Favorite Books to Teach High School Students
The question of a favorite book is somewhat difficult, as it depends upon my mood at the time. I personally like to lose myself in the works of Nicholas Sparks and Richard Paul Evans if I truly have time to read for my own pleasure. However when it comes to teaching my high school students, there are a dozen or so selections that not only are excellent reads, but also provide the reader an opportunity to examine, and possibly question, his/her own beliefs, morals, and ethics as well. Below you will find five of my favorite pieces, which I feel make better young men and women of our young people. I know for a fact that these works at least make them stop and reflect.
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch has provided many conversations with my classes over the last several years. While it is not a book that I teach per se’, it is a book that has taught me and that I share in bits and pieces. In doing so, it has allowed me to be a better teacher. It has shown me how to live better, how to be there for others, and how to appreciate each moment. The author, a college professor who was living with terminal cancer, gives his last lecture which turns out to be, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” Through his stories and insights we come to realize how insignificant many of life’s “problems” really are, and we learn that there are ways to overcome many of the situations that we encounter. I even shared the teachings of this book with my 8th grade language arts class one year, and used Pausch’s mantra, “Be Tigger!” as the class theme for the year. In doing so, my students were reminded when they started to complain about minor things, that there might be a better way to look at things. They also learned the importance of loyalty, and tools to find common ground to work together in groups.
In A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines challenges the reader to meet hatred and bigotry face to face when Jefferson, a young black man, is sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. Jefferson’s real crime? He’s young, black, and uneducated. A local teacher, Grant, has been persuaded to help Jefferson by teaching him in jail, in the hopes that he might die a man and not a “pig” as he has been called. But Grant struggles with how to teach Jefferson to die with pride, when he himself is not proud of where his li9fe had lead him. He had become a teacher to break away; to break the chains that have bound his people. But he returned to the plantation to teach and sees that nothing has changed. He has given upon trying to change the children in his care because he sees only that the circle is unbroken and that the children will, in essence, continue to be like slaves to the white man. Eventually Grant wakes to a new life, as Jefferson moves toward a new life of his own. One confronts not only the bigotry of the time, but also one’s own religious convictions.
A true account, Night, by Elie Wiesel, takes the reader on a horrific journey of a teenage boy during World War II. Gut-wrenching and bitterly honest, this work enables the reader to experience the devastating events of Eliezer as his neighborhood is turned into a ghetto, and he and his family are led from its false sense of security, onto a deportation train, and eventually into the confines of the “walls” of Auschwitz. From the moment that he and his father are separated from his mother and sisters, until the time that the camp is liberated, we are repeatedly reminded of the senselessness that was World War II, and the dignity that was denied a group of people simply for being that group of people. Wiesel not only shares his innermost thoughts of despair and his struggle to believe in a God that seems absent, but he also demonstrates the human spirit and the ability to survive by sheer will.
The Gift of the Magi, a short story by O. Henry, is such a positive, sweet story that seems so Pollyannic one might think that it would not be of interest to many high school students. On the contrary, I have found that because it is such a positive story, and a very easy read, my students truly enjoy it. Perhaps they are hopeless romantics, but students seem to be able to relate to the idea of having one thing to be truly proud of and want treasure. Our two main characters each have something which they are truly proud of, and yet each gives up that one treasure to bring joy to the other. In our current age of short-term relationships, and me-me-me attitudes, Della and Jim become the epitome of giving of oneself for true love.
All of these selections are excellent choices to share with students. However, the book which I most enjoy teaching would have to be Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. This novella provides a story that teaches ethics and morals, questions right from wrong, and allows one to care about its many characters for a variety of reasons. The story of Lennie and George, in its most simple form, is a story of friendship and survival. In its most complex form it becomes a study of courage, loyalty, loneliness, and respect, which challenges its readers to re-examine their own views.
Using the Salinas Valley landscape that was his childhood home, Steinbeck immediately paints a picture of the surroundings as he introduces his main characters, Lennie and George, on their travel to a new job. Through dialogue and detail one realizes that, although complete opposites, these two men have a unique relationship in which they rely upon one another’s strengths to survive the challenges that present themselves from day to day. Lennie’s mental challenges and his apparent need to touch soft things continually land the two in trouble as he does not understand his own strength, or the reactions of others to his touching. George’s strength, his intelligence, has allowed him to keep Lennie safe thus far. Throughout the difficulties the two encourage each other with dreams of the future, and the reader begins to believe, and hope, those dreams will come true.
When Lennie and George arrive at the ranch where they will work, they are met by myriad characters. Candy, a swamper, and his old dog immediately work their way into this reader’s heart. Carlson, a hardened ranch hand, is practical in talking Candy into letting him shoot the old, ailing dog as it would be kinder to the dog than to let him suffer. Although Carlson makes perfect sense, it is also understood that he is looking out for himself as he does not like the smell of the dog in the bunkhouse. This scene foreshadows the final scene of the story as both events are handled in a similar manner. The death of his dog makes Candy realize that he too may become obsolete when he has served his purpose.
Slim, a skinner, becomes a friend to George, leading George to confide in him about the problems that have been brought on by Lennie. Crooks, a black stable buck in an all-white world, is the epitome of loneliness, keeping to himself until Lennie thrusts himself upon him. Curley, the boss’s son, tries to overcompensate for his lack of height by bullying everyone, especially Lennie. Recently married, he trusts no one around his wife; he trusts her even less. Curley’s wife, alienated by and disgusted with her husband, is constantly searching for someone to fill the void she feels. It is her loneliness and the need to be the center of someone’s attention that sets Lennie up for trouble.
Lennie’s infatuation with Curley’s wife, along with his need to touch her soft hair, leads him to accidentally kill her when she yells at him to stop. He remembers where George told him to hide if he ever got into trouble. George realizes what Lennie has done and that Curley will kill Lennie, or Lennie will be sent away for life. George makes the hard decision to take Lennie’s life himself in what he believes is a more humane way. This dramatic end brings about many questions. Was George being a true and loyal friend to Lennie by taking his life quickly, or was he being selfish as Carlson had been toward Candy and his dog? Did George demonstrate courage and strength in dealing with the situation in this way, or did he show a lack of respect for Lennie? Will this free George to live his life fully, or will he become even lonelier without Lennie?
This book is my favorite in that it allows the reader to understand the feelings of each of the characters, and in doing so challenges the reader’s own beliefs: Under what circumstances do friendship end and self-preservation begin? Will loneliness make a person desperate? Did George show a respect for life by ending Lennie’s life more humanely than Curley would have? Is Lennie better off? Given the same choice, what would the reader do?