Top 10 Books to Teach –
Part 1

It’s first quarter finals time for this teacher, so I’ve been busy creating essay assignments, projects, exams, and reviews. Oh, and let’s not forget the time spent on the piles and piles of work to be graded (at least the tic in my eye from last year’s finals time has not made another appearance – yet!). Anyway, I haven’t had as much time to read as I usually like. Right now I’m working on Anne Fortier‘s Juliet  and have been really enjoying her modern-meshed-with-historical retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tale. So, in honor of the sure-to-be-classic I’m currently reading as well as my present and total immersion in all things teaching, I decided a list of my favorite books and plays to teach would be the perfect post for today.

Without further ado (about nothing), here is my list of top ten literature picks for teaching high school students. I’m posting numbers 10-8 today – stay tuned for the next installment!

(For clarification, over five years I’ve taught every grade in high school, plus 7th and 8th, so I’ve been fortunate to experience a wide variety of lit. I’ve stayed the longest with 9th and 10th grade – three years thus far of each.)

10. Of Mice and Men

When I first read this book, I hated it. I reflected on it later and still hated it. I could not believe I was being forced to teach this dreadful mess of a story (somehow I escaped this in my own student days). However, eventually something happened, and the complete genius of John Steinbeck washed over me in a moment of pure epiphany (I might be exaggerating, but only a little). Then I realized how much I loved this book. I know, a complete roller coaster of emotions, but don’t the best stories tend to take their readers on that ride? And you can’t beat the day the class comes in after reading the last section (I love having them experience that desperately beautiful last scene on their own). Inevitably they are emotionally drained and yet incredibly impassioned. Whether they love it or hate it – whatever segment of the roller coaster they are riding – when you get any strong reaction from high schoolers, you know you’re on the right track!

(Additionally, this has to rank on my top ten solely for the length. I can teach this novel in a week with fantastic results, and the students tend to retain it very well – something about it being a tad memorable?)

9.  Julius Caesar

There is just something incredibly exciting about teaching Shakespeare in any capacity, and Caesar never disappoints. For some reason I find this particular play incredibly quotable. After I teach this lit, I find myself dwelling on certain lines for weeks (the unique problem of teaching the same work six times per day, admittedly. And the iambic pentameter is so darn catchy). Truly, though, there is a lot of wisdom in this play, and with loyalties and allegiances changing faster than the romantic entanglements of your typical tenth grader, students can’t help but to be fully hooked.

I find such a deep historical resonance in this play; the sense that you are teaching something significant, powerful, and lasting simply overwhelms. Students love the noble and/or deceptively genius characters, crazy smart word play, classic battle scenes, vicious backstabbing, and deep, dark conspiracies, and typical of all Shakespeare’s work, the play ties together so phenomenally that the reader has to give it up to the Bard once again. Caesar always proves a satisfying unit and a reliable crowd-pleaser.

8. The Crucible

Witches, gossip, affairs, murderous accusations, and just general chaos and scandal set in Puritan times – who can resist? Not the students to whom I’ve taught this Arthur Miller play. Could it be because every school has some kind of an Abigail-type character? Or perhaps students can somehow relate to the unfairness of it all? (Remember how unfair everything was in high school? We were so dramatic.) Or is it simply because of the intimate glimpse offered of a positively fascinating, horrifying time in our nation’s history (and really, in the history of mankind)?  It’s hard not to be chilled through Miller’s exploration of what evils lie in the capabilities of man (and woman), especially in the classic mob mentality situation. Whatever the case, students adore this play. I taught it in October one year (incidentally, perfect timing for this unit), and students were, with surprising accuracy and colorful detail, still buzzing about Abigail, John Proctor, and even Tituba come April. And that I consider a teaching success.

More personally, I minored in American history in college, so each time I teach this play I can’t help but soak up the top-notch historical details and the experience of being transported back to such a wild, intense, and classically American time. The tie-in with Communism and the Red Scare here in the States stimulates my imagination just as richly. Winding down the unit with a viewing of the Winona Rider/Daniel Day-Lewis movie always provides the perfect ending to an excellent unit (just watch out for that bare butt scene at the beginning! Geesh).

Who will join Steinbeck, Shakespeare, and Miller? I’ll give you a hint – Shakespeare might make another appearance. But I think we’d all be okay with that. And as always, I’d love to hear your top picks from either the teacher or student perspective! I’ll leave you with a Shakespearean thought to ponder:

If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then this parting was well made.

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