Mandatory reading in high school? What did you have to read?

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Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture
Mandatory reading in high school? What did you have to read?

i got to talking with some people about what books we had to read in high-school, and coupled with this point made by cassia, realized not only has CanLit come along way, but why aren't we intergrating it into our school cirriculums?

I read the usuals: To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Shakespeare unit, The Great Gatsby, and a few others (I was forced to work alone in the library a lot because i disrupted people all the time. My parents were not surprised.) But, I never read any Canadian authors -- I don't even think any of the high-school classes even read Margret Atwood or Robertson Davis.

What gives?

I would have loved to have read both the 'classic' American authors infused with a smattering of Canadian authors too -- I don't think anyone can argue that Atwood is anything but prolific, but there are so many other great Canadian authors. Did I just go to a crappy high-school (re: in Coquitlam) or were author experiences similar?

What did you read and were you pissed about the lack of Canadian talent?

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

And just to add, I remember in high-school, the lack of support/acknowledge for Canadian authors and artists made me feel like success in writing wasn't a tangible goal in Canada and that one would have to go to the states.

High-school cirriculumns are so crappy (we need to teach about residental schools), why do we ignore the actual history and people within the country?

I'll just blame Harper.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

hmmm, I like the idea of kids being able to choose what they want to read (especially in high-school for mandatory reading), but I wonder if contemporary CanLit will ever be included?

I know that when I was in high-school, if we would have read an author from that same city (or near, or just tangible) it probably would have inspired me to not only read the books (i read the books), but given me hope and encouragement. 

My high-school did not have a Can Lit class, we did have an Eng Lit class, which was studying mostly Shakespeare in-depth. Though important, not the end-all-be-all. I think what is difficult about getting kids to read and engage is that the novels they are forced to read are dated in language and relateability (also, in taming of the shrew, when she is successfully 'tamed' and that is regarded as awesome, my little feminist 14 year old self died a bit in side. It was barely explained that this was a sign of the times and not acceptable.).

Don't you think integrating modern Canadian literature would have a greater impact on high-school kids, especially since they could engage with the authors/publishers on social media mediums?

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

My kids are engaging with authors on social media in a variety of ways - some Canadian and some not.  My youngest just sent a set of drawing via email to Alan Bradley, author of the Flavia de Luce series.  I don't think you really get that through classes regardless of the location of the authors.

And that's the thing about social media - location is less relevant.


Likewise our oldest son was able to interview  Saint John artist Herzl Kashetsky for an assignment last year.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I've always blamed the unfortunate Who Has Seen the Wind? by W.O. Mitchell as the reason students come to university with a built-in prejudice against Canadian literature. What the hell does a kid growing up in the 401 corridor know about the Prairies? For that matter, what does a kid born in 1995 know about the Praires in WHStW?

I read Davies' Fifth Business in high school and really liked it. So I read the second book in that trilogy, The Manticore, and found it excruciating. That was the end of my RD experience. Thanks for the memories, Bobertson.

I can't remember if we read Atwood in high school, but we did read The Stone Angel. I didn't care for it at the time, but I blame my adolescent boy prejudices.

I remember liking The Chrysalids and Canticle for Leibowitz, so I guess I had a thing for science fiction. Otherwise, Shakespeare was probably my favourite read during high school, which I think, in order, was: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet. Some classes read Julius Ceasar and King Lear, but not me.

David Chariandy's Soucouyant strikes me as a perfect novel for high school students. Contemporary, tight, short and moving. 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

I'm glad I missed out on Who Has Seen the Wind? then -- I don't think that even graced my high-school library's bookshelf.

Oh, All Quiet On the Western Front and Uncle Tom's Cabin -- those were a couple too. I feel I have blocked out a lot of these books because even if the books were interesting (most were, if not all) the assignments that followed up with them were terrible! Just terrible!

your kid's are lucky they got those experiences!

Although, I could have tried to chat with them on ICQ, that was super cool back then.


High school for me was 1978-81. It would be interesting to hear reading lists from Babblers who pre-date me.

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

High school for me was 1964-1968 and it was the tech program so mostly my reading material was on automotive rebuilding and repair, electrical, carpentry, mechanical drafting, and electronics. I dropped out in my final year rather than have to repeat a stupid English course. Can't for the life of me remember what fiction I read other than R. Crumb comix. Laughing


Hmmm....I'm tryying to remember. I know we read To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Far from the Madding Crowd. For Shakespeare, we did Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. 

I recall that we had a fair bit of choice in terms of what we could read for projects, within certain parameters (e.g. a Canadian author or whatever).

I think the reading curriculum (with the exception of Shakespeare) was generally at a lower level than I would have liked to have seen.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

it's crazy for me to think that the Canadian high-school cirriculum really hasn't evolved through different decades. My high-school years were recent (00-04) and we read the exact same novels, with very little independent projects (other than my aforementioned library trips).

I'm starting to think either (1) these books are super timeless and take a long time to read (2) my high-school lacked in creativity or (3) govt has given up on improving or changing school cirriculums (or allowing them to..).

Also reading one or two books a year for an english class is a bit ridiculous too, and I am a very slow reader.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Most high school English teachers I know would love to pick different books. They are constrained by the canonical prejudices of the institution (a slow-moving monster) and, of course, by money. If the school already has fifty copies of The Great Gatsby, why would they buy fifty more of some other novel not on the BBC's "best books" ever list?

It should also be added that university English courses, taught by professors who can both choose whatever books they wish and know all about the uneven, homogenizing pressures of the canon, still overwhelmingly teach the same texts they taught twenty years ago. So this problem is not easily solved.

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

Hmmm, when I was entering high school circa 1976 (in Alberta, 3 year program), it was in the immediate aftermath of a mini-panic over abysmally low test scores that students entering the University of Calgary had received the previous year on a basic language skills test/placement exam.

The powers that be at my high school (which was an "experimental" school, based on a modular system rather than the regular model where students are herded from one class to the next) decided to subject all students in the 1976 cohort to the same placement exam. Being a somewhat bookish kitty, I did well on the exam and was given even more freedom in my English studies than other students... I was allowed to enter the "World Literature in Translation" stream within the English Department. I was never required to read anything at all that was originally written in English, not even the token module on Shakespeare that was mandatory for everyone else. [In my final year, I did in fact do the module on Macbeth, but by my own choice, I wanted to see what everyone else had been complaining about.]

What I most remember from my high school "English" work was reading plays by Ionesco and Brecht, and the assignment to read the same novel but in two different translations (Dostoyevsky: The Idiot - I can't remember who the translators were, just that one was British, the other American).

I know I read Atwood's Edible Woman during that period, but I don't recall if it was part of a module I was working on, or if someone recommended it to me (oh, and I loathed it, and pity anyone who ever had it forced on them).

I have real problems with mandatory reading lists... I think the usual result is that those required to read X, Y or Z usually end up hating X, Y and Z... and I suspect the hate is the result of compulsion, not any intrinsic flaw in the work itself. Better to simply require that a certain amount of reading must be done, to be selected from a (hopefully very broad) range of "optional" works.

Left Turn Left Turn's picture

My high school years were in the 90s (93-98). We read some of the usual fare: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, 1984, A midsummer Nights Dream, Julius Ceasar, Macbeth, The Taming Of The Shrew, The Tempest.

In general I think the high schools place way too much of an emphasis on Shakespeare. The Only Shakespeare I'd put in the high school curriculum would be Hamlet.

Did not read Romeo & Juliet. This was because I was in the English/PE Leadership course in Grade 10 (the year that all the English classes were supposed to do Romeo & Juliet), and our teacher decided to do Julius Ceasar instead because it had more to do with 'leadership'. Though our grade 11 English class did go see the horridly awful 1996 modern adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, so awful that I boycotted Leonardo Di Caprio movies for the next 15 years and didn't get around to watching Titanic until 2011.

Missed out on reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" in Grade 8 -- half the class got to read it, but they didn't have enough copies for the whole class, so the other half of us had to read a book about some girl in the early 60s who goes blind from a neurodegenerative disease.

We read a little bit of Canadian poetry in Grade 9 by Robert Service -- The Yukon poet who wrote The Cremation Of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew, among many other poems. None of the numerous short stories we read were Canadian.

Took English Lit in Grade 12. We used this thick English Lit textbook that was a survey of English Lit from Beowulf up to the early 20th century. The book was divided into chapters representing the different literary periods in English Lit, with a discussion of the political, social and language developments that affected the literature of each period, followed by examples of the literature of each period. Virtually all the literature selection in the text were poetry. The only thing we read that was not in the textbook was Shakespear's The Tempest.

I also took a Writing 12 class in which we were allowed to do 5000 pages of "directed reading" instead of a 50 page written submission -- what a mistake that was, not being a very fast reader. Barely passed the course. Did read some CanLit in that class though -- Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findlay, and an entire book of Leonard Cohen's poetry. Other books I recall reading in that class were Sidhartha by Herman Hesse and 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Was also in French Immersion, so we read some Québecois lit in French classes. Though up until Grade 11 our French reading skills were underdeveloped enough compared to Québecois kids such that they had us reading books intended for kids who are about five years younger than us -- so at age 15 we were reading books intended for 10 year olds. Grade 12 French class was a different matter -- we read L'étranger by Albert Camus.

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

I've got a real bone to pick with whoever is in charge of designing curriculum for technical students. Drop the English requirement, it's a waste of time.

I spent my four years in high school in the 1960s rebuilding cars, building and wiring houses, and building oscilloscopes and radios. English by comparsion was just a f***ing drag, it bored me and everyone else in the tech program to tears. The only way we got through those miserable two hours every other day was to have a couple of beers or a joint beforehand.

If profanity had been substituted for English, I would have gotten straight A+s. Smile

ETA: That summer of 1968 or 1969 I decided to enroll in college, and college is where I changed my future entirely - no more technical stuff, instead I enrolled in a Journalism major. The rest is history.

Freedom 55

Here's what I remember reading in high school:

[i]To Kill a Mockingbird[/i], [i]A Tale of Two Cities[/i], [i]Who Has Seen the Wind?[/i], [i]The Power and the Glory[/i], [i]The Pearl[/i], [i]The Moon is Down[/i]

[i]The Taming of the Shrew[/i], [i]Romeo and Juliet[/i], [i]Hamlet[/i], [i]Macbeth[/i], [i]King Lear[/i]

Other than [i]WHStW?[/i], the only Cancon I read came by way of my French immersion Lit class, although I can't recall any of their titles.

Left Turn Left Turn's picture

[url= aren't we teaching more of these books?[/url]

Never mind the acclaim of Canadian writers abroad and this fall's wealth of literary festivals and big book prizes. There's a shocking disconnect between the international success of Canadian writing and how Canadian literature is viewed in our schools.

For starters, few Canadian books are taught in our schools, and with one or two exceptions, no province has a mandatory course in Canadian literature.


A second reason is harsh budget cuts to education. Few English departments have the money to buy new texts so they rely on old copies of novels by foreign authors, such as To Kill a Mocking Bird and Lord of the Flies. At many schools, the teacher librarian job has been phased out and replaced with technical staff who understand the Internet. E-books could offer a partial solution but chances are that many of the library staff haven't been exposed to books by Canadian writers.

And here's the third reason: Almost none of our teachers' training colleges make studying Canadian literature compulsory. So unless a teacher has taken a Canadian literature course at university, he or she may go through our school system without ever reading a single book by a Canadian author.


The fifth reason is that it's up to teachers and school boards to pick books from suggested curriculum choices. And since these choices are merely recommended, Ms. Baird says there is no clear mandate for teachers. So what is taught varies from school to school, and often depends on whether the principal is more interested in funding the football team. And there are certainly many schools and teachers who teach CanLit with great enthusiasm, but it's hit and miss for students to end up in those classrooms. Parents also object to certain books as unsuitable, making it more difficult to get a consensus about teachable texts.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

it all makes so much sense, even though I was hoping those weren't the reason (no $, parental involvement, lack of control).

I went to school in Ontario where everyone was pretty good at french, and if not, at least could read it pretty well -- I was always surprised at the complete lack of acknowledgement towards any French- Canadian writers, but I guess that is Ontario?

It just seems that with such a growing community of fantastic Canadian writers combined with teachers, community members, parents and media continually pissed off about school agendas, the govt would make way for change. grr, I guess those jets are expensive.

I just can't help but keep thinking how awesome it would have been in high-school if I were given the opportunity or choice to read not only what i wanted, but local writers -- and for kids to have that opportunity now, and to engage easily with social media, it could be so powerful and such a great point for getting kids engaged. I don't understand why govt/principals/etc haven't figured out yet that the way english is taught isn't all the productive.

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

If there's ever a thread on what I read in college and university, I'm rarin' to go.


Okay. What did you read in college Boom Boom? We can probably survive a little thread drift.

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

I'll get started on my list later today, but it includes more than half the titles in this thread. As I mentioned upthread, I was in tech during high school, and didn't read much other than tech manuals. But after smoking a lot of dope and dropping acid and going to a hell of a lot music concerts, my head got turned around - I dropped my interest in tech completely and applied myself to the applied and social sciences, and, to a lesser degree, to the arts.

Lard Tunderin Jeezus Lard Tunderin Jeezus's picture

I took a Gr.12 advanced english course in 1977, and recall reading Atwood's Surfacing, Margaret Lawrence's Diviners, Orwell's 1984, Shakespeare's Othello and Robert Pirsig's Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The last had a profound influence on me, though I quickly came to realize that it was lightweight, to say the least. Nevertheless, it led me into much more in-depth reading, developing my own understanding of several branches of philosophy.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

The worst book, by a mile, I ever had to read in University, I read in a graduate seminar: James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer. I am in complete agreement with Mark Twain on Jack "Broken Twig" Coops.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Boom Boom I find it, er, interesting (?) that when you were in technical school or speaking about technical school you say they should take the english requirement away because nobody like it, but when you were in college and discovered more books you feel in love. I know acid makes us love things (!), but don't you think you're a case that supports the idea of keeping reading and books in any form of education?

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

That's an interesting argument, Kaitlin. I'll think on it a bit. One concern I guess I have is that more reading in tech courses might take away the drive to concentrate on tech subjects. Tech courses are very, very difficult, and require deep concentration.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Unlike English courses? Draw your sword, scoundrel...

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

Ever read tech manuals, CF?

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

You mean like an IKEA instruction booklet? Sure! Tongue out

Don't get me wrong, I know that tech courses are tough. In another life, I took some (I started University in Engineering). But it is my lot in life to defend English against the charge that it's simply designated light reading or something. Take a class with me and see how easy it is!

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

are you guys fighting with your anatomical swords too?

I will intervene to say that we all know that both English and Tech is difficult -- I have a degree in Psyc (among other things): The ultimate faculty with small person syndrome (it's a reall science too).

Don't you think the best education is a well-rounded education? Though there is lots of tech-related reading in tech school a balance of author reading and assignments + gym +math + art makes for not only a better person (seriously), but a more creative thinker.

Same goes for english people -- Mike you attempt to play soccer right?

I remember in my last year of high school I took every science course imaginable because I thought the only way to be successful was through science (I too wanted to go into engineering!), and then only anatomy/kinesology-related things in first and seond year university and grew super bored with not only the material, but the monotony in the way I learned. Labs, labs, labs -- rote memorization of EVERYTHING.

cutting out english in tech school could make for a drone like existence, just like taking art and PE out of school could.

you can't have english without soccer, right?

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

are you guys fighting with your anatomical swords too?

What, you wouldn't have us use real ones, would you?

I definitely support well-rounded education--not just in high school but in university too. I apologize if I wasn't clear. Bookish types should take tech classes, science classes, cooking classes and, yes, soccer classes. I wish we could get the "have to" out of our systems and turn it into a "want to." But that's a tough one. Oh, and everyone should read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I'm looking forward to Boom Boom talking about what books he read in University. I have it on good authority that BB is one rather well-read chap.

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

Oh, blush. Embarassed

Seriously, I learned from me dad who was a military writer - he hired me to proof-read and index his stuff while I was in high school, because, despite being a techie, I was very capable in English composition and grammar. I just found English classes insufferably boring compared to the exciting world of technology.

My best friend went on from high school direct to Mitel near Kanata when it started up - this is about 1969 or 1970 - he was a high school tech graduate hired right out of high school to design circuit board technology. Son of a gun got rich fast.

I have to tell you, high school tech textbooks - especially electronics -  were excruciatingly tough to get through, usually we had our tech books inside our English texts and tried to avoid attention from the teach. If we didn't bring our tech texts to English classes, then alternatively, we'd be designing fast cars inside our English workbooks. Seriously, high school English was just plain insufferable for us.

Still trying to compose a list of authors - let alone titles - of college and university books read. I'll leave out philosophy, psychology,  and theology because they're all authors you've probably all never heard of, although maybe y'all have heard of Augustine? (he was a boring old fart, actually). Freud was just another miserable old fucker. I don't even want to get started on Paul Tillich. Why did theology attract so many miserable fuckheads???

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

For starters, in college and university I read tons of Billy Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, and everything written and published by Franz Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is the odd guy out in that list, but, hey, you gotta have something light once in a while, no?  Laughing

ETA: There was a publisher of CanLit in paperback back in the 1970s, I forget who, I brought and read all 136 titles on their publishing list back then, and almost everything they published since.

There was a paperback publisher of philosophy,  and I brought and read every title they published, something like 300 books in all, and, by the way, at Trent my major was a combined Philosophy/Psychology major. Quite a turnaround for a high school techie, no?

 I still have about 20% of all my theology books from Trinity College - but I got rid of most of the duckfart writers like Paul Tillich long ago.

Freedom 55

Boom Boom wrote:

Joseph Conrad


Ah, yes... I knew I was forgetting something from my list - [i]Heart of Darkness[/i]. I guess it's not surprising that I forgot about it since I didn't actually read it, but it [i]was[/i] one of the course requirements.


Looking back at what was assigned to us, i'm less bothered by the dearth of Cancon than I am by the fact that of all the authors we were assigned to read, Harper Lee was the only one who wasn't a white dude.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

barely any ladies or people of colour (or any real deviations from white dudes)

So good for young ladies to read only white male perspectives, especially about women. So awesome -- I know that really inspired me too Wink and made me feel competent and worthwhile.

I think some school put Toni Morrison on required reading lists now, oh and Anne Frank too. 

I feel like the only time I read non-white dude literature in university was when I took a specific class about said subject. Other than that it was like those suthors didn't exist and white male literature was our history. Except for 'the ecstasy of rita joe' -- in BC universities, that play is mandatory to read. no question.


I'll try to pull my list from memory (30 years+ ago). Our oldest is now in high school (grade 9) so I'll add some of his reading at the end.

My high school reading: To Kill a Mockingbird, Taming of the Shrew, Lord of the Flies, Richard III, Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, Macbeth. Assorted poetry and short stories that included some Canadian authors ETA: OLd man and the Sea

CanLit class: Who Has Seen the Wind, Mountain and the Valley, The Tin Flute, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Stone Angel, Lives of Girls and Women, The Edible Woman. There are probably a couple of others that have received into the mists of time. ETA: Two Solitudes

ETA: My high school Physics text used to be my cure for insomnia.

Our son has been able to choose a couple of the novels for which he has done independent projects this year. He has read some short stories including Canadian ones. The two mandatory reads he has had this year are Animal Farm and Twelfth Night.



Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Kaitlin McNabb wrote:
So good for young ladies to read only white male perspectives, especially about women. So awesome -- I know that really inspired me too Wink and made me feel competent and worthwhile.

God, tell me about it. I think the relentless exposure to Shakespeare is the foundation of that strategy. I mean I like him, sure, but there are other writers. Definitely the most interesting CanCon in the last thirty years is from writers of colour, and Canada's best author's throughout its history have been women. Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson would be another great HS choice. And why isn't Alice Munro required reading?

Speaking of ToMo, Kaitlin, have you seen this article? Who Is the Author of Toni Morrison?

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

I have difficulty remembering what I studied in class in high school and what I read of my own volition.  I was a really voracious reader, read the Bronte sisters' novels, all of Dickens, Poe, HG Wells, Asimov, complete works of Shakespeare both in class and over a summer, IIRC, so pretty much everything that's been mentioned here.  Lots more modern stuff as well, Canadian lit, anything I could get my hands on.  Pulp paperbacks (especially fond of sci fi) to classics.  It all just sort of blends together.  I don't think I ever gave a thought to the gender or colour of the authors. Story and style were more important to me.

I do remember reading the non-fiction book "Alive" about the sports team that crashed in the Andes and ate each other.  Didn't like that one.  Gave me nightmares for months.

My daughter's grade 9 class is currently doing a novel study on The Hunger Games.  I don't think it's that great a book, but it's appealing to the students and the teacher is very good at getting them to really think about themes, character, etc.   

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Catchfire wrote:

Speaking of ToMo, Kaitlin, have you seen this article? Who Is the Author of Toni Morrison?

No I haven't! It is in my "to-read" bookmark -- thanks for the link!

I feel like if I read Toni Morrison in class, I would have spent all the class time crying silently to myself in the back (cuz that's where the cool kids sit) with intermittent periods of yelling 'BUT WHY'.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

@Timebandit I agree that story and style are important and the most appealing, but I don't think you can separate factors like gender/ethnicity from that telling. Experience and perspective affect storytelling, but also the reaction made by the audience.

I know in high school it would have been nice to read books written by women so I can 'see' myself represented in the world -- I think the homogenized view of the world created through mainstream literature has bad effects. (Not to say books by men/white men are bad, but when it is your only choice that is not fair! We need an array, choices as it were, different experiences, view points and language!)


Having finished high school in the late 60's I can only remember a few books that we read.

Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm were actually read in Grade 7 - we did them again in Grade 12 and the review was completely superficial in comparison.

The usual Shakespeare selection.

Lord Jim (the only time in my life I actually bought a Coles Note on the text)

To Kill a Mockingbird


Timebandit Timebandit's picture

@Kaitlin - Well, yes, gender and ethnicity are important, but I can't say I ever much craved seeing myself reflected in literature.  What for?  I generally read fiction to escape the current reality or to learn or think about something else.  And just because a book is written by a white woman of my vintage doesn't mean there will be any meaningful relfection of me in any sense, anyway.  Lionel Schrieber is about my age - We Need to Talk About Kevin is not really something I relate to myself, but it's a damned good read.  But then, so is Treasure Island. 

I love that there is more diversity of voice in our current era.  But I'm also okay with reading old white guys in their historical contexts and love both for their merits.

Freedom 55

Left Turn wrote:

Some of the books we did read by white dudes I would keep in the curriculum [...] To Kill a Mockingbird


Harper Lee may be white, but (to the best of my knowledge) she doesn't self-identfy as a dude. Laughing

Left Turn Left Turn's picture

Duplicate post -- I  swear I only hit the send button once [hitting it twice is usually what causes this problem]

Left Turn Left Turn's picture

Kaitlin McNabb wrote:

barely any ladies or people of colour (or any real deviations from white dudes)

So good for young ladies to read only white male perspectives, especially about women. So awesome -- I know that really inspired me too Wink and made me feel competent and worthwhile.

I totally agree Kaitlin, the lack of women and people of colour writers in high school English classes is a real problem. The perspectives of women and people of colour are super important for everyone -- including for us white guys. If we're ever going to get out of the mess our capitalist society has left us, society is going to have to become a lot less masculine, and a lot less culturally white.

I'd keep Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell -- Both are personal favourites of mine. I'd also Keep To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- a great anti-racist book by a great female author.

I'd keep Anne Frank -- provided it's taught in away that doesn't allow the holocuast to become a justification in peoples minds for the state of Israel and it's crimes against the Palestinian people.

I'd get rid of Lord of the Flies, in spite of the cultural references to it in our society-- I hate the premise that the only thing standing betwee us and pure barbarism is society's rules. I'd also probably give up Catcher in the Rye and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest -- not because they're bad books, but to get away from too many American and British books by white dudes.

I'd also do only one Shakespeare unit -- Five Shakespeare units in five years is overkill, and doesn't leave enough room for other stuff.

That would free up some space for more women and people of colour authors, as well as some CanLit. I'd love to see The Jade Peony by Chinese Vancouver author Wayson Choy as mandatory reading in BC high schools.

Left Turn Left Turn's picture

Freedom 55 wrote:

Left Turn wrote:

Some of the books we did read by white dudes I would keep in the curriculum [...] To Kill a Mockingbird


Harper Lee may be white, but (to the best of my knowledge) she doesn't self-identfy as a dude. Laughing

My bad, have corrected my previous post.


I love reading and writing, but I didn't like high school English classes much, with a couple of shining exceptions.  I hated Shakespeare, still do.  Boring and completely inaccessible language.  I never understood why it has become The English Literature That All People Must Be Forced To Read.  They should maybe pick one Shakespeare play for the entire high school career, and enthusiasts can then do Shakespeare extracurricularly if they want to.  So much time wasted on that crap when we could have been reading interesting stuff.

Many of the books we read in high school, I didn't actually read in high school.  I did read almost all of them AFTER high school, though, when I didn't have to anymore.  Then I enjoyed most of them.  Let's see...

A Separate Peace - I really liked that book, later on.  The Chrysalids, same thing - I didn't really read it in high school when I was supposed to, but I loved it for years afterwards, and have re-read it many times.  Arsenic and Old Lace - cute, and I think I did read that at the time.  I liked it all right, but I didn't read it for pleasure, I read it because I had to, and wouldn't have bothered otherwise. 

Lord of the Flies was an assigned book that I never bothered reading in high school OR afterwards.  The one thing I remember about it is that we were supposed to analyze it for the Christ-like figure in it (I think a kid dies because he couldn't move from innocence to experience or some such crapola).  Yawwwwwn.  Maybe someday I'll get over it and just read the book and see if I like it.  Or, maybe not.

I took a grade 13 English course in summer school one year (ahead of time, just after grade 11, not because I failed previously - I wanted to avoid a certain teacher, as did many who took the summer school course).  That teacher was rumoured to have hated that summer school course, probably because it made students actually enjoy English and escape her clutches and evil plan to make every student hate English literature - most of us had already had her for grade 9, 10, or 11 English so we knew what was in store for us if we had her again for grade 13.  We did King Lear, which was excruciatingly boring, but that's okay because I didn't bother reading it, just as I didn't bother reading any Shakespeare in high school or since.  But at least he tried to make it interesting by having an extracurricular excursion one evening to see a subtitled foreign movie that was playing at the arthouse theatre in town, "Ran".  I think it was a Japanese movie, and it was based on the plot of King Lear.  We read The Stone Angel by Margeret Lawrence, and while it was the dreariest book I ever read, I actually liked it, and it actually made me look for other books by her and read them during the school year the next year.  I forget the other novels we did - but we also focused a lot on writing and creative writing and I particularly remember learning and writing sonnets, and I really loved that course.

I always took Advanced Placement English courses, except for grade 12.  I decided to "slack off" and take a "General Placement" English course.  It was the best decision I ever made in high school.  It was a fantastic course.  It was relevant.  It taught real writing skills.  The teacher was an amazing guy who really tried to make English class relevant to the students and interesting.  We did Taming of the Shrew for Shakespeare, and we watched the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movie by Zefarelli (I think?) to introduce it, and wow, Shakespeare actually came to life for a change.  It was a very funny play, I thought, although of course the theme of it was quite sexist, I agree, Kaitlynn.  I think because Elizabeth Taylor played such a strong role in the movie, it mitigated the sexism a bit for me.

We also focused on writing skills for real life - how to write letters, how to write resumes, the technical stuff around writing essays and effective, punchy first sentences in paragraphs and such - things that the Advanced classes assumed that kids would just learn by osmosis or something, because I had never been taught those skills in such an in-depth way before.  I credit that class alone with the fact that I can write at all now.  A general placement English course.  Probably hands down the best course I ever took in high school.

I think I've mentioned before that I dropped out of high school, worked for a year, then went back for a semester and finished.  Well, when I went back to high school, I took a grade 13 Canadian Literature course (which was a separate course from the regular Grade 13 English course which I had taken in summer school).  I very much enjoyed the books I had to read for that, and strangely enough, with a couple of exceptions, I actually read them.  And the best part of all?  No fracking SHAKESPEARE.  Yes!

My love for Robertson Davies books started in that class.  We had to read A Mixture of Frailties and I absolutely loved it.  The cool thing is that it was a Canadian novel set in a fictional Kingston, Ontario, and that's where I was going to school.  So that was neat.  I read the rest of the novels in that trilogy on my own time, and then read all his other novels during the next few years.  I haven't read his books in a long time, though - I have re-read many of them many times, but not for a number of years now.  I wonder if I would like them as much now?  I'm a lot more conscious now of sexism and racism, and his books were undeniably sexist and racist, but damn, his writing was great, and funny, despite his privileged white male thing.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz - what a fabulous book.  I still love it.  I know it's dated and it's misogynist as hell, but it was also hysterical in parts.  I still laugh out loud when I re-read it and get to the part where Duddy's showing the Bar Mitzvah movie to the family who commissioned it, with the description of the "art film" crap the blacklisted director put all through it, and all the audience comments during the showing.  So great. The movie doesn't even begin to do justice to the book.  And yet...I've tried to read other Mordecai Richler books since, and I just can't get into them.  He's a one-hit wonder for me, I guess, although I know so many others love everything he's done.

I think I read The Edible Woman by Atwood in that course too - or was it Cat's Eye?  I can't remember which.  It was one or the other, and then I read the other on my own time.  Or maybe I had to read them both, one for that grade 13 course, and the other for the grade 13 summer school course.  I can't remember now.  But I loved both of them, and it was one of those courses that got me started reading Atwood. 

Someone mentioned upthread that they hated The Edible Woman.  I absolutely loved it and still do whenever I re-read it.  Maybe as a young woman, I could relate to it better then.  So many young women get stuck in stupid relationship ruts, stupid job ruts, stupid life ruts, and boy, that was me at the time.  And I thought it was so funny!  The ridiculous situations she got herself into, the weird and funny ways she sort of found herself rebelling, almost from outside herself.  I loved it.  A great cautionary tale, lots of simmering rage below the nice surface, and a great send-up of the conventional and not so conventional options that were open to women at the time, career and relationship wise.  And unfortunately, it's not completely dated in that way either.  So many young women still find themselves falling into the trap of gendered jobs and falling into stupid relationship ruts.

I was actually surprised in that Canadian Literature course at a couple of the selections.  (Well, not surprised then, but later when I realized why so many Canadian novels don't make it into the curriculum - Ess-Eee-Exx!)  Edible Woman had a couple of sex scenes in it (although Margaret Atwood always writes sex scenes in a way that makes sex seem so unpleasant, mundane, boring, and even clinical in most of the novels I've read by her).  A Mixture of Frailties has a sex scene in it, and an "immoral" one, at that - a young college woman being taken to bed by her prof, and the rest of the novel has the girl thinking about it a lot afterwards and wondering why the prof isn't showing any interest in her sexually afterwards, not to mention the stuff around the love philtre.  When I look back at the book now, though, I realize how racist it was as well - a white man writing about a "Gypsy" family in such a stereotyped

Strangely enough, we never did the Anne books in high school or elementary school.  I remember that high school teacher I mentioned upthread mourning in our grade 10 class (the other class I took with her, which is why I avoided her like the plague for grade 13) the lack of established female authors writing about female experiences and female heroines in English literature.  So I raised my hand and asked her, "What about Lucy Maud Montgomery?" I still remember her scornful reaction to that.  "Oh, please.  Anne of Green Gables?  She lives a happy life where she's happy happy, so sweet, so adorable, she does nothing notable, no real growth of character, nothing bad ever happens to her, a completely charmed life..."

I didn't contradict her because I was intimidated at the time.  But now when I think about what I wish I would have said...yeah, no real growth, nothing notable.  She is just the first female teacher in Avonlea, the first woman in Avonlea to get a B.A., she goes through the death of the only guardian who showed her unrestrained love in the first novel; goes through the death of a childhood friend in the third novel, which makes her become more aware of her own mortality and the important things in life; has to grow up enough in the third novel to figure out what real love looks like - whether it's the dashing tall-dark-and-handsome charm thing or a love that grows out of a deep friendship.  She becomes a principal of a high school in the fourth book and has to deal with moving to a small community where everyone is set against her and to try to make it work without giving up.  In the fifth novel, her firstborn child dies within 24 hours of birth and she deals with that, and also with a new best friend who has been forced to marry a brute against her will and is stuck being his caretaker after he comes home from a sea voyage brain-injured.  In the sixth novel, she has to deal with a mean in-law relative who has come for an extended stay, and in both the sixth and seventh novels there are many tales set around her children and their friends and how kids interact with each other, including themes such as bullying, fighting, getting into trouble, and kids' adventures and the way her kids learn lessons and grow, and god forbid, "move from innocence to experience" which should warm the cockles of any boring English teacher's heart.  And the eighth novel is a fictional account of Anne's daughter growing up during the first world war, and is filled with tragedy (her beloved and sensitive brother and Anne's son, Walter, dies in the war - made particularly tragic by the fact that he didn't want to sign up to fight in the first place and did so out of bullying and peer pressure, despite being afraid to go to war), and a social history of the time, although it's also interesting war propaganda (the peacenik in town is made out to be a horrendous bully and nasty guy, while everyone who supports "the war effort" is a hero) and could be analyzed that way too.

Not to mention Montgomery's other books, particularly The Blue Castle, where Montgomery takes a well-worn novel theme (a woman thinks she's going to die, so she starts living her life for today, then finds out she's not going to die) and turns it into practically a first-wave feminist manifesto about how to live your life out from under the thumb of your family and convention. 

Unfortunately, I didn't get to learn any of that in high school English class.  Because LM Montgomery wasn't "deep" enough, I guess.


I was forced to read all kinds of prose and poetry in school that I found pointless or offensive or boring. Thomas Hardy leaps to mind. But by contrast with Michelle, I am eternally grateful that we were fed a steady diet of Shakespeare. The way we were "taught" the plays seemed designed to repel young minds - my friends and I were virtually unanimous on that account. But had I not been force-fed, would I have turned back to Shakespeare, in my own time, with the joy of discovery tinged with familiarity? Would I have, on my own, encountered the life-giving faith and optimism inspired by lines like this:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!

[I'm kidding - I love that line and every single other line surrounding it... Smile]

The answer, then, is not to stop the mandatory consumption of such immortal creations. It is rather, I think, to do a better job in teaching them.

Maysie Maysie's picture

Cool thread.

I was in high school from 1980 to 1985. During that time the TDSB banned The Catcher in the Rye (for swearing and for "depictions of sexuality" I assume). Which of course made all of us run out and read it from the library. My mom, an anti-censorship advocate (she was a teacher-librarian) gave me her old copy to read. It may have inspired me to use the word "fuck" as much as I do. Tongue out

Who Has Seen the Wind, The Stone Angel (hated it, and Laurence, until I read The Diviners in grade 11 or 12), the various Atwoods, many of the novels that people have mentioned already.

What I really got into was the Shakespeare sonnets. I loved the romantic and flowery language "love is not love which alters when it alteration finds or bends with the remover to remove". I didn't understand some of it, but my young romantic heart swooned.

One of my English teachers made us memorize a monologue from Macbeth, and another from Hamlet. While I cursed him at the time, the fact that I can still (mostly) spout off "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death" freaks the hell out of most people who know me.

I say there is absolutely room to bring in writers from a greater diversity of backgrounds than the current pale Canadian offerings. I think The Jade Peony is taught in high schools occasionally, other Canadian authors to include could be Judy Fong Bates, Dionne Brand, Farzana Doctor and many more.


Boom Boom wrote:
My best friend went on from high school direct to Mitel near Kanata when it started up - this is about 1969 or 1970 - he was a high school tech graduate hired right out of high school to design circuit board technology. Son of a gun got rich fast.

I almost had an interview at Mitel(Mike and Terry's lawnmowers). I was new to Ottawa-Kanata then and got lost on the way to the appointment. Ended up at a fish and chips pub in Kanata. It's a good thing I never tried living in Toronto.

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

The main problem with how Shakespeare is taught is that it wasn't written to be read.  It was written to be spoken, to be performed.  And in the hands of (voice of?) someone who knows what they are doing, it is wonderful.