By Hamza Alam
Mandatory reading has regularly been a part of high school curriculums for many decades. Some students enjoy it because it can show them new perspectives and teach them important lessons about life. Others despise it due to the burden of having to read over a hundred pages of text in under a week, while simultaneously doing homework for classes and studying for quizzes and tests. Reading for a class can therefore be both beneficial and disadvantageous, and amongst the student population, there are many who are in support of mandatory reading, and many who are against it.
A big question posed by many students when reading a book such as Pride and Prejudice or A Tale of Two Cities was, “Why am I reading this? What is the point of reading a book from the nineteenth or twentieth century when I’m in the twenty-first century?” Well, there are a few benefits of reading such books.
“I really think it improved my reading comprehension,” senior Yuchen Fan said. “Over the years, as the reading got more and more advanced, I was able to keep up with the increasing complexity of the language, and I think it has really helped me to understand other, more complex pieces of literature, and has boosted my writing ability as well.”
Some people also appreciate the new perspectives given to them by the books. “You learn to view the world from different points of view,” junior Elias Fang said. “Seeing people in all these different situations allowed me to really see what life is like for others and how my life is different from theirs. It also made me respect other people, mainly because of all the many different experiences they’ve had when compared to mine.”
Another major point of discussion concerning mandatory reading was quote quizzes. Specifically, student opinions differed when it came to the validity of quote quizzes in determining who has actually read the assigned sections of a book.
“I like quote quizzes because the amount of effort you put in correlates to the grade you get,” junior Saman Patrick Namazian said. “In my opinion, these quizzes act as a way to level the playing field with other students. Some students get super high essay grades because they are naturally gifted at writing well, whereas others may not be so gifted, so the quote quizzes really help to level everybody out.”
However, other students such as senior Imran Azmi disagreed, saying, “Quote quizzes are just indicators of who can memorize specific parts the best. The way I see it, it’s not about who read the book. People who really read the book can notice general themes, underlying meanings, and small changes in tone that help to shift the plot, yet retain certain important quotes from important characters. Quote quizzes cause the reader to focus mainly on retention. There’s hardly any deeper understanding of the material when you have the burden of scoring high on a quote quiz.”
Students are not the only ones that question the use of quote quizzes, either. Some teachers also question the effectiveness of these quizzes.
“I don’t think they are an accurate measurement of how well a kid knows a book,” said English teacher James Garcia. “Their main use is to make sure students don’t use things like SparkNotes. It’d be ideal to not have any quizzes because they take away from class time, but they are one of the only ways to make a kid read the book, though.”
Almost every high school student is familiar with reading companions like SparkNotes and CliffNotes, which supply summaries for nearly all typical mandatory reading books, and many teachers and students are against the use of them.
“I feel like students don’t get all that they can out of a book if they read it through SparkNotes,” Fang said. “I agree that it helps students get a general idea of what the author is talking about in his or her book, but to actually understand what is going on, people have to read, since there can be certain ways that the author phrases words, or certain character behaviors which can’t be shown in SparkNotes that boost the understanding of the reader.”
For many teachers, this discouragement is well-founded, and some teachers are staunchly opposed to the usage of these resources since they may not give the reader the full experience of the work of literature.
“I think it represents a downfall of our society,” said Mr. Garcia. “It helps with the idea that good grades is representative of a lot of knowledge, and this is not true, since there can be a lot of students who know what the book is about, but the cannot critically think for themselves, and there are also kids who can critically think but aren’t able to score well. As a teacher, having to combat these resources becomes the whole class, so you have to believe that your kids have integrity and really want to learn and experience these things.”
However, there are many people who support the use of SparkNotes and related websites.
“Sometimes, I think that these sites can be incredibly helpful to students, especially when the book they’re reading is not very interesting,” Azmi said. “Books have value, and most of the times, it’s important to know these values. However, sometimes the book can be a boring piece to read, especially if the section to be read is long and arduous. In these cases, I think it’s beneficial to use SparkNotes and such to help us deeper understanding amongst the plethora of words that we simply dismiss out of boredom, and give us a better overall understanding of the literature.”
Over the years, there have been some books that were highly appreciated by students, and some that students did not like to read.
“My favorite book was The Great Gatsby,” Fan said. “I really liked how F. Scott Fitzgerald described life in the Roaring Twenties, and even though I may not have liked the plot twist at the end, I did appreciate it and how it drove the point home that no matter how rich Gatsby was, he was never able to get the one thing he wanted most.”
“I really liked To Kill A Mockingbird,” Fang said. “My favorite part about it was probably the character of Atticus Finch. Amongst all the racism and unfairness that happened to African-Americans in the book, Atticus acted like a guardian angel. However, his righteousness was the most appealing part of his character, and that was what really established him as an almost angelic kind of figure.”
Of course, UHS students are also avid readers, so some students would prefer to read a specific book not in the curriculum that they think would be beneficial to high school students.
“If I could recommend a book to add to the current curriculum, it would probably be Moby Dick,” said Azmi. “It has a lot of underlying themes that students may not be able to relate to, but they would still be important to know due to their frequency in real life, such as the theme that Ahab is not complete without his greatest enemy, Moby Dick.”
English teachers are also very interesting in reading many different kinds of books, and some teachers believe that there is a lack of certain types of books in the curriculum, and they wish that these books could be added to the curriculum.
“For English II, I’d love to see a John Steinbeck or an Ernest Hemingway book,” said Mr. Garcia. “Something like Farewell to Arms or even Grapes of Wrath would be a great addition because I feel like we have a big blind spot in that portion of American literature. Steinbeck wrote about the Great Depression, and what farm life was like in California, so his books would be especially relevant.”
Mandatory reading may be difficult to cope with at times due to the daily stress felt by many teenagers, but it does have its upsides. As Fan said, “For me, mandatory reading allows me to read a variety of books, and also helps to educate me about different perspectives from different eras, so I find it that although it can be difficult to juggle everything, it is worth it in the long run.”