During the last three weeks of this summer program, I was expected to assign the students a piece of literature to read and discuss. I struggled with this at first, and I checked around with a lot of education friends asking for ideas on what to read. When I met my students at orientation, I gave them a survey with five books on it and asked them to rank them. The most popular book was John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
Now, I have a confession to make. I added Green’s book to the list because he had been recommended to me as an author the students would likely be interested in. I personally wasn’t all that familiar with him, and I put it on the list in a move of pure blind faith. So when his book got voted as the one most kids wanted to read I thought it was a done deal. I opened up the preview on Amazon and started to read it.
Ugh. I am sorry Mr. Green, but I think your book is not what I am looking for here. I was immediately bored and I found it to be not very well written. I took this issue up with my friends who (mostly) assured me that I should let them read Green’s book. They would read it, they would enjoy it, and it would be fun for them. I could engage them in thought provoking discussions to dig deeper into the content as well as the quality of the book.
In the end, I disagreed.
One of the things that became clear to me as I read over the surveys the students answered was that they wanted to be challenged. I did not see Mr. Green’s book as being particularly challenging for them nor did I think it would push them much in their thinking. So I fell back on their second choice, sort of.
Their second choice for a book was 1984. It had been awhile since I read 1984, and in reviewing it I was concerned that it would be a bit too much given that we had, at best, 10 days to read the book. That led me to Fahrenheit 451. I decided that if they were interested in a dystopian novel, Bradbury’s text would be better suited for them. It was relatively short – 158 pages. The text itself is less dense than 1984, but the ideas presented in the book allow for some deep thinking and rich discussions to take place.
And so this was how Fahrenheit 451 became the chosen book for the summer. And it has been a good choice (and Mr. Green would agree with me I think).
First, it turns out that at least half the students went out and read the Green text on their own anyways, some were not at all interested in it, and some are reading it alongside Bradbury’s text. We actually have ended up having discussions about Green’s book here and there.
The students tend to come into class believing they are confused by Bradbury, but a short discussion about what they read usually shows they understood it better than they thought they did. They are doubting themselves, but that’s a quality that has been with them from Day One.
But for me, one of the most interesting things happened on the second day of discussing the book. We were talking about how long ago the book was written and how current society did/did not match up with what was in the book. The students are all well versed in the concept of dystopian society, and all are familiar with The Hunger Games.
*side note* I received a lecture from my students for not liking the Hunger Games. They informed me that it’s my own fault because I saw only the movie and did not read the book. They told me the movie lacked sufficient background information and that’s my problem. I can accept this. It was a great conversation on differences between movies and the books they are based on.
Anyways, in all of this discussion about different dystopian books, one of the girls in my class said:
He (Bradbury) wrote this book in the 50’s, right? It makes you think when you look at the Hunger Games and all the stuff out now like it that it’s all sort of been done before. He thought it up much sooner. It makes me think that the Hunger Games seems unoriginal. It’s like, it’s not as good as I thought now that I’m reading this.
I say all of the above to conclude with this:
In general, I am a big fan of the idea of kids choosing/having input on what they read in school. On the surface, it might look like I totally ignored them by bypassing the Green book in favor of Bradbury’s. But I disagree. Dystopian literature was a strong favorite of theirs in the survey I gave, but 1984 wasn’t the best text given our constraints. I also knew they wanted a challenge, and I didn’t think the Green text would challenge them in the way Bradbury could. Plus, they all already knew who Green was and no one, literally no one, had heard of Bradbury. Exposing them to a new author was something that was important to me.
In the end, I think this shows a nice blend of listening to them but also responding with what I think is going to push them in ways they need to be pushed. For some kids, the Bradbury text is not for them. They are not into it. But this would be the case with any text. Most are into it, and at least half are reading ahead in it. They are thinking through the concepts you might expect them to in reading this book, but they are also looking at how current authors of dystopian literature seem to be influenced by Bradbury – something they did without any help from me.
I think it’s a win.