Complex Texts? High School? The Hunger Games? Help!

In New York City they have this special, special thing that they do to their 8th grade public school students. It's called "the high school match process" (or something similarly innocuous-sounding) and it is, shall we say, challenging.

Which is a fairly long-winded way of saying that Diana and I have been trudging around the city, looking for high school. And before I get too sidetracked by that, let me try to train my focus on one of the interesting things about this: we've been to A LOT of high school libraries and English classes.

If I weren't so personally invested in the outcome, I would probably find the process fascinating. But as it is, it's more…confusing. Disturbing. Scary.

Yesterday, for instance, Diana was enraged by an English teacher who said (variously): I try to match the child to the text. We try to teach complex texts. We want the students to learn to analyze the texts. (Can you tell? He said "texts" a lot.) Hemingway might have vocabulary on a 7th grade level, but that doesn't mean it's a 7th grade text. The Hunger Games is not a complex text—I don't mean it's not a good book, but it's not a complex text. 

I was confused. And so I asked a question: Does this mean you are mostly teaching process—how to analyze a (cough) text? You don't teach any specific books or areas of literature?

The answer (paraphrased): "The way people USED to teach (note: he refrained from saying "old lady") was that they covered literature, no matter the student's level. And the kids at the top were bored, the ones in the middle were fine, and the ones at the bottom were totally lost. Not anymore. Now we teach HOW to read, and everyone reads at his or her own level, lots of different books. Of course, there are some things we read to have cultural literacy, like Shakespeare, but kids in high school aren't really ready to read Shakespeare this way. I mean, we might read it because they should know what Hamlet is, but we wouldn't read it aloud or perform it or anything…"

And I don't know what to think. Diana knows what to think: she HATED him. She hated him for saying The Hunger Games—a book she doesn't even really like, actually—was not complex. (I tried to define his use of complex, but clearly failed.) And she DOUBLE HATED him for saying they aren't ready to read Shakespeare.

And honestly, it's hard not to want to call bullshit on him. But I don't know—I don't know anything about what they're supposed to come out of English class with, really. And he teaches 10th graders. Surely he knows something. But I hate that Shakespeare gets put into this gated community of literature.

On the way home, Diana argued passionately for her current (8th grade) teacher's way: in her classroom library, in the same bin with The Hunger Games you can find The Violent Bear It Away and Wise Blood. THAT'S how books should be. And my heart says yes. But maybe there is something I don't understand?


14 thoughts on “Complex Texts? High School? The Hunger Games? Help!

  1. I’m commenting before I know the point of my comment, but I think I have something to say, maybe.
    I think reading is about learning to comprehend and be critical but it is also about learning language, metaphors, and social references. How does one get to a deeper level of comprehension of Out – Out by Frost if one hasn’t read Othello? Surely Frost isn’t too “complex” for this teacher and his high school students. How about Sound and Fury by Faulkner without Macbeth? I think I’m an “old lady,” too, that believes reading the same book fosters dialogue and discussion and thus more understanding. It gives kids a common experience and a common point of reference with classmates but also with people all around them.
    I read Shakespere in high school and then again in college and then again after college. Different people get different things out of books at different times in their lives, but I agree that there is really very few things that high schoolers aren’t “ready” to read.
    Overall, I would say, I don’t envy you or Diana. Sounds likes some schools have changed, not necessarily for the better.


  2. I used to teach 9th and 11th grade English and my feeling about teaching analysis is that it really is important, not so much in the context of creating readers-of-books but in the context of creating, how to put it, people who can read the various messages around them in the world. I believe in reading for fun, and tried hard never to reduce anybody’s enjoyment of books that I personally found unbearable and in some cases pernicious (“TTYL,” written entirely in text-message speak, being an example), but I also believe that it’s important to be able to close-read, say, political statements, news articles, anything meant to persuade. In short, analysis teaches critical thinking, and the thing about the classics is that they’re dripping with stuff to analyze. So is “TTYL,” but not in quite the same way.
    I think you could analyze “The Hunger Games” to perfection, though. The first book I taught the 9th graders was “The Golden Compass” and they all initially complained that they’d read it when they were 9, but there are a zillion levels to that wonderful book and I hope we managed to unearth some of them in a new way. It’s a book totally made for teaching metaphor and allegory, for one thing.
    But I agree with the above comment– there are works you must read to understand echoes of them in the other works that you will read. And I do believe in everybody reading the same book at least some of the time– or at least groups reading the same book, because discussion is important. And I forget where I’m going with this. Sorry. Good luck finding the right fit!


  3. Oh God, I’m sorry, but one more thing re: “not ready.” I don’t know how you become ready later on if you don’t try early. There were many books I read in HS that I thought I hated because I wasn’t ready for them, so it’s true that not every person is ready for every book all the time, but it’s like… well, analogy time: one thing I admire about my husband is that he is constantly ready to re-try foods that he thinks he doesn’t like. And most of the time it’s Yep, still gross, but sometimes it turns out kale is delicious now, when it wasn’t before. If you don’t constantly taste, how will you know for sure? So give them Shakespeare, early and often, and be sure to show them when it’s funny because man, teenagers love to discover that such unfamiliar language is actually frequently hilarious. OK, now I’m really done.


  4. Well, I like the “everyone reads at his or her own level, lots of different books” part. I do think that quantity and reading for enjoyment are the most important things, even in high school. but then, I’m a public librarian– I *would* think that. I think he’s way off base on Shakespeare, though. And I agree with everyone else on the importance of reading and discussing the same book all together or at least in groups– there are ways of teaching and analyzing a single book without killing the love of it, though it’s tough.


  5. I’m with the kale theory. I went to a private prep school in the south and we read Faulkner in ninth grade — “Intruder in the Dust,” to be exact, one of his more obscure books and one that I hated. But why the hell not read something and hate it? I read everything I could put my hands on back then — from Harlequin romances and Jaws and Harold Robbins (how I learned about sex) to every single classic by Jane Austen and Shakespeare. I think of the reading brain as a sort of sponge and those who have that particular sponge just soak it all up. I’m not sure that makes any sense —


  6. I would really like to know this man’s definition of “a complex text.” If I were teaching English this year, I might well be teaching Hunger Games, due to its appeal to students in this age range and the multiple levels at which that text can be read and analyzed. I think it would be a great book to use for introducing and reinforcing several conceptual aspects of literary analysis. Teaching it in conjunction with Romeo and Juliet would be even better.
    Some aspects of his argument about not all students being ready for certain literary works at the same time have merit; but combined with the rest of his commentary, the whole thing rings false.
    This part particularly rankles:


  7. “I mean, we might read it because they should know what Hamlet is, but we wouldn’t read it aloud or perform it or anything…”
    So he would have students read Hamlet for the sake of cultural literacy, but not engage students with the types of activities that would allow them to actually comprehend the work? Shakespeare’s plays are, first of all, plays. They are meant to be heard and seen, not read. The barrier of unfamiliar language is greatly reduced when students can hear not only the words, but the rhythms with which they are spoken, the actors’ body language that provides context clues, and so on.


  8. I think this post illustrates why I love to come here so much. I used to teach emergent readers (K-1) and now I am teaching remedial reading to college aged-60 yr-olds at a local community college. One of my hardest jobs is to teach my students to THINK. That is really what we want, someone to think as they read, right? So, if it is hard…isn’t it the teacher’s job to scaffold that learning? Discussion is so important in order to wrestle that thinking into cohesive and valid opinions and arguments. And I love Nina up there. She is so right when she touches on persuasive texts. I spend a lot of time helping my students understand that you read expository text differently than narrative. (And what expository text IS, and what narrative IS, etc.) Then I add in that persuasive text and it blows their minds! The whole “at your level” thing is important for one reason: independent reading. You don’t want students to be in a text that is too easy or too hard. Learning can’t take place then. But in class? Man, USE the community! That is where you get to TEACH students how to make connections, puzzle out bias, form well rounded arguments and defend them….You know: THINK. And I haven’t even stepped on to the soapbox with Mom of Boys on the topic of background knowledge. And that Kale thing, is that Nina again? Yes. YES to with what Elizabeth added on. God. I love you guys.


  9. Oh, and I just read Pork with Bones, I can’t leave her out…YES a thousand times to her:
    “So he would have students read Hamlet for the sake of cultural literacy, but not engage students with the types of activities that would allow them to actually comprehend the work?”
    You have BRILLIANT readers you know.


  10. I think that you speak from a position of a Reader who has raised Readers. Your house has Books in multitudes. But that is not universal, nor is it even all that common.
    I think that surely there must be some middle ground between providing students with books that are well-matched to their reading level and interests to teach skills and providing alternative ways to access more traditional texts (e.g., graphic novels, audiobooks, movies) to allow students to discuss themes and content as a large group.
    I agree that there are touchstone pieces of literature in our culture, but given how many of my first and second graders don’t know nursery rhymes I think that teachers, all teachers are having to set priorities.


  11. See, I don’t find the reading at all intimidating (and my kid just read nine Percy Jackson books in two weeks). The ability of my eight year old to do mental arithmetic that requires me to squint and grit my teeth?
    That’s intimidating.


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