings can come. If we do no preparation, we have nothing to sacrifice.

Similarly, like the rich young man in the Savior’s parable, we can create materials and then cling to them in spite of what the obvious needs are around us, like a teacher who checks off every item on their lesson no matter what real world needs come up spontaneously in class, which demand that we give up our plan and serve others, if we really want to help.

The classroom, then, is a microcosm of life, and we are all teachers.

The Puppy School

In the animal kingdom, the dogs decided to start a school to help the puppies learn to play fetch. All kinds of dogs were teacher dogs, but only the Big Dogs were in charge.

Often, the puppies didn’t do a very good job at playing fetch. Some puppies would only chew on their sticks instead of fetching them, some puppies kept peeing on everything, and some puppies even bit the teacher dogs.

The Big Dogs were worried, because they didn’t want to look bad in front of all the other animals. They knew they had to Do Something.

But they didn’t really know how to solve the puppies’ problems, so they just made the teacher dogs chase their tails.

The teacher dogs did what they were told. See, back when the teacher dogs had been puppies, they had been very well trained. That’s part of why they became teacher dogs themselves.

The Big Dogs even made the teacher dogs write reports on their tail chasing, and the teachers did that, too. The teacher dogs carefully measured and documented their tail chasing.

But somehow all that tail chasing didn’t help the puppies learn to fetch.

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Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!

 

Written English As a Foreign Language to Native Speakers

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ELL students–English Language Learners (also known as ESL, or English as a Second Language). They have a certain set of needs in writing instruction. In fact, students have slightly differing sets of needs depending on what their first language is: some language backgrounds make learning to use plurals harder; others create a tough time with verb conjugation, for example.

This has nothing to do with anyone’s intelligence–it’s just a matter of learning to think and communicate those thoughts in a new way. What shocks me, though, is just how often I see native English speakers make the same kinds of mistakes in writing that foreign language students make. What accounts for this?

For a young American today, written English is practically a foreign language. Students very likely have little more engagement with written English than they would with any other world language, and it shows in the kinds of errors they make in writing.

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“To Essay”

As I discussed my notes about their first big essay of the year with my college students this week, it became clear to me that nobody had ever explained to them why we write essays. They saw the exercise as a pointless waste of time.

So I got some more mileage out of my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. I read them parts of the entry for the word “essay.” Specifically, I pointed out the it entered the language as a verb, not a noun.

As seen below, “to essay” really just means “to try, to attempt, to practice, to accomplish.” Example sentence: “The noble knight essayed the glorious task of eating a thousand fish tacos.”

Moral of the story: today, when we write an essay, we are trying, attempting, practicing, accomplishing…what? To prove an assertion, to describe a new idea to others so they can share in our experience, to communicate clearly about something important between writer and reader.

These are–and I say this with no sarcasm–truly crucial skills, demanding the very greatest of all our energies in both teaching and learning. The world needs these skills, and needs them to be developed and implemented widely.

So maybe the “noble knight” example isn’t such a joke after all.

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Throwing Away Essays

Yesterday I read an essay by a college freshman that began with the paragraph below.

“Alright class, pick up your pencils and write me an essay about something that will bore you to death”. Those are the words that my sophomore high school english teacher told us one day when he had nothing planned for our class. The entire class was in shock, but that statement was only the beginning. Each one of us wrote our essays and when that sweet sound of the bell rang, we threw our papers onto his cluttered desk and ran off, escaping the torture of listening to the clock go “tick tock” for fifty-two minutes. Two class periods later, I witnessed something I never thought would happen. I watched my teacher throw a pile of paper into the trash, but it wasn’t just any pile of paper, it was our essays we wrote just two hours ago. It was at that moment when I felt that teachers really didn’t care about our creative minds and our writing talents. It was at that moment when I felt that writing was just a waste of time and that teachers made us write boring essays just to keep their job.

There are at least four big red flags here: the unprepared teacher, the callous nonchalance with which he or she appears to address students, the nonsense assignment itself, and the almost immediate disposal of nearly an hour’s worth of student work.

I get the impression from the student’s lack of surprise that this kind of thing was not uncommon.

I’m completely stunned. This is outrageous. I sent this paragraph to the principal of the school in question, to deal with or not as he or she sees fit. I won’t say what high school this student attended, but I will tell that it is one of the relatively newer, richer schools in the valley.

I’ve mentioned before a department meeting I attended about a decade ago where an older teacher freely admitted that she refused to read student essays. I think that’s a deal breaker, and anyone with such an attitude does not belong in the classroom.

Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and time consuming, but bottom line, it’s our job.

And using essay writing as time wasting filler and then simply discarding it is nothing less than education’s version of malpractice.

And the student’s “lesson” learned at the end of that paragraph…it’s just absolutely heartbreaking. I teach writing because I love it and I know it’s important. Too important and lovely to be screwed up like that.

I hope I can help this student have a redemptive experience with writing instruction and practice this semester.